2 November 2013 – last Monday, a car crashed through the heavily guarded barricades of Tiananmen Square and burst into flames in front of the steps of the Forbidden City. Later this week, the Chinese authorities said the crash was probably a suicide attack committed by Uighur Muslims belonging to a radical Islamist organization. This claim was immediately disputed by transnational Uighur organizations and human rights groups. Who are these Muslims living in China, and why would they want to attack the heart of Beijing?
In the northwest of China lies the biggest administrative province of the country: Xinjiang. This vast area, made up primarily by mountains and deserts, is over 40 times the size of the Netherlands. About half of Xinjiang’s 21 million inhabitants are Uighur. The Uighurs are ethnically Turkic and their ancestors have lived in the region for over thousands of years, although the Chinese authorities contest this.
What makes the Uighurs stand out in China, is that most modern Uighurs adhere to Islam. Despite the fact that five organized religions are recognized by China, an estimated 47 percent of the Chinese population consider themselves atheists. Not only does China have the highest percentage of atheists in the world, the Chinese authorities are also very skeptical of organized religion. Tensions between the Uighurs on the one hand, and the Han Chinese and the Chinese central authorities on the other hand have been brewing in Xinjiang for years.
China has the highest percentage of atheists in the world.
Uighur have suffered economically from the huge influx of Han Chinese to Xinjiang. These members of the Chinese majority work for a state-run organization –the bingtuan- that extracts natural resources and manages many of Xinjiang’s other industries. The bigtuan also has its own military wing which consists of thousands of militias and even has artillery units.
Besides the economic marginalization of the Uighurs, the Muslim population of Xinjiang has also suffered from suppression of their religious expressions. Over the last years, the Chinese authorities have tried to prohibit women from wearing face covering clothing, men from wearing long beards, and even attempted to outlaw fasting during Ramadan.
The tensions reached a boiling point in 2009, when 200 people were killed in riots in Xinjiang. Since then, there have been several clashes between Uighurs and the authorities. These incidents did not receive a lot of attention in the international press, until this week. After the attack at Tiananmen Square, the Chinese authorities have accused to Uighurs of harboring Islamist extremists, with links to the Syrian opposition and Al Qaeda. Whether the attack on Monday heralds the start of a more high-profile conflict in Xinjiang remains to be seen.