Indonesian authorities arrested four Chinese nationals this week from China’s western region of Xinjiang who were believed to be fighting for the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, which has taken control of a vast swathe of territory in Iraq and Syria. It’s a sign of how China, which has long taken a backseat in Middle East affairs, may also be contributing to the rise of the extremist Sunni group.
While the roots of ISIL are complex, some critics say that by opposing intervention in Syria, China effectively helped enabled the militant group by propping up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, weakening more moderate anti-Assad groups, and giving Syrian Sunnis reason to mobilize and radicalize.
China’s domestic policy is also problematic. Less than 2% of China’s population is Muslim, and nearly half of Chinese Muslims belong to a minority group, the Hui, that coexists peacefully alongside the majority Han Chinese. But the country’s strained relationship with its 8 million Uighur Muslims is creating a fertile breeding ground for radicalism—and there is increasing evidence that Uighur jihadis are joining ISIL.
Earlier this month, Iraq’s ministry of defense said it had captured a Chinese militant who was part of ISIL, and four Chinese Uighurs were arrested in Indonesia this week on charges that they were working to spread ISIL’s influence to southeast Asia. China’s former envoy to the Middle East estimates that about 100 Chinese nationals may be supporting the militant group.
China’s policies toward Uighurs, which range from effectively banning Ramadan for Uighurs to favoring ethnic Han Chinese in the region’s economic development, have resulted in high levels of poverty in the Uighurs community—which fuels a narrative of anti-Muslim oppression and puts Beijing in the ISIL’s crosshairs. In a speech in July, ISIL leader Abu Bakr-Al Baghdadi named China as one of the regions where “Muslim rights are forcibly seized,” and released a map of the group’s global aspirations that included the vast swathe of China’s Xinjiang province.
Back in China, concerns about ISIL’s growing influence threaten to make relations between Han Chinese and Uighurs worse. Already, officials have promoted a heightened suspicion by asking civilians to report information on residents “wearing beards” and issuing brochures that tell citizens to be on the lookout for individuals who dress or act abnormally.
On Weibo, xenophobic Chinese bloggers responded to the news of the arrests in Indonesia by drawing further distinctions between Han Chinese and the country’s Muslim citizens of the country. “In [Uighurs’] hearts is only Islam and [East] Turkestan. What do they have to do with China?” one blogger wrote (registration in Chinese required) on Weibo. Another said, “Those who joined ISIL they aren’t Chinese people. It’s debatable whether they are even people.”