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Islamic militancy

The battle to stop Uygurs fleeing China from joining Islamic State

Moderate Uygurs living in Turkey say they struggle to persuade people fleeing a sweeping security crackdown in Xinjiang to reject recruiters from the militant group

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 December, 2017, 3:02pm
UPDATED : Friday, 29 December, 2017, 4:51pm

Iminjin Qari felt upbeat as he drove to Istanbul’s airport with three empty buses and a simple task: pick up about 200 fellow Uygurs who had fled China for asylum in Turkey and escort them to safety.

But 20 burly Uygurs – recruiters for Islamic militant groups – were already there, greeting the refugees as they trickled out. “Just come with us,” the men said. “It’s all arranged: housing, money, everything.”

Qari’s heart sank as he watched the new arrivals – men, women and children – follow the recruiters toward the paradise they had been promised: Syria.

As Uygurs flee a Chinese security crackdown in droves, they often end up caught in a tug of war between militant Uygur members of Syria-based Islamic groups and moderate leaders of the Uygur diaspora who plead with them to reject calls of jihad.

Terrorism threat transforms China’s Uygur heartland into security state

Extensive Associated Press interviews detail the daily battle some Uygur activists are fighting against the radicalisation of their people, members of a Muslim ethnic minority who live in western China under heavy surveillance and the constant fear of arrest.

The war in Syria has thrust this ethnic minority from China into the centre of the global jihadi movement. Several thousand Uygur men, women and children are estimated to have crossed the border from Turkey to join the Turkestan Islamic Party, an ethnic Uygur militia allied with al-Qaeda on the front lines of the fighting.

“We are losing the deradicalisation battle,” said Seyit Tumturk, a moderate Uygur activist, during a recent interview in Kayseri in Turkey. “Why? Because we cannot convince our people that hope and human rights exist in the world.”

Anger at China drives Uygurs to fight alongside al-Qaeda in Syrian war in preparation for revenge

Around the time Qari watched the jihadi recruiters whisk Uygurs from the airport in 2015, the Turkestan Islamic Party announced a string of suicide attacks in Syria. That September, Uygurs bombed a downtown Bangkok shrine filled with tourists.

The spread of extremism has alarmed many exiled Uygur leaders, who condemn violence and say it will lead their people’s ruin. But they face a young generation who see no future under one of the world’s most powerful authoritarian governments and feel ignored by the rest of the world.

The Uygurs are wrestling over age-old questions: do we seek freedom with peace or violence? Is our path forward secular or Islamist? Who will help us face the might of the People’s Republic of China?

On the outskirts of Kayseri in central Anatolia, a fenced compound of five-storey concrete towers represents Tumturk’s vision of Uygur freedom – and everything China is not.

Young Uygur boys take Quranic lessons that are forbidden for children in China. Girls are taught by women wearing conservative niqab face veils banned back home. Uygur, a Turkic language often written in a modified Arabic script, is taught here while Chinese schools in Xinjiang are increasingly enforcing Mandarin-only education.

“Here is a place where they can practice their religion, where kids are going to school, where they have a home. This is our triumph,” said Tumturk.

Tumturk works with Qari, a gregarious 35-year-old who serves as imam and building supervisor to the Uygur community that now numbers more than 2,000.

When Qari leads Friday prayers, he throws in cautionary tales about Syria, warning that there was a group of 10 Uygurs who tried to quit Islamic State last year and were executed.

China’s Uygur youth urged to love motherland and learn Mandarin to avoid ‘terrorist’ label

In Istanbul, Adil Abdulghupur, a self-trained religious scholar forms a duo of sorts with Sabir Damolla, a former importer who runs an after school centre and soup kitchen. They lecture at mosques, weddings and funerals and appear on Istiqlal Media, a Uygur-language television station.

Their message is singular: stay away from Syria.

Whenever Uygur refugee families, often poorly educated, arrive in Istanbul, Adil and Damolla sit with them to explain what is happening in Syria. By Damolla’s count, they’ve talked 400 people out of going to the war-stricken country and convinced dozens to return. They personally know at least 30 who died on the battlefield.

Because of his speeches around the neighbourhood, Adil has been pushed around by muscle-bound Islamic militants outside mosques. He received a death threat by phone after he ridiculed an influential Saudi cleric in Syria.

Local Uygurs pooled money together last year to help Adil rent 18 flats in Sefakoy for several dozen families who regretted going to Syria. A group of threatening young Uygurs showed up, but Adil held firm, explaining that some fighters had wanted to return.

“These men in Syria will ruin our image, they’ll ruin everything,” Adil said. “The Chinese government through their media and diplomats try to show that Uygurs are terrorists, and, in that sense, the Chinese are winning.”

Even in the relative sanctuary of Turkey, Uygurs say they are isolated economically and engulfed by murky political currents.

While Turkey has welcomed Uygur refugees, the bureaucracy churns against them after they arrive. Uygurs are considered stateless under Turkish law, unlike refugees from Syria or Iraq, and often unable to receive work permits, health insurance, or schooling for their children.

Men work – if they are lucky – in local furniture factories and restaurants for about 1000 to 1,500 Turkish lira a month (about US$300 to US$440), far less than what a Turk would legally make and barely enough to survive.

How questioning China’s security crackdown in Xinjiang led to a 20-year jail term

Nearly all the residents Associated Press spoke to know someone who decided to cross the border into Syria. They spoke on condition of anonymity or gave one name for fear of retribution against their families in China.

Fatima, 29, raises three children on flour, rice and vegetables. She recently explained to her 11-year-old daughter in seventh grade that because she was not officially a refugee, she did not receive certificates from school despite outperforming all of her classmates.

When her girl asked why they fled China to still live as second-class citizens in Turkey, she put on a brave face.

“Turkey will protect our freedom and our religion,” she said. “This life is better.”