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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Another Islamic Threat In Inner Asia?

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 5 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A Russian military analyst has suggested that Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden is behind the recent increase in Uighur assertiveness and that as a result, the Uighur national movement now threatens not only China but also the countries of Central Asia, Russia, and the West as well.

Writing in the current issue of Moscow's "Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie," Pyotr Sukhanov argues that Uighur activism is no longer only a threat to Chinese control of Xinjiang, the place where most Uighurs live, but also to Central Asia as a whole. He says that this reflects the increasingly Islamic dimension of what had been an ethno-national movement. And he implies that this Islamization of the Uighur cause is the product of its ties with Osama bin Laden.

Many of the seven million Uighurs in China's Xinjiang province, an area the Uighurs and other Turkic groups refer to as Eastern Turkestan, have resisted both Bejing's control of the area and even more the influx of ethnic Chinese into the region. And over the last five years, Uighurs have stepped up their efforts to drive out the Chinese, including the use of violence against Chinese officials.

According to Sukhanov, this turn to violence reflects the increasing role that he suggests Islam now plays in the Uighur national movement. He argues that "the most active organization" of Uighur separatists is the Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkestan, a group he says has up to 600 fighters who have been trained in Islamist camps in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, and Chechnya.

The activities of this group, Sukhanov continues, are coordinated by the Islamic Council in Kandahar, Afghanistan, which was organized by Osama bin Laden and the Taliban movement that controls much of that country. And because the Uighurs are increasingly Islamist, Sukhanov suggests, they are now threatening not only China but Central Asian countries in addition.

Sukhanov says that "the plans of the Uighur separatists now are connected with the seizure of power of Islamist groups in the Central Asian countries of the CIS because without a reliable rear area their struggle [for the independent of Eastern Turkestan] is condemned to defeat." And as part of that effort, he continues, the Uighur Islamists are stepping up their activities in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Most of the Uighurs in those two countries fled there in the early 1960s when Beijing began to impose tighter controls over the region. Now, there are approximately 250,000 Uighurs in Kazakhstan and 50,000 in Kyrgyzstan. Even Uzbekistan has a small community -- 14,000 -- of Uighurs.

China has pressured both Astana and Bishkek to tightly restrict the activities of Uighur separatists and also to deport to China Uighur activists who have fled from Xinjiang in recent years. And both countries have been willing to do so because of their additional concern that instability in Western China could spark a new influx of refugees into their countries and lead to instability in Central Asia as a whole.

Uighur activism in Xinjiang has been on the rise for some time, but few observers have stressed the Islamist dimension of their movement. Nonetheless, Sukhanov almost certainly is correct in pointing to an ever greater Islamic aspect to the Uighur struggle.

Not only do Islamist groups appear to provide the only allies that the Uighurs can count on, but Chinese repression of the Uighur community has disrupted the traditional transmission of culture there and hence created a class of young men available for Islamist mobilization.

But there may be a larger purpose behind Sukhanov's article. By invoking the name of Osama bin Laden, who American authorities say is the mastermind behind terrorist attacks on U.S. installations, Sukhanov appears to be seeking broader international understanding for and even cooperation in Moscow-led actions against Islamist groups in Central Asia.

Sukhanov's discussion of the Islamist dimension of the Uighur movement may become a self-fulfilling prophecy with the Uighurs having even fewer non-Islamist places to turn to for support and thus becoming even more Islamist than they are at present.

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