Jack Broome, security analyst specializing in ethno-nationalist conflict and anti-state activity across East Asia and Southeast Asia
This is the second part of a study on China’s policy toward Islam and Islamism in Xinjiang; read the first part here.
Religion is but one component of ethnic identity, and in fact the world’s largest ethnic group, the Han Chinese, have largely distanced themselves from religion since Marxism—with its firmly atheistic beliefs—took hold of Chinese society. And yet, it is surprising how frequently ethno-nationalist conflicts erupt in areas in which ethnic cleavages are drawn most clearly across religious lines. This relationship is particularly pronounced in Asia, which currently has the highest number of intra-state conflicts.
In South Asia, Kashmir, a region sandwiched between the Muslim nation of Pakistan, India (the birthplace of Hinduism) and China (which has the world’s largest Buddhist population) is a melting pot for Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs alike, but has been carved up so that the ethno-religious composition of each country’s area of control largely reflects their own. As a result, calls for independence from Kashmiris themselves tend also to be split across religious lines. In 1983, Hindu Tamils seeking to establish an independent state in Sri Lanka initiated a campaign of armed resistance against the government. The situation quickly evolved into a civil war between the Tamils and the island’s largest ethnic group, the Sinhalese—a predominately Buddhist people—and only came to an end in 2009.
India’s northeastern states represent one of the most concentrated regions of ethno-nationalist conflict in the world. Out of the seven states that make up the region, all have experienced conflict fueled by ethno-nationalism at some point or another. Currently the most active of these conflicts is probably in Meghalaya, a state inhabited by the Khasi, Synteng (Pnar), and Garo ethnic groups, which have now largely converted to Christianity, but still retain their own religions called Ka Niam Khasi, Niamtre and Songsarek respectively. All three ethnic groups, through shifting alliances and under different militant organizations, have been involved in separatist activities against the Indian government.
Another state that continues to be mired by conflict is Manipur, where the spillover from the rise of militant Naga nationalism in neighboring Nagaland and a long history of independence prior to British conquest has inspired a fierce insurgency across multiples ethnic groups, including the Kuki, Paite, Vaiphei, Pangals and Hmars, who are mostly a mixture of Christians, Animists and Muslims.
Turning to Southeast Asia, in Myanmar, the Bamar—the country’s largest ethnic group and followers of Buddhism—have been in conflict with minority groups living on the northern and eastern peripheries since Myanmar gained independence. These include the Muslim Rohingya; Christian Chin, Kachin and Karen; and the Animist Wa. In the Philippines, Muslim ethnic groups such as the Tausug, Maranao and Maguindanao in the southern islands of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago are part of a decades long struggle to carve out a Muslim “Moro” nation, from an otherwise Catholic country. In 2004, an insurgency conducted by Malay Muslims in Thailand — the heart of Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia—reignited with the aim to restore the state of Patani, which was annexed by Thailand in the 1909 and now forms the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narithiwat, collectively known as Thailand’s “Deep South”.
Most recently, a long running independence movement among the Christian Melanesians in Indonesia’s West Papua and Papua provinces has gained new vigor following a series of racially motivated incidents. There have even been new stirrings in the Malaku Islands, whose local Moluccan population—split almost equally between Christians and Muslims—fought an unsuccessful war for independence during the 1960s and descended into sectarian violence in the late 1990s.Finally, in East Asia: the Tibetans—with their unique version of Vajrayana Buddhism— have sought a return to independence since the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) invaded in 1950. A year prior, the officially secular People’s Republic of China (PRC) was established after representing a departure with the Han Chinese’s almost 2,000-year-long association with Mahayana Buddhism. Following an unsuccessful rebellion in 1959, the Tibetan exile government headed by the Dalai Lama in Dharmsala, India, has renounced violent struggle in favor of peaceful means.
And then of course, there are the Uyghurs—a Muslim minority, not only in China, but increasingly in their homeland, in what is now the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), but was once known as Chinese Turkestan or Eastern Turkestan. With the exception of the Hui, another Muslim minority in China, the Uyghurs represent one of Islam’s final frontiers, surrounded on four sides by people of different faiths; Christian Russians to the North, Mongolian and Tibetan Buddhists to the East and South, and then China—with its mix of Buddhists, Taoists and atheists—to the Southeast.
Birth of Uyghur Nationalism
Uyghur nationalism is, in fact, a fairly recent phenomenon. This is largely because the Uyghur ethnic group, as it is defined today, did not exist until shortly after the turn of the 20th century. Prior to this, the people that were to become the Uyghurs subscribed to a dizzying array of separate identities and were also known to outsiders by an equally chaotic mix of names.
In the South—a predominantly desert region punctuated by oasis towns—Turkic people tended to refer to themselves according to the town of their birth. For example, those from Kashgar would identify as “Kashgarliq” or “Kashgari” and those from Hotan as “Hotani”. The Turks who had migrated from the oases to the mountainous landscape of Dzhungaria in the North were called “Taranchis”. Affiliation with a religious order, such as the White and Black mountain Naqshbandi tariqats, or a particular line of trade also provided other forms of identity.
More generally, people shared a sense of belonging to the ummah—the global community of Muslims. Indeed, Musulman was a popular term for the Turkic speaking Muslims of the region, although this was used by the Turks and outsiders alike to denote not just adherents to the Islamic faith, but specifically people of a common cultural and ethnic heritage. “Musulman”, along with other terms like “Turki”, “Yerlik” (local) and Altishahrlik—derived from Altishahr, the Uyghur word for southern Xinjiang—were used by the Turks to distinguish themselves from the Kirghiz, Andijanis, Chinese, and other inhabitants of the Tarim Basin.
