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

Uighur assailants have in recent years hacked dozens of civilians to death at a busy train station in Kunming, driven a speeding vehicle into Tiananmen Square and set off crude explosives outside government buildings and markets. Chinese authorities have responded with a show of overwhelming force in Xinjiang.

“Do you want our homeland to become a second Afghanistan?” Adil said. “You’re being used as pawns and mercenaries to die for someone else.”

WEDDING CRASHERS

The effort to steer Uighur arrivals away from Syrian militants sometimes calls for creativity.

Adil cuts a ubiquitous, shuffling presence in Istanbul along with Sabir Damolla, a straight-talking former importer who runs an after-school center that doubles as an occasional soup kitchen.

They form a duo of sorts in Sefakoy, a grid of narrow streets next to Istanbul’s airport — lecturing at mosques, crashing weddings and funerals to give speeches and appearing on Istiqlal Media, a Uighur-language television station.

Their message is singular: Stay away from Syria.

Whenever Uighur refugee families, often poorly educated or illiterate, arrive in Istanbul, Adil and Damolla sit with them to explain what is happening in Syria. By Damolla’s count, they have talked 400 people out of going to Syria and convinced dozens to come back. They personally know at least 30 who died on the battlefield.

Adil and Damolla can spot the Uighur recruiters swaggering in the streets in camouflage pants and Adidas sneakers, but they know they are also watched.

“It’s like a bazaar,” Adil said. “We’re selling our ideas and they’re selling theirs.”

Because of his speeches around the neighborhood, Adil has been pushed around by muscle-bound young Islamic militants outside mosques and intimidated. He received a death threat by telephone after he ridiculed an influential young Saudi cleric in Syria who has called on Uighurs to join the jihad.

Last year, local Uighurs pooled money together to help Adil rent 18 apartments in Sefakoy for several dozen families who regretted going to Syria and wanted to return.

Trouble soon came knocking. He explained to a group of threatening young Uighurs who showed up that some fighters had wanted to return. He held firm.

“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 Uighurs are terrorists and, in that sense, the Chinese are winning.”

HOPE AND DESPAIR

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

In recent months, after Turkey reached agreements with China to crack down on militant activity, the jihadi recruiters have faded from view somewhat. Turkey has strengthened security on the border, making it harder to move back and forth, Uighurs say.

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

In the Uighur refugee compound in Kayseri, stories of poverty and despair abound. Men work — if they are lucky — in local furniture factories and restaurants for about 1,000 to 1,500 Turkish lira a month (US$264 to US$396), far less than what a Turk would legally make and barely enough to survive.

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