Wednesday, 30 July 2003


Published in Analytical Articles

By Matthew Oresman and Daniel Steingart (7/30/2003 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: Islam came to Chechnya only 300 years ago, as the Russian Empire was expanding south in the Caucasus Mountains, and spread quickly through Chechnya and Ingushetia. It was soon capitalized upon as a vehicle of mobilization against Russian rule. The Islam that took hold in Chechnya was primarily Sufi, a spiritual Islam that blended well with the Chechens’ own native beliefs and not the austere Wahhabism primarily associated with Saudi Arabia and radical Islamist movements.
BACKGROUND: Islam came to Chechnya only 300 years ago, as the Russian Empire was expanding south in the Caucasus Mountains, and spread quickly through Chechnya and Ingushetia. It was soon capitalized upon as a vehicle of mobilization against Russian rule. The Islam that took hold in Chechnya was primarily Sufi, a spiritual Islam that blended well with the Chechens’ own native beliefs and not the austere Wahhabism primarily associated with Saudi Arabia and radical Islamist movements. The modern separatist movement that emerged from the ashes of the Soviet Union was not born of religious fervor, but instead reflected national aspirations of territorial separation that had existed since the first Russian invasion. Bu as happened two hundred years earlier, when the Russian stranglehold on Chechnya tightened, Chechen leaders and individual fighters seized upon Islam as a wellspring from which to draw the strength to fight. Islam in Xinjiang has developed along similar lines, though a major influx of radical Islam has not yet encroached on the mainstream Uyghur population. The Uyghurs are predominately Sufi and rarely behave like conservative Muslims. Still, Islam has developed as a unifying societal bond that plays a major role in the life of Uyghurs. Historically, it has been one of the few avenues for Uyghurs to gather and discuss political and governance issues, underscoring its threat to Chinese control. Ethnic identity, however, remains the most prominent cohesive force and main driver of the Uyghur resistance movement. This movement is not an organized front, but composed of small, predominantly non-violent groups with divergent interests and no common plan for action. The list of Uyghur grievances against the Chinese government is extensive, including complaints about Han migration, environmental and agricultural degradation, a heavily biased job market, lack of employment opportunities, cultural assimilation, and the repression of Islam. This last factor could cause the radicalization of the Uyghur population. Since the early 1990s, almost every popular nationalistic uprising against Chinese rule in Xinjiang has begun as a religious protest. These clashes have left hundreds of Uyghurs dead, thousands injured and imprisoned, and a source of continued anger against Han authorities. Uyghurs are generally not interested in Wahhabism, and many are afraid of the transformative force it can bring to their communities. However, as the Chinese continue their brutally effective repression of the development of politically active Uyghur civil society, more and more Uyghurs are turning to radical Islam as a source of support. This explains the presence of between three and seven hundred Uyghurs in Afghanistan prior to September 11, 2001. Additionally, the quality of the Uyghur resistance has become increasingly violent in the last several years, beginning with bus bombing in Urumqi (1997) and Beijing (1999), and moving away from large-scale protests to directed attacks and assassination. China’s repression, while efficient at undermining the organizing ability of the community, has driven many Uyghurs to seek outside support of a nature that could drastically reshape the current low-level resistance into a more violent and radical insurgency.

IMPLICATIONS: Above all, Beijing is interested in maintaining order in Xinjiang and preventing any large-scale uprising or revolution. Particularly worrying for the Chinese government would be a “Palestinization” of the resistance, which has already happened in Chechnya, as illustrated by four separate suicide attacks against Russian targets by Chechen women only in June and July 2003. Russia claims that the introduction of the suicide bomber—a phenomena that had not previously been popular in Chechnya—is the result of foreign, primarily Arab influence. However, blaming this facet of the Chechen resistance on Arab influence purports to absolve Russia of any responsibility for the radicalization of some segments within Chechen society. Moscow has further alienated the Chechens by refusing to negotiate with Aslan Maskhadov, the legitimate Chechen leader elected in OSCE-approved elections, and through the barbarous actions of the Russian military. The brutal military presence in Chechnya with widespread rape, torture, and indiscriminate killings during so-called “mop-up” operations have ravaged parts of the Chechen countryside. Furthermore, the wars have widowed thousands of Chechen women, providing each one of them with a personal reason for revenge. From the Chechen perspective, one could argue that Russia has “terrorized” Chechnya. The presence of Arab volunteer fighters in Chechnya has been well documented and some of the most storied rebel field commanders are of Middle Eastern origin, indicating that at some point parts of the Chechen movement for independence took up the green banner of Islam. This has gradually shifted the movement from one of national independence to one with national and religious overtones. By framing the Chechen struggle in terms of religion, the rebel Chechen movement was able to attract and use the help of Muslims abroad, effectively using radical Islam as a vehicle for nationalist separatism.

CONCLUSIONS: The Chechen example offers a clear warning for the Chinese government as more evidence of established ties between Central Asian radical groups, such as the IMU and Hizb ut-Tahrir, and Uyghur resistance groups operating both in Central Asia and Xinjiang becomes apparent. Moreover, Xinjiang is the second most HIV/AIDS infected province in China with an infection rate of nearly 85% for injection drug users in some locales. With a healthcare system utterly failing to care for them and a deep hatred of Chinese domination, this infected population could become a potent force of suicide bombers. Beijing’s total control of Xinjiang may very well be able to suppress the interaction of Uyghur groups and outside Islamic radicals, as well as the rise of suicide bombers, but this threat is very real and is growing as the Chinese governments continues to prosecute its own “war on terrorism” against non-violent political activists and fractures Uyghur civil society into increasing despondent and divided factions – just as Moscow did in Chechnya. While there are many similarities between the history of the Chechen conflict and the development of Chinese controlled Xinjiang, they are not mirror images. Xinjiang has not yet burst into the open conflict characterizing Chechnya, nor are the most visible elements of Uyghur resistance predominantly religious in nature. If China continues its present policies, though, what has been a very low-level conflict with the Uyghurs – one that has resulted in fewer than 200 Han deaths in over a decade – could become drastically more violent. China’s continued repression of Islam could galvanize the Uyghur population against Beijing and, when combined with militant Islamist influences from abroad, lead to the radicalization of the resistance in Xinjiang.

AUTHORS’ BIO: Daniel Steingart is a Research Assistant in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is living and working in Russia this year. Matthew Oresman is a Research Assistant in Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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