Little consensus existed outside of the Turkic community either. The Chinese used the rather derogatory word “chantou” meaning “turban head”, while Western writers largely preferred “Taranchis” as a blanket term for all the Turkic peoples of Xinjiang. Turkic immigrants living in the Russian Empire at the turn of the century were often called “Sart” and “Chaghatay” was the label of choice in the Muslim press of Kazan and Tashkent.
The term “Uyghur” has its roots in the old Uyghur Khaganate of the 8th and 9th centuries, but by the 16th century had largely disappeared as a marker of identity when the few remaining Buddhist states of “Uyghurstan” were conquered by the Islamic Moghuls. When it reemerged in the 19th century it was within academic circles as a means to refer to the ancient Turkic language and culture of Eastern Turkestan.
Yet it was not until the 20th century that use of the term as an ethnic label began to appear. The standard account attributes its revival to a Soviet conference held in Tashkent in 1921, in which a formerly distinct set of sedentary Turkic tribes inhabiting the Tarim Basin were assigned the name “Uyghur” as a way of distinguishing them from the nomadic Turkic populations in Central Asia. However, Uyghur historian David Brophy argues that the emergence of the term cannot be isolated to a singular event, but was in fact being widely debated within Uyghur intellectual circles from as early as the 1850s. Rian Thum, an expert on Uyghur nationalism, claims that even before this process started, the existence of a popular historical tradition, maintained though the production of taẕkirah or manuscripts and regional shrine pilgrimages, contributed to the construction of a clearly demarcated identity that separated the settled Turkic tribes of Xinjiang from other ethnic groups in the region.
By the beginning of the 20th century though, the Uyghur identity began to be associated with ideas of Pan-Turkism, Pan-Islamism and Russian nationalism—brought back by a wealthy class of industrialists, merchants, intellectuals and religious scholars from their time spent living abroad in the urban centers of Western Turkestan—largely analogous to modern Central Asia—and beyond.
One particularly influential group of returnees were the Jadids, Muslim cultural reformers from the Russian empire named after the Persian usul-i jadid (new method). The Jadids sought to overhaul the centuries old education system and wrestle it from the control of the strongly conservative Ulama or Islamic clergy. To do this, they advocated the secularization of certain elements of the education system as a means to remove what they saw as the obstacles to cultural development. It was through this process of modernization that the concept of Uyghur nationalism began to take hold among the educated urban elite.
The Jadids also had a pivotal role in the establishment of the First East Turkestan Islamic Republic in 1933 and took prominent positions in the new government. In contrast to the second East Turkestan Republic of 1949-1944, the first republic included the word “Islamic” in the title used for official documents, and it was largely down to the Jadids that an attempt was made to marry the somewhat competing ideas of Islam and republicanism. Yet, despite their religious affiliation, the Jadids were first and foremost modernizers seeking to promote a non‐theocratic style of government. And the second republic—a socialist state supported by the Soviet Union—was a wholly secular project.
The Changing Role of Islam in Anti-state Activity
For most of the 20th century, Islam’s place within the Uyghur ethno-nationalist movement remained ambiguous. Contrary to the experience of many Middle Eastern and North African countries in which Arab nationalism had become very much intertwined with the development of political Islam and Pan-Islamist thought, in Xinjiang Islam tended to be associated with a backward and stagnant form of conservatism that was seen to be in direct opposition to the modernist goals of Uyghur nationalism.
This began to change, however, following the rise of Deng Xiaoping and the start of China’s reform era. Beginning in the 1978, the sweeping set of economic reforms instituted by Deng gave rise to demands for accompanying political liberalization. In response, a new constitution was written, term limits were imposed upon officials, and most notably in Xinjiang, the CCP’s policies towards the practice of religion were relaxed significantly. To use James Millward’s phrase, this allowed for an “airing of grievances”, and just as in other parts of the country where pro-democracy movements and anti-government protests were gathering pace, in Xinjiang the same was occurring also. The only difference was that, for the Uyghurs, calls for freedom and democracy were also linked to concerns over ethnic discrimination and the protection of their identity.
At First, expressions of Uyghur anger and resistance continued in the largely secular manner of the past. A wave of student protests in the 1980s focused on issues like the use of Lop Nur as a testing ground for nuclear weapons, Han Chinese immigration and the government’s extension of the family planning policy to minorities in Xinjiang. Similarly, the colour and language of these protests remained largely confined to what is normally associated with pro-democracy movements and human rights activism.
But by the end of the decade, religion and Islamic rhetoric starts to be more clearly associated with anti-state activity in Xinjiang. In May 1989, demonstrations led by Hui students, but also involving Uyghurs, occurred in Urumqi, Beijing and other Chinese cities in response to the publication of a book called Sexual Customs (Xing Fengsu) which contained insulting references to Islam. The event in Urumqi descended into a riot involving extensive destruction of property and violent clashes with the police in which a couple of hundred of people were injured. Fearful of the latent potential of Islam and the threat it posed to central power, the CCP decided to reverse its policy on religion in Xinjiang. In particular, the close link between Islam and the Uyghur identity, and the prevailing view within the Chinese government that the two were mutually constitutive, led to the worry that Islam would become a rallying point for separatists.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.
 Rian Thum, 2012, “Modular History: Identity Maintenance Before Uyghur Nationalism”, The Journal of Asian Studies.
 David Brophy, 2005, “Taranchis, Kashgaris, and the ‘Uyghur Question’ in Soviet Central Asia”, Inner Asia.
 Brophy, 2005.
 Thum, 2012.
 Rian Thum, 2014, What is a Uyghur? from The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History, Harvard University Press.
 Nabijan Tursun, 2014, “The Influence of Intellectuals of the First Half of the 20th Century on Uyghur Politics”, Central Asia Program.
 James Millward, 2004, “Violent Separatism in Xinjiang: A Critical Assessment”, East-West Center.