A few years ago it would have seemed that while economics and India were unifying factors for Pakistan and China, radical Islamic organizations could have been a divisive issue. In 2011, after attacks in China-controlled Xinjiang, it was claimed by some that the Uyghurs behind those acts were trained in Pakistan. The attackers were reported to belong to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an Uyghur Islamist and anti-Chinese organization, which has some of its members hiding in Pakistan. While the exact nature of the group’s training in Pakistan remains unclear, it was surely not a move the government in Islamabad would have supported – nor do I claim it would. It is rather that the issue of Islamic radicals was something that could become a thorny issue in relations between Islamabad and Beijing despite neither side wanting this; an issue that was best talked about behind the closed doors and dealt with in stealth mode.
Beijing is sure to be aware of this threat. ETIM could have had some connections with the apex body of the Pakistani Taliban, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The militants of the latter group attacked Chinese nationals in Pakistan a few times. In 2012, TTP murdered a tourist from China and explained that this was an act of “revenge for the Chinese government killing our Muslim brothers in the Xinjiang province.”
The PRC also felt the threat of radical Islam in Pakistan in 2007, when the extremists from the Red Mosque (located in the capital of Pakistan) kidnapped Chinese citizens from a “health center.” It is alleged that the center rendered sexual services and thus attracted the ire of radicals in their crusade for a ‘pure’ society. In 2012, the PRC demanded that Pakistan expel some of the Uyghurs, while in 2013 Islamabad delegalized ETIM. Subsequently, the issue of ETIM in Pakistan largely stopped to appear in the press. Given the strength of the decades-long Sino-Pakistani partnership, the small presence of ETIM and its affiliates in Pakistan probably could not have been a wrecking factor anyway.
But while EITM got further sidelined, Pakistan’s own Islamist groups could have presented a separate challenge. In the last years Beijing has been tightening its iron grasp over Xinjiang, continuing with such ghastly projects as the so-called reeducation camps. Knowing that the very mention of Xinjiang may be a political trap, Pakistan’s current Prime Minister Imran Khan is consistently dodging the journalists’ questions on this issue (he did so in interviews for TRT World and Al Jazeera). Pakistan’s minister for religious affairs, Noorul Haq Qadri, has, however, raised the issue of Uyghurs with the Chinese ambassador.
And yet China’s experiments in new techno-authoritarianism in Xinjiang should have, it would seem, caused the outrage of many of Pakistan’s believing Muslims, particularly the radical ones. The country’s extremist Sunni organizations are usually eager to raise the issue of persecuted Muslims, both at home (unless they are Ahmadiyyas or Shias) and abroad (usually in India, but also when it came to Rohingyas). And yet, apart for the above-mentioned Pakistani Taliban, it is hard to hear other radical Sunni Pakistani organizations shout about the plight of Uyghurs.
The firebrand preachers turned cold when the issue of Xinjiang camps hit the headlines around the globe. Some sources claimed that when in 2016 PRC’s supreme leader Xi Jinping warned of “Islamic tendencies”, he invited the ire of one of Pakistan’s most notorious Islamic radicals, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the leader of Jamaat ul-Dawaa and Laskhar-e-Tayyaba. “By uttering such statements, China is hurting its time-tested relations with the people of Pakistan,” Saeed had reportedly said. Yet, the radical leader denied ever stating this and later tweeted that “China is Pakistan’s time tested friend.”
Similarly, in 2017, the Twitter account of another radical Pakistani organization, Harkat ul-Mujahideen, started to post awkward sentences, given its worldview. One of them was that “Beijing has been hushing up Pakistan’s link in terror attacks in Xinjiang.” Yet, considering the other statements it issued at that time – such as that Kashmir is an integral part of India – it was concluded that its account must have been hacked. The group apparently did not issue a public statement on Xinjiang on any other occasion as well.
In 2017, before the 2018 elections in Pakistan, Hafiz Saeed’s organization started a new party, the Milli Muslim League. In the campaign period, Muzammil Iqbal Hashmi, one of Jamaat ul-Dawaa’s leaders and the vice president of Milli Muslim League, declared that Beijing treats its Muslim citizens in a “moderate” way. This fringe party also stressed its support for Sino-Pakistani cooperation.
Earlier the same year, Amir Hamza, who had founded Laskhar-e-Tayyaba together with Hafiz Saeed, expressed his support to Beijing during the tensions on the Doklam plateau between India and China (and Bhutan). “If India will send its army in Bhutan to counter China, then along with Pakistan, Chinese troops will enter Srinagar [in Indian Kashmir],” Hamza warned in a video message. “We will fight in Sikkim, we will fight in Bhutan, we will fight in Darjeeling, we will fight in Srinagar,” he also said. Apart from Bhutan, all of those places are in India. There was no jihad planned for Xinjiang, apparently.
Another radical leader and a Muslim scholar, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who heads the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, gained notoriety by 2017 and 2018 by organizing various protests in defense of (his version) of Islam. When a Dutch right-wing politician planned a competition for a best cartoon depicting prophet Muhammad (an idea he later abandoned), Rizvi’s people took to the streets. The sharp-tongued Rizvi threatened to “wipe Holland off the face of the earth.” I was not able to find a single remark by him on Xinjiang, however. Apparently Holland deserved obliteration for an idea of a contest by one man, while China was not doing anything wrong.
I was similarly unable to find any comments on Xinjiang by the above-mentioned leaders of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba or the so-called ‘father of Taliban’ Sami ul-Haq (the recently assassinated leader of the JUI-S party), or the radicals heading the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Masood Azhar and Fazlur Rahman Khalil, or others. As for the last two, Azhar was, in fact, until recently shielded by China at the UN, while Khalil joined Pakistan’s ruling party, PTI, in 2018, and hence is even less expected to speak loudly about the Uyghurs.
This does not mean that these extremists do not speak about these issues in hushed voices or that none of them have contacts with ETIM; none of that is easy to research. Moreover, at least one radical Islamic outfit active in Pakistan, Hizb ut-Tahrir (HUT), did raise its voice for Uyghurs. HU is an international Muslim organization, however, and it is known to be hostile to the Islamabad government. China has been also criticized by obscure Sindhi organizations and Chinese citizens have been attacked by some of the Baloch separatist organizations, but these incidents are seemingly connected to Pakistan’s internal tussles, not to Islam and Xinjiang.
The issue of Xinjiang can, therefore, be treated as a litmus test. Those radical groups active in Pakistan that either (1) stood up for Uyghurs or (2) had ties with ETIM or (3) attacked Chinese nationals are of two categories: (1) the international ones (Al Qaeda, HUT) or the (2) ‘internal’ ones who are known to be permanently or periodically battling the Pakistani state (the Pakistani Taliban and some of the Baloch groups). They are either not concerned with the interests of Islamabad’s foreign policy or are deliberately attempting to weaken the Pakistani government.
Conversely, the groups that did not shout the word ‘Xinjiang’, such as Jamaat ul-Dawaa/Laskhar-e-Tayyaba or Harkat ul-Mujahideen (and others), are those that are widely suspect of having ties with elements within the Pakistani army and its secret services. Their silence over the issue of Uyghurs shows that these groups are close enough to the establishment to put their Islamic ideology on temporary mute in order not to hurt Islamabad’s relations with Beijing.