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

“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, the son of a Uighur village chief who in 1954 first led a group of exiles out of China on foot and settled in Kayseri.

The local government handed him the keys to a deserted apartment compound once occupied by police cadets.

Uighurs have fled China through a perilous underground railroad, crossing several Southeast Asian countries and landing in Turkey in search of basic freedoms like the ones offered by the community in Kayseri for years.

Many say Chinese police checkpoints, frequent home raids, secret detentions and curbs on religion have made life increasingly unbearable.

Others say propaganda by overseas militant groups beckoned Uighurs to Syria to train with weapons and “liberate” the resource-rich expanse the size of Iran that is marked on maps by the Chinese name — Xinjiang — but Uighurs call East Turkistan.

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

When Qari leads Friday prayers, he throws in cautionary tales about Uighurs who went to Syria, but could not come back. There was the rich Uighur who could not leave the TIP until his family handed over his luxury car as ransom. There was a group of 10 Uighurs who tried to quit the Islamic State group last year, but were caught fleeing and executed.

The stories “don’t do enough,” Qari said.

Nearly all the residents interviewed know someone who decided to cross the porous border. They spoke on condition of anonymity or gave one name for fear of retribution against their families in China, Tumturk says keeping people from leaving is an uphill battle.

“We promise that you’ll have a voice as a Uighur here, that you’ll be a free man, but that’s not as attractive if they promise you money, a house. They say paradise is right in front of you, in Syria,” he said.

HISTORY REPEATS

For Uighurs of a certain generation, a disastrous history is replaying before their eyes.

Adil Abdulghupur, a scruffy self-trained poet and religious scholar in Istanbul, saw his Uighur friends, acquaintances and former jail mates cross the Wakhan Corridor into Afghanistan in the 1980s, hoping to find allies for Xinjiang’s liberation.

In frequent lectures to younger Uighurs, he recalls how they pledged allegiance to anti-Soviet mujahideen and later the Taliban and al-Qaeda, but accomplished little except give the Chinese government reason to crack down on Uighurs.

“Because of terror organizations, Afghanistan is destroyed completely,” said Adil, a bearded 50-year-old who speaks with the moral authority of a man who spent 14 years in a Chinese prison for publishing criticism of the Chinese Communist Party.

Western analysts say it is unclear whether overseas groups provide direct aid or support to Uighur militants inside China.

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