Xinjiang, resource-rich and strategically located on the borders of central Asia, has been beset by violence for years, blamed by the government on Islamist militants and separatists.
Exiles and many rights groups say the real cause of the unrest is China’s heavy-handed policies, including curbs on Islam and the culture and language of the Muslim Uighur people who call Xinjiang home.
China’s nervousness about Islamist extremism has grown since a car burst into flames on the edge of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in October, and 29 people were stabbed to death last month in the southwestern city of Kunming.
Beijing blamed Xinjiang militants for both.
Writing in the official Xinjiang Daily, Xinjiang governor Nur Bekri said that acts of terror had been made possible by extremists taking advantage of people’s faith, especially “young people who have seen little of the world.”
“In order to incite fanaticism and control believers, religious extremists have blatantly distorted religious teachings, making up heresy such as ‘jihadist martyrs go to heaven,’ ‘killing a pagan is worth over 10 years of piety,’ and ‘one gets whatever one wants in heaven,’ ” he wrote.
“They use this to bewilder believers into what they believe is ‘jihad’ in the form of suicide terrorist attacks or other violence,” Bekri added.
People who do not follow the strictures of the Islamists are condemned by them as “traitors” and “scum,” he said.
China’s ruling atheist Communist Party has issued similar warnings in the past about extremism, accompanied by a harsh crackdown on suspected militants.
Uighurs have traditionally followed a moderate form of Islam, but many have begun adopting practices more commonly seen in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, such as full-face veils for women, as China has intensified a security crackdown in recent years.
Bekri, an Uighur himself, accused the militants of ignoring the region’s own traditions and of wanting to enforce a strict theocratic society.
“They … push the banning of watching television, listen to the radio, reading newspapers, singing and dancing, not allowing laughter at weddings nor crying at funerals,” he added. “They force men to grow beards and women to wear the burkha.”
Extremists are also demanding that not only food, but also cosmetics, medicine and clothing be halal, and push the idea that government-subsidized housing is not halal and to be avoided, Bekri wrote.
“Resolutely eliminate the tumor of religious extremism,” he added.