Today
Wed 22 September 2021

The Taliban has spoken out against the oppression of Muslims around the world but is staying silent on the persecution of Uyghur Muslims in China, reports CJ Werleman

The fall of the Afghan capital to the Taliban is not only an existential crisis for Kabul’s female population, religious minorities, journalists, human rights activists, and those who held key roles in the previous Afghanistan administration or US-led forces, but also Afghan Uyghur families.

“If anyone even knocks on the door, I scream that it’s the Chinese Government coming to take us back to China,” an Afghan Uyghur woman told the Uyghur Human Rights Project.

These fears were amplified when the Taliban announced that it regards China as a “friend” of Afghanistan and that it is willing to help Beijing round-up those suspected of having ties with the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) – a separatist outfit aligned to al-Qaeda.

“China is a friendly country, and we welcome it for reconstruction and developing Afghanistan,” Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen told a Chinese state media outlet last month.

Earlier this year, the ousted Afghan Government arrested 10 Chinese Government spies who were creating a fake ETIM cell in Afghanistan to entrap Afghan Uyghurs, which demonstrates the level or paranoia Beijing holds towards an Islamic separatist group estimated to comprise only a few hundred militants.

Today, there are an estimated 2,000 Uyghurs living in Afghanistan, but despite most having lived in the country for years and many having Afghan citizenship, their official identification forms still state that they are “Chinese migrants”, prompting fears that they will be used as a bargaining chip or diplomatic gesture by the Taliban to curry favour from Beijing.

Tellingly, the Taliban is adopting the Pakistani Government’s diplomatic double-speak in calling-out the oppression of Muslims around the world but staying silent on the persecution of Uyghur Muslims in China to stay in Beijing’s good graces.

“We care about the oppression of Muslims, be it in Palestine, in Myanmar, or in China, and we care about the oppression of non-Muslims anywhere in the world, but what we are not going to do is interfere in China’s internal affairs,” the Taliban spokesperson told reporters last month.

Clearly, the Taliban wants to show the Chinese Government that it welcomes it as a partner in the post-US military occupation era.

Rounding-up and deporting ETIM militants, aligned to al-Qaeda, to please Beijing is easier said than done, however, because doing so will undermine the Taliban’s legitimacy as a jihadist organisation and risks igniting retribution and retaliation from a “complex network of other Islamist militants across Central Asia”, according to Haiyun Ma, an associate professor at Frostburg State University.

There is a risk that the Taliban might falsely accuse Afghan Uyghur migrants of having ties to ETIM and then deport them to China to demonstrate that it seeks to cooperate with Beijing in matters related to counter-terrorism and security. It is for this reason that the Uyghur Human Rights Project is urging news media outlets to not exaggerate the so-called security threats to China in Afghanistan to guard against Beijing using such commentary as cover to expand its ‘counter-terrorism’ operations against the Uyghur minority.

Bradley Jardine, a fellow at the Wilson Centre in Washington D.C. and author of the report ‘Nets Cast from the Earth to the Sky: China’s Hunt for Pakistan’s Uyghurs’, has said that China has engaged in low-level diplomacy with the Taliban to ensure compliance on issues regarding obscure Uyghur militant groups within Taliban-controlled territories in the past.

“In the late 1990s, the Taliban deported a number of Uyghurs at China’s request, and moved entire communities from remote villages to major cities as a means of better-monitoring their activities,” he said. “Ultimately, the Taliban will use Uyghur minorities as a way to bridge relations with China and gain much-needed investment in Afghanistan’s war-torn economy.”

Conversely, China will use its blossoming relationship with the Taliban as an opportunity to expand its campaign against the Uyghurs in Afghanistan and eradicate “anything that China deems to be Uyghur militancy within the region,” said Jardine.

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An Afghan Uyghur man named Mr Abdulaziz told the UHRP that he fears China has made a deal with the Taliban to access identification forms and other documents left over from the ousted Afghan Government, saying that it would be “fairly easy to investigate who is of Uyghur origin based on this ‘Chinese migrant’ distinction listed on the form” and that he knows of at least 20 other families with similarly marked documents.

“Whether these Afghan Uyghurs choose to stay in regions now under Taliban control or attempt to flee for any neighbouring countries, the label of ‘Chinese migrant’ on their documents will expose them to incredible danger,” said Jardine.

Compounding these fears is the ousted Government’s push to digitise databases and introduce digital identity card and biometrics, with the Human Rights First Group warning that “we understand that the Taliban is now likely to have access to various biometric databases and equipment in Afghanistan”.

There are also reports that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – another Muslim-majority country with close ties to Beijing – has allowed Chinese intelligence agencies to operate a covert ‘black site’ in Dubai to be used as intelligence hub to target Uyghur migrants throughout the Middle East.

These fast-changing realities present Afghan Uyghurs with a new set of horrors.

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