Jul 6, 2014

China – Path of 'Talibanisation' worries Beijing government

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Veiled women are a more common sight in Xinjiang's southern cities like Kashgar, a sign of growing religiosity and conservatism since the 2009 riots.

He may be only 17 years old, but Ali, an Uighur in Xinjiang's Yecheng county, already knows which girls he will date: those who wear headscarves and conservative outfits.

"A girl, no matter how good her looks, is not truly pretty if she shows too much skin," he told The Straits Times, adding that he quit high school recently because he could not observe religious practices like wearing a Muslim cap.

Ali (not his real name) is an example of growing religious conservatism in Xinjiang, especially in southern cities such as Kashgar and Hotan, which are dominated by the largely Muslim Uighur minority group and less developed.

During a recent visit to Kashgar and Yecheng, which are some 260km apart, I saw more women wearing veils than in Urumqi. More men could also be seen in religious garb and some pray out aloud in the open.

Xinjiang's religious conservatism increased in the 1980s but intensified after the 2009 riots between Han Chinese and Uighurs in Urumqi that killed nearly 200 and injured 1,700 people.

An Urumqi tour guide who gave his name as Azmat, 29, said he and his friends became more religious after the riots in part to improve the image of the Uighur community.

"We want to show that we're a peace-loving people, that we are not like those prone to violence in Iraq or Afghanistan," he said.

But some in China believe Xinjiang is now on a path of "Talibanisation", referring to the process in which religious groups adopt strict practices of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan.

Uighur women who don revealing or colourful clothes are reportedly lectured publicly and teenage girls posting indecent photos of themselves receive insulting remarks from netizens.

More men are quitting smoking and drinking. Failure to conform to religious rules will invite ostracisation from the community.

China believes that increased religiosity has fuelled Islamic activism and extremism that is responsible for the 300-plus terror attacks in China last year.

The violence is worst in southern Xinjiang. Chinese media has reported 11 major violent incidents in Xinjiang since the 2009 riots, seven of them in Kashgar.

In a policy shift, the Communist Party has identified religious work as a key area in its year-long anti-terror campaign in Xinjiang. President Xi Jinping has pledged to protect legal religious activities, expand religious freedom and curb illegal activities, such as underground Islamic schools.

Observers stressed the need for a well-calibrated, multi-pronged strategy in south Xinjiang.

First, there is a need to make a distinction between extremism and conservatism, said Lanzhou University terrorism expert Yang Shu. "Violence is a key element of religious extremism, but we can't say that those who are more pious endorse the violence."

China also needs to improve the credibility of state-sanctioned religious leaders and mosques to counter underground Islamic schools, said Peking University analyst Zhang Jian.

Other areas, such as social and economic development, are crucial too."It is simple to solve the violence. Treat Uighurs fairly in employment and education," said Kashgar tour operator Abdul Wahab, 41.

But Guzalkiz Yusun, 23, a finance professional in Urumqi, believes Uighurs, in desiring greater religious freedom, should also be more flexible towards others' personal freedom.

"I don't criticise my friends on their dressing or way of life. Everyone has the right to live his life the way he wants," said the Uighur, who usually does not wear a headscarf.

Kor Kian Beng

Additional reporting by Lina Miao and Carol Feng in Beijing

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