Could China Be the Next Al Qaeda Haven?

Experts said Beijing's motives aren't hard to divine. They say another Chinese minority, the Hui, are also Muslims, but haven't been faced with as much of a crackdown because they are better-integrated with the majority Han.

In Xinjiang itself, there are 12 different ethnic groups, mostly Muslims, said Nury Turkel, general secretary for the Uighur American Association. "But almost all political prisoners are Uighurs," he said, "there's not one single Kazakh."

"Our fight, our cause, is purely existence," he said.

A Desperate Situation

Among Uighurs, there is very little confidence that Xinjiang will become a haven for al Qaeda because they say they hardly have any sympathy for the fundamentalist society of the Taliban.

Music and alcohol are not unfamiliar in Uighur areas, and women aren't sequestered like in other Muslim societies. "We didn't ever see any people like this talking about an Islamic government," Pahta said.

Before Beijing tightened the reins on the area, only about 6,000 Uighurs a year ever went on the Hajj pilgrimage — an obligation for devout Muslims — compared to some 30,000 from Malaysia, a Muslim country similar in population size to Xinjiang, Gladney said.

Gladney said before the current furor over Islam, many Uighurs had little knowledge of what has been the litmus test of Muslims, the Palestinian issue. "Muslims in China have never been really engaged," Gladney said.

In turn, while bin Laden has repeatedly tried to rally Muslims by mentioning the injustices done to Muslims in places like Palestinian territories, Chechnya and Iraq, he has never mentioned East Turkestan.

Supporters of the independence movement say it is largely secular, and has long upheld the United States as a model. "Every one of these groups, though Muslim, are pro-U.S." Gladney said.

But Uighurs say Washington values it relationship with China more than its relationship with them, given its priority for the war on terror — a relationship likely to deepen with Washington's need for Beijing's influence on the rogue regime of North Korea.

And the Uighurs cannot rely on its Central Asian neighbors, with whom they share traditional links, Turkel said — because their economies are beholden to China. That's why Uighurs were found in Afghanistan, he said — with diplomatic relations with few countries, fugitive Uighurs found it easy to take refuge in Afghanistan.

Turkel says he understands every country's first priority is its national interest, but he is hopeful. "It is sad that Uighurs is suffering and the world community is ignoring Uighur people but this does not mean the Uighur people will disappear."

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