Islamic militancy
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
Chinese paramilitary police guard the outside the Grand Bazaar in Urumqi, Xinjiang after deadly riots between Muslim Uygur and Han Chinese residents in July 12, 2009. Photo: AFP

Beijing policies in Xinjiang driving Chinese Muslims to join ranks of Islamic State, says US think tank

Critics say excessive restrictions on religious and cultural life is one of the main drivers of radicalism

Tough religious restrictions on Muslim minorities in the country’s far west may have driven more than 100 to join Islamic State (IS), a US think tank said on Wednesday.

Beijing has long claimed that IS is recruiting Uygurs from the mainly Muslim region of Xinjiang, and blamed outside forces for fomenting deadly acts of violence there and elsewhere in the country that have claimed hundreds of lives.

At the same time, authorities have banned or strictly controlled the observance of certain Muslim practices, such as growing beards and fasting during Ramadan, saying they were symbols of “Islamic extremism”.

Those policies “could be a push factor driving people to leave the country and look elsewhere for a sense of ‘belonging’”, the Washington-based New America Foundation wrote in a study of leaked registration documents for IS fighters.

The findings were based on data from more than 3,500 foreign recruits provided by a defector from the jihadist organisation.

Of those, 114 came from Xinjiang, the study said, making it the fifth-highest contributor of fighters among regions named in the data – after three areas in Saudi Arabia and one in Tunisia.

Chinese police walk past abandoned luggage at the main train station in Kunming, Yunnan in March, 2014. Knife-wielding assailants believed to be Xinjiang separatists killed some 30 people dead and wounded more than 130. Photo: AFP
Recruits were more likely to come from “regions with restive histories and tense local-federal relationships”, the report said.

The nominally autonomous region offered IS rich recruitment potential due to “significant economic disparities between the ethnic majority Han Chinese and the local Uygur Muslim population” and “substantial state repression”, it said.

Beijing regularly accuses what it says are exiled separatist groups such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) of being behind attacks in Xinjiang, which has seen a wave of deadly unrest.

Britain’s upper house last week added the group to a list of terror organisations. But many independent experts doubt the strength of overseas Uygur groups and their links to global terrorism, with some saying China exaggerates the threat to justify tough security measures in the resource-rich region.

All the Xinjiang recruits named in the IS documents listed their place of origin as Turkestan or East Turkestan, the name for the region often used by separatists. But the study found the recruits had no prior experience with jihad, presumably including ETIM, raising questions about China’s official narrative of radicalisation in Xinjiang.

On average, fighters from Xinjiang were less educated, less well-travelled, and more likely to be married than others who sought to join IS.