This article outlines the ways in which Islamophobia, as a growing transnational phenomenon, embraces and engenders structural violence against Muslims in the context of China. How have expressions of anti-Muslim racism become part and parcel of anti-terror strategies in the context of the Global War on Terror (GWOT)? And in what ways has Islamophobia been increasingly embedded within the context of the everyday, especially with regards to exclusionary policies? This paper examines this contemporary issue with attention to historical processes, while remaining cognizant of broader global trends of increasingly accepted religious persecution and racism. In a post-9/11 hyper-securitized world, the Uyghurs' religious Muslim identity became the target of the government's campaign against terrorism. With anti-terror policies so loosely defined, Islam—often synonymous with terrorism and difference—and those who visibly practice it became convenient marks of increased surveillance, suppression, detention, and even torture/death, all officially under the guise of the elusive war on terror and for the purpose of state security. In China, Islamophobia has effectively been state-sanctioned, legislated, and securitized.
Though official state accounts of Uyghur population numbers sit at 11 million, Uyghur sources suggest that the true number of Uyghurs living in the XUAR in China is more likely over 15 million (Uyghur American Association 2012). This variation and lack of demographic reliability points to challenges in accurately identifying the total number of Uyghurs within the country. This is likely due to a myriad of reasons including, but not limited to, distrust among the Uyghur in identifying their ethnicity in state-sponsored census questionnaires for fear of discrimination, difficultly in categorizing identity among intermarried and mixed heritage Uyghurs, and political considerations whereby states may underplay the significance of a minority population whilst members of that ethnic community may exaggerate these numbers to legitimize historical importance and political claims.
I describe these supposed connections between Uyghur nationalists and global Islamic terrorism as tenuous due to the fragile evidence that has been used to support this official narrative of the PRC. During the early years of the Global War of Terror, American forces captured 22 Uyghurs in Afghanistan who were subsequently imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay (Clarke 2010a, 225). This development added credibility to China's claims. However, time, (torture), interrogation, and investigation would reveal that a majority of these detainees had almost no connection with al-Qaeda or international terrorism: those who did have connections “were far from hardened fighters, effectively abducted from Afghanistan and Pakistan by bounty-hunters who received some US$5,000 a head” (Wayne 2009, 251). By 2013, all of the 22 captured Uyghurs had been relocated and resettled in countries around the world including Palau, Bermuda and Albania instead of being extradited back to China as per the PRC's requests (Clarke 2010a, 225). Obama's unwillingness to repatriate the former detainees to China was due to concerns of state reprisal and the likelihood of human rights contraventions by the Chinese government given their historical maltreatment of Uyghurs. The release of these Uyghur men further undermined China's position equating Uyghur activities with international terrorism. What this development also highlights is how Uyghurs have been doubly enmeshed within the webs of the Global War of Terror, both at home under the grasp of Chinese colonialism and abroad, under the auspices of American neo-imperialism.