Several months ago China experienced Islamist terrorism for the first time. The Washington Post described what happened:
China says foreign religious ideas — often propagated over the Internet— have corrupted the people of Xinjiang, promoting fundamentalist Saudi Arabian Wahhabi Islam and turning some of them towards terrorism in pursuit of separatist goals. It also blames a radical Islamist Uighur group — said to be based in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas and to have links to al-Qaeda — for a recent upsurge in violence. In March, a gruesome knife attack at a train station in the city of Kunming left 33 people dead, while in May, a bomb attack on a street market in Urumqi killed 43 others.
The Chinese leadership had apparently missed the meme about the “religion of peace.”
The President of China responded to these attacks:
In response, President Xi Jinping has vowed to catch the terrorists “with nets spreading from the earth to the sky,” and to chase them “like rats scurrying across the street, with everybody shouting, ‘Beat them.’ ”
He did not, apparently, differentiate between good, law-abiding Muslims and terrorists. The result was not pretty:
China’s campaign against separatism and terrorism in its mainly Muslim west has now become an all-out war on conservative Islam, residents here say.
Throughout Ramadan,police intensified a campaign of house-to-house searches, looking for books or clothing that betray “conservative” religious belief among the region’s ethnic Uighurs: women wearing veils were widely detained, and many young men arrested on the slightest pretext, residents say. Students and civil servants were forced to eat instead of fasting, and work or attend classes instead of attending Friday prayers.
The religious repression has bred resentment, and, at times, deadly protests. Reports have emerged of police firing on angry crowds in recent weeks in the towns of Elishku, and Alaqagha; since then, Chinese authorities have imposed a complete blackout on reporting from both locations, even more intense than that already in place across most of Xinjiang….
But the nets appear to be also catching many innocent people, residents complain. “You should arrest the bad guys,” said one Uighur professional in Urumqi, “not just anyone who looks suspicious.”
Philosophically speaking, the Post wants to explore the question of whether this brutal crackdown, largely unreported in the media, will end up producing more terrorists than it eliminates.
The Post explains:
But China’s clumsy attempts to “liberate” Uighurs from the oppression of conservative Islam are only driving more people into the hands of the fundamentalists, experts say.
“If the government continues to exaggerate extremism in this way, and take inappropriate measures to fix it, it will only force people towards extremism” a prominent Uighur scholar, Ilham Tohti, wrote, before being jailed in January on a charge of inciting separatism.
One recalls that after the crackdown on Tienanmen Square protesters in 1989 that most savvy Western commentators explained that such brutal repression would naturally produce a rebellion and that the Communist party leadership would soon be threatened by a revolt of the masses.
By now, most of the same commentators accept that they were wrong. They were reading events within a Hegelian dialectic of the master and the slave.
It is never a good idea to assume that reality must fulfill the terms of a fiction. Surely, the Washington Post is suggesting that the brutal crackdown against Islam in China will breed more terrorism. Similarly, American policy toward terrorism has often been based on a similar principle.
As for the Chinese approach, we all find it profoundly reprehensible, but that does not mean that it will not work.