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By John Cosenza

III: Understanding the Origins of Uighur Extremist Violence

In Social Cohesion and Islamic Radicalization: Implications from the Uighur Insurgency, Tong Zhao attempts to explain the origins of the Uighur insurgency movement in Xinjiang province by applying Social Cohesion Theory. According to Zhao,

“a variety of casual factors of the Uighur insurgency has been suggested. Government imposed restrictions on religious activities are believed to be one of the major reasons behind the insurgency. Economic inequality between the Han Chinese and the Uighurs in Xinjiang is also frequently mentioned as an important contributing factor. Other explanations include; cultural discrimination and oppression; immigrations of Han Chinese into Xinjiang; political oppression and the government’s tough measures against the insurgents.”[1]

While these proposed factors help to understand Islamic radicalization among the Uighur community in Xinjiang, Zhao argues they fail to provide a coherent explanation consistent with the historical evolution of the Uighur insurgency movement. To support this theory, Zhao points to the inconsistent relationship between the rise of Uighur insurgency violence and Chinese tyranny. For instance, Uighur separatist violence “was relatively rare”[2] during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, a time when Uighur “religious facilities were systematically destroyed, and most religious practices were simply forbidden.”[3] In contrast, Uighur insurgency violence dramatically escalated after the Cultural Revolution despite the introduction of more lenient religious practices in the 1980s. Zhao notes that by 1989, “the number of mosques in Xinjiang had increased 5.8 times compared with a decade earlier to some 20,000. Nonetheless, the Uighur insurgency intensified in the early 1980s and continued to escalate.”[4] As Zhao argues, these facts do not support the notion that religious repression has been the primary drive of Uighur extremist violence.

In order to reach a more probable theory, Zhao applies Social Cohesion Theory, which generally refers “to the bonds or ‘glue’ that bring people together in society” such as employment, income, health, education, and housing.[5] After Xinjiang was absorbed into China’s body politic in 1949, the Chinese Central Government initiated collectivist land reforms known as “Agricultural Production Cooperatives” that encouraged peasants of all backgrounds to farm jointly. Individuals in these agricultural communities were “relatively equal in terms of assets and economic benefits, and was dependent on the commune for employment, income, education, and to some extent even housing. The close connection between individuals and the commune served as the material foundation for the social cohesion in Xinjiang during this period.” These communities also encouraged social cohesion politically speaking. Each of the agricultural communes formed their own political parties and focused on external common enemies such as the Soviet Union, which had previously possessed a sphere of influence in Xinjiang province. Ultimately, the strong economic, social, and political institutions as well as the recognition of a common enemy “all contributed to a high degree of social cohesion in Xinjiang. During this period, Uighur insurgency was relatively rare and lacking in popular appeal, compared to the situation after the 1980s.”[6]

In the early 1980s social cohesion in Xinjiang began to collapse with the introduction of economic reforms that allowed for market economies and privatization of state-owned companies and assets. Unified agricultural communes “were overwhelmed by private ones and no longer offered reliable employment. The close economic ties between individuals and communes dissolved, but no viable substitute was established.”[7] Economic liberalization forced many individuals who previously relied on agricultural communes for employment to become economically independent. In turn, the economic foundation for social cohesion quickly eroded. Zhao also argues economic liberalization encouraged a flow of migrants seeking employment across provincial boundaries. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, many Han Chinese immigrated to Xinjiang seeking new economic opportunities. Cultural clashes between Uighur Muslims and Han Chinese inevitably eroded social cohesion as well. Zhao quotes, “Muslim culture in the Uighur community does not emphasize the importance of entrepreneurship, and most Uighurs are based in rural areas where there are few chances of being exposed to the new economy.”[8] Moreover, it became increasingly difficult for Uighurs to be employed in private enterprises owned by Han Chinese given language barriers. In the end, Uighur Muslims were ill-equipped to adapt to the rapid transition from dependable agricultural communes to modern laissez-faire economics. This rapid decline in social cohesion has directly resulted in widening economic gaps between the Han Chinese and the Uighurs and has led to social estrangement. Indeed,

“all over China, Uighurs who faced difficulty in integrating into local economies felt distanced from mainstream society, and their societal identification substantially diminished as a result. Indicators of declining social identification of the Uighurs include the growing numbers of social security incidents involving the Uighurs in major Chinese cities. Rampant Uighur thieves have caused serious social problems across the country. These incidents clearly point to an increasing level of psychological isolation and a declining level of social identification of the Uighurs in a Han-dominated society.”[9]

As the text continues, Zhao argues the erosion of social cohesion and increase in societal isolation fostered an environment conducive for Islamic radicalization. As Uighur Muslims became increasingly isolated from society, they turned to the one institution that was not only familiar but also accepting, Orthodox Islam. Since the 1990s, the influence of Islamic radicalism among the Uighurs has steadily grown. This has naturally given rise to acts of Islamic extremist violence across China; ranging from isolated suicide bombings to organized acts of violence such as the Urumqi riot in July 2009.

