Beijing's mistreatment of Muslims spurs militancy in Pakistan, say observers

By Zarak Khan

Security personnel stand guard outside the National Stadium in Karachi on November 8. [Asif Hassan/AFP]

Security personnel stand guard outside the National Stadium in Karachi on November 8. [Asif Hassan/AFP]

ISLAMABAD -- Beijing's ill treatment of Muslims in China has the potential to inflame extremism in neighbouring Pakistan and to prompt attacks on Chinese interests in the country, say observers.

In the Muslim-majority Xinjiang region, Chinese authorities have imprisoned more than one million Uighurs and other Muslims -- including ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz -- in as many as 400 detention facilities that include "political education" camps, pretrial detention centres and prisons.

Millions more live under tight supervision and control.

Beijing defends the facilities as "vocational training centres" aimed at stamping out terrorism and improving employment opportunities.

These facilities, however, are widely reported to be involuntary detention centres that some have described as "similar to concentration camps".

Independent investigations and interviews with former inmates indicate physical and psychological torture, brainwashing, systematic rape, forced sterilisation of Muslim women, forced organ harvesting, sexual abuse and other horrors.

Last month, Beijing also used a law that requires a permit authorising the distribution of books or magazines online to force Apple to remove the Quran Majeed app from its App Store in China.

The removal disabled the app for almost a million users, according to the application's developer, Pakistan Data Management Services (PDMS).

The app is "trusted by over 25 million Muslims globally" who use the app to read or listen to recitations of the Koran, keep track of prayer times, locate the direction of the Qibla, and watch live coverage of Mecca and Medina, among other things, according to the company.

Chinese authorities mostly over the past three years have destroyed or damaged about 16,000 mosques, according to an Australian Strategic Policy Institute report based on satellite imagery documenting hundreds of sacred sites and on statistical modeling.

Over the past two years, Chinese authorities have also seized and sold at auction assets from Uighur business owners worth tens of millions of dollars, according to Uighur advocates and independent media outlets.

The auctions are part of a broad Chinese Communist Party (CCP) campaign to "Sinicise" China's ethnic minorities and crack down on Uighur and other Turkic speaking Muslims -- including ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz -- in the Xinjiang region.

Spurring militancy

Such policies, Chinese companies' disrespect for Islam and the growth of Chinese influence in Balochistan and Sindh have already spurred religious and ethnic militancy in Pakistan, according to observers.

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has already issued statements condemning the treatment of Muslims in China and has targeted Chinese interests in various parts of Pakistan.

Islamabad and Beijing held TTP responsible for a July 14 suicide attack that killed nine Chinese engineers who were working on a hydroelectric project in Kohistan district, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

In April, the TTP claimed responsibility for a deadly bombing at a luxury hotel hosting the Chinese ambassador in Quetta, Balochistan province.

The TTP is seeking to "conduct more activities in Pakistan, and more Chinese people or Chinese projects may be attacked in order to increase pressure on the Pakistani government", said an analyst cited by the Chinese Communist Party-backed Global Times on September 18.

In the last few years, anti-China rhetoric has immensely increased in media published by the TTP and its allied al-Qaeda-linked groups, said Syed Fazal Hussain, a Karachi-based researcher with a focus on extremist media.

The TTP often issues detailed statements against the Chinese government, condemning the situation faced by Chinese Muslims in their country, he said.

"Although the TTP has not issued a statement on the removal of the Quran Majeed app from its App Store in China, pro-TTP social media accounts have regularly criticised Beijing's anti-Muslim move," Hussain said.

"Similar to Baloch and Sindhi separatist groups, al-Qaeda and the TTP are particularly criticising the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship project of China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and comparing it to the colonial British East India Company of the 1850s," Hussain said.

Pakistani militants have singled out China in the past.

Mufti Abu Zar al-Burmi, an influential al-Qaeda ideologue and a Pakistani national, warned in a video message in 2014 that China would become the "next target".

He urged all extremist groups, including the TTP, to carry out attacks on Chinese embassies and companies and to kidnap or kill Chinese nationals.

The TTP has also claimed responsibility for a number of killings and kidnappings of Chinese nationals, mainly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces.

Threats grow

The recent reunification of TTP factions has exacerbated threats to CPEC-linked projects in Pakistan, according to Pakistani security officials.

"The TTP's reunification has also worried China, which has already been pushing Pakistan to crack down on ethnic separatist groups in Balochistan and Sindh provinces to protect BRI-linked projects," said an Islamabad-based security official on the condition of anonymity.

"Security agencies in Pakistan have further beefed up security and intelligence networks to guard Chinese nationals and companies in that region," the official said.

Militant groups often use anti-Chinese sentiments to justify their terrorist acts, he noted.

"Therefore, it is necessary for the Pakistani government to reconsider its relations with China and resolve the grievance of Pakistani residents in Sindh and Balochistan."

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