Tue, Jan 02, 2018 - Page 9 News List

China’s Uighurs grapple
with pull of extremism

Scores of Uighurs from Xinjiang are arriving in Turkey in the hope of a freer life, and groups are happy to meet them — to lure them to Syria to fight for the global jihad movement. However, some are pushing back

By Gerry Shih  /  AP, KAYSERI, Turkey

Illustration: Yusha

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

Qari, a Uighur emigre and community worker, planned to take the newcomers back to the city of Kayseri, Turkey, where the Turkish government had set aside empty apartments for their resettlement, but as he approached the terminal, his heart sank. About 20 burly Uighurs were already there, greeting the refugees as they trickled out. They were recruiters for Islamic militant groups.

“Just come with us,” the men said. “It’s all arranged: housing, money, everything.”

Qari could only watch as the new arrivals — men, women and children — wrangled their possessions into vans and headed toward the paradise they had been promised: Syria.

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

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

In Turkey, religious extremism has peeled away young Uighur men and entire families from Istanbul’s immigrant neighborhoods, from gritty central Anatolian suburbs — sometimes from right outside the airport.

The war in Syria has thrust an ethnic minority from the far reaches of China into the center of the global jihadi movement. Several thousand Uighur men, women and children are estimated to have crossed the border to join the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), an ethnic Uighur militia allied with al-Qaeda on the front lines of the fighting.

“We are losing the deradicalization battle,” Uighur activist Seyit Tumturk said in an interview in Kayseri. “Why? Because we cannot convince our people that hope and human rights exist in the world.”

Around the time Qari watched the recruiters whisk Uighurs from the airport in 2015, the TIP announced a string of suicide attacks in Syria. That September, Uighurs bombed a downtown Bangkok shrine filled with tourists. Last year, the head of al-Qaeda began denouncing China as “atheist occupiers” and courted Uighur fighters in recruitment videos.

The spread of extremism has alarmed many exiled Uighur leaders, who condemn violence and say it will lead their people’s ruin, but they are confronted by 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 Uighurs are wrestling over decades-old questions: Do we seek freedom with peace or violence? Is our path forward secular or Islamic? Who will help us face the might of the People’s Republic of China?

GLIMPSE OF FREEDOM

On the outskirts of Kayseri in central Anatolia, the parched, rock-strewn hills resemble the southern swathes of the Uighur homeland in western China, but a fenced compound of five-story concrete towers represents Tumturk’s vision of Uighur freedom — and everything China is not.

In a classroom next to a basketball court, young Uighur boys take Quranic lessons that are forbidden for children in China. Girls in a separate building are taught by women wearing conservative niqab face veils banned back home. Uighur, a Turkic language often written in a modified Arabic script, is freely taught at a time when Chinese schools in Xinjiang are increasingly enforcing Mandarin-only education.

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