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VOA: How Uyghurs, Taliban View Each Other — and Why It Matters

The below article was published by VOA News, Photo credit: AP

Abdugheni Sabit has been closely watching the developments in Afghanistan since the Taliban took control of the government.

Sabit is Uyghur, a member of the Muslim minority group from China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. As an exile living in the Netherlands, he has been fighting for the rights of Uyghurs since 2007. He has been following the Taliban’s comments about other allegedly mistreated Muslim groups around the world.

“The Taliban has been making statements for years about Muslim groups who were allegedly abused in the countries or regions by the state authorities,” Sabit told VOA. “They raised their voice for Muslims in Palestine, Kashmir and other parts of the world and called the Islamic ummah [community] to rise up.”

The Taliban, however, have been silent on what human rights organizations have identified as the mistreatment of more than 12 million Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China, which shares a border with Afghanistan, Sabit said.

Rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch accuse the Chinese government of arbitrarily detaining more than 1 million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in internment camps, where people allegedly have been forced to denounce their religion of Islam, pledge allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party and endure other mistreatments such as forced labor and involuntary sterilization.

China denies these accusations, saying those complexes are not internment camps but vocational education and training centers for the reeducation of people whose minds were poisoned by the “three forces of evil,” namely “religious extremism, terrorism and separatism.”

Taliban-Uyghur relationship

Many Central Asia scholars have been trying to understand the Taliban and its views of the Uyghurs.

The Taliban are a multiethnic political movement, while Uyghurs are an ethnic group. Many Uyghurs live in China and share a belief system with the people of Afghanistan.

When referring to the Taliban, “we generally use the term ‘movement’ because of how it originated. It was organic and kind of erupted from the south of the country, and then people joined it as it advanced,” said Ibraheem Bahiss, a consultant on Afghanistan with the International Crisis Group, an anti-war advocacy group. “It’s got its own ideology affiliation,” he told VOA. “It’s got various groups join[ing] it. So, it’s a political entity, and it’s not really an ethnic entity, per se.”

According to scholars of Islam and to Sabit, who considers himself a devout Muslim, in terms of faith, most of the Uyghurs in China and the people of Afghanistan belong to the Hanafi sect of Sunni Muslims, which creates the potential for historic, religious and cultural bonds between the two groups. Many Uyghurs, however, see the Taliban as an outlier.

Most Uyghurs are highly liberal in how they understand and implement their Islamic beliefs, said Salih Hudayar, the Uyghur president and founder of the Washington-based East Turkistan National Awakening Movement.

“Unlike the Taliban, Uyghurs hold women and children’s rights, especially education, in high regards. Most Uyghurs are not sympathetic of the Taliban and view them as very extreme,” Hudayar told VOA. “I personally view the Taliban as extremists as their implementation of religion is not compatible with the general teachings of Islam, and the Taliban has effectively politicized religion to undermine the very human rights of the Afghan people.”

The Taliban and China

“If the Taliban speaks up for Uyghur Muslims in China, it might increase its reputation [globally]. But at the same time, the group is wary of losing China’s support,” Sabit told VOA.

Experts say that when it comes to Muslim world issues, the Taliban are now more selective in picking their fights because they are no longer just a movement, but representatives of a country. The Taliban government is also trying to establish relations with China to solicit the resources Afghanistan needs.

“China is one of the few countries that has the capacity and that has shown a willingness to work with the Taliban, provided they meet basic requirements around counterterrorism,” Bahiss said.

Uyghur militants in Afghanistan

On September 9, the Chinese state paper Global Times asked Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen whether the Taliban would consider extraditing members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a Uyghur militant group, to China at the Beijing’s request.

“I know after the Doha [Qatar] agreement, many have left Afghanistan, because we categorically said that there is no place for anyone to use Afghanistan against other countries, including neighboring countries,” Shaheen told the Global Times.

According to a June U.N. report, the Turkestan Islamic Party, an insurgent group formed in Afghanistan by exiled Islamist Uyghurs from China — which is also known by the widely accepted alias of ETIM — has several hundred members. The U.N. designated ETIM as an international terrorist organization. The U.S. removed it from its terrorist list in November.

“I don’t imagine the Taliban will in the coming months, or perhaps even years, acquiesce to a request to deport people out of the country,” Bahiss told VOA. “And that’s because of the mentality within the movement — because they do fear a backlash” from potential Uyghur sympathizers within the Taliban rank and file.

But other experts look at the Taliban’s actions in the past. The Taliban have never taken a clear stance on the fate of Uyghurs inside China, but they have cooperated with China regarding Uyghurs inside Afghanistan, said Sean Roberts, director of the International Development Studies Program at George Washington University and author of the book, The War on the Uyghurs.

“Starting back in the late 1990s, the Chinese government sought the assistance of the Taliban to ensure that any Uyghurs in Afghanistan could not advocate for Uyghur independence or establish any sort of security threat to the People’s Republic of China,” Roberts told VOA. “And the Taliban appears to have done that and made sure that Uyghurs in Afghanistan in the late 1990s and early 2000s were unable to be a threat to the People’s Republic of China or to really advocate for legal or political rights or human rights.”

Not all Uyghurs back militants

Roberts said many Uyghurs reject the use of religion as a political tool in their struggle for human and political rights.

“There’s a lot of Uyghurs who, particularly since [the 9/11 attacks in the U.S.], have tried to communicate to the world that Uyghurs are not aligned with [religious] extremist groups,” Roberts said.

That is also the view of Abdugheni Sabit.

“Even though Uyghurs are not religious radicals or extremists or did not create a religious political movement like the Taliban, after the U.S. war on terror, China has wrongfully been labeling us as religious extremists or terrorists who need to be civilized in camps,” he said.

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