Additional scholars including Political Scientist Collin P. Clarke and Associate Professor of National Security Studies at the U.S. Army War College Paul Rexton Kan echo Zhao’s argument. In Uighur Foreign Fighters: An Underexamined Jihadist Challenge, Clarke and Kan discuss the rise of the Uighur separatist movement in China and beyond. Although they do not apply Social Cohesion Theory, the authors point to religious oppression and cultural clashes between Uighur Muslims and Han Chinese as primary drivers of Islamic extremist violence. They argue, “Uighurs consider themselves separate and distinct in ethnicity, culture, and religion from the Han Chinese majority that governs them. These distinctions form the basis of the Uighurs’ religious ethnonationalist identity, leading some of them to engage in violent activities aimed at establishing their own state, East Turkestan.”[10] Indeed, China’s anti-Uighur policies in Xinjiang, which includes banning certain religious names for Uighur babies, restrictions on men’s beard lengths, limits on observing Ramadan and preferential treatment for Han Chinese in the education and economic sectors have encouraged Islamic radicalization.[11] Over the past two decades, socio-religious persecution of Uighurs has contributed to a number of terror attacks across China including:

  • October 2013: ETIM attack at Tiananmen Square in Beijing killing 5.
  • February 2014: A knife attack at a train station in Kunming killing 30.
  • April 2014: A knife and bomb attack at the South Railway Station of Urumqi killing 3 and wounding 79.
  • May 2014: Two cars crashed into a market and the attackers lobbed explosives, killing 31 people in Urumqi.
  • September 2014: Bomb blasts (including suicide bombers) and clashes left 50 people dead and 50 injured.
  • October 2015: A knife attack on a coalmine killing 50.[12]

Clarke and Kan continue to argue that Uighur identity and Islamic radicalization have been reinforced beyond China’s boarders as well. According to the authors, the appeal of radical Islamic ideology outside of china “has attracted many Uighurs to participate in violent jihadism as part of their religious identity and as a way to further their struggle against the Chinese authorities.”[13] This became apparent when two Uighur extremists directed their threats at “evil Chinese communist infidel lackeys” and promised to “spill rivers of blood in China as retaliation for the tears that flow from the eyes of the oppressed”[14] in an Islamic State video. Unfortunately, the intense repression of Uighurs domestically in China has evolved into an international movement. Uighur extremists have been witnessed fighting alongside radical Islamic militant groups across Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Uighur Foreign Fighters, therefore, are products of domestic repression in China as well as the attraction of ethnic and religious appeals abroad.[15]

There are several circumstances that may lead an individual down the path of Islamic extremism. However, a review of the existing literature supports two theories; 1) the Uighur Muslim community’s long history of targeted persecution has resulted in animosity towards Han Chinese authority and 2) the prolonged isolation of Uighurs socially and economically have driven a small number of desperate community members to seek out some form of acceptance. In many unfortunate cases acceptance is only found within the realm of Orthodox or radical Islam. The next section of this paper will analyze the consequences of the Uighur separatist movement; specifically focusing on the backlash Uighur extremist violence has on the larger community at whole.

The final part of John Cosenza’s examination will be published next week.

John Cosenza is a Market Research Analyst at Zitter Health Insights as well as a part time Research Consultant at the Mitchell Firm, a Washington D.C. based lobbying and consultancy firm. John graduated from Marist College with a dual degree in History & Political Science and graduated from Norwich University with a Master’s Degree in Diplomacy & International Business. John is an experienced professional with a unique combination of primary and secondary research skills as well as writing skills. He has experience working in the private and non-profit sector conducting secondary, qualitative, and quantitative research for multiple organizations including the world’s largest marketing and advertising agency, an international marketing consultancy firm, and a Washington, D.C. based Non-Government Organization (NGO). In addition to his research, John has co-authored multiple articles with Mr. John T. Pinna of the Mitchell firm focusing on international human rights issues and international religious persecution. John continues to work with political, think tank, and NGO leaders in the Washington D.C. metro area to advocate for international religious freedom. He can be reached at [email protected] or

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates

[1] Zhao, Tong (2010). “Social Cohesion and Islamic Radicalization: Implications from the Uighur Insurgency.” Journal of Strategic Security, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Fall 2010).

[2] Ibid, 40.

[3] Ibid, 40.

[4] Ibid, 41.

[5] Ibid, 41.

[6] Ibid, 43.

[7] Ibid, 44

[8] Ibid, 44

[9] Ibid, 45

[10] Clarke, P. Collins; Kan, R. Paul (2017). “Uighur Foreign Fighters: An Underexamined Jihadist Challenge.” International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague, (2017).

[11] Ibid, 4

[12] Ibid, 3

[13] Ibid, 4

[14] Ibid, 5

[15] Ibid, 5