Uighur leaders to al-Qaeda: No, thanks
The first issue of Resurgence (PDF), an English-language magazine produced by al-Qaeda's media wing, as-Sahab, includes an article on Xinjiang, or, as they call it, "East Turkistan"—the homeland of the Muslim Uighur people in China's far west. Entitled "Did You Know? 10 Facts About East Turkistan," it includes such blatantly false claims as that teaching the Koran is illegal in China, punishable by 10 years in prison, and that Muslim women caught wearing the hijab can be fined more than five times the average annual income of the area. It also claims that following its takeover in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party murdered some 4.5 million Muslims in Xinjiang. It mixes up these fictions with legitimate grievances, such as that China conducted numerous nuclear weapon tests in Xinjiang (the Lop Nur site)—but claims the radioactive fallout from these killed a wildly improbable 200,000 Muslims. It is more on target in noting the demographic tilt away from the Uighurs in Xinjiang: "In 1949, 93 percent of the population of East Turkistan was Uyghur, while 7 percent was Chinese. Today, as a result of six decades of forced displacement of the native population and the settlement of Han Chinese in their place, almost 45 percent of the population of East Turkistan is Chinese." Even this is overstated, however; both BBC and Wikipedia say that it is the Uighurs who make up some 45% of Xinjiang's population, ahead of the Han Chinese who constitute around 40%.
The Uighur exile leadership immediately rejected the Qaeda overture, of course. "The Uighur people will simply ignore such claims," said Alim Seytoff, president of the Uyghur American Association and director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project. "These claims are mostly likely attempts by these groups to lure and recruit disillusioned young Uighurs to their cause. That is not going to happen because Uighurs do not share their ideology." (International Business Times, The Diplomat, Oct. 22)
We aren't quite so sanguine. Seytoff would be the first to admit that there is indeed religious persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang, and women who wear the veil face strictures and harassment. But moderate voices of dissent such as Seytoff's are of course banned in China, allowing underground Qaedists to fill the vacuum and exploit local anger. This is an increasingly inescapable fact, even if Chinese authorities seek to hype the Qaeda threat for their own propaganda aims. Ironically, as-Sahab have given a big boost to Beijing in its effort to portray any Uighur dissent as Qaedism.