I get that some people trying to make sense of the attacks in Kunming want to take the opportunity to discuss how Chinese policy contributed to radicalization. And while I’ve noted elsewhere how it bothers me profoundly that many Anglophone commentators offer a merely perfunctory nod to the monstrousness of the knife attacks that claimed 29 innocent lives and sent 160 or more people to the hospital with stab and slash wounds before moving on to the “real” issue of Chinese repression of Uyghur rights, I do believe the desire on the part of some people to use the Kunming massacre to talk about underlying issues is well-intentioned and appropriate.
What troubles me, though, is that too often in that ensuing discussion, this attack as well as all the recent attacks—whether or not they cross our (still somewhat blurred) definitional line into terror—are seen simply as responses to Chinese repression. Is there repression and bad policy? Yes, absolutely. Has it contributed to radicalization? Sure.
But is it the only factor that has contributed to radicalization?
Of course not. The weird part is that while it should be stunningly obvious that the whole context, the whole relationship between Islam and the secular, industrialized world, the whole discourse on the way Islamic peoples are situated in the modern world—all this has dramatically changed, but this barely enters conversation. There are myriad alternative responses, loci of identity, causes, leaders, and movements on offer now that just weren’t there pre-September 11. The Internet barely existed in the oasis cities of the Tarim before 2001.
But people are for the most part writing and talking about the situation as though it’s happening in complete isolation, as though the rise of radical Islam in the rest of the world since the 1980s doesn’t figure in. It somehow doesn’t merit a paragraph or two alongside the context paragraphs that most of the Anglophone outlets see fit to include about repressive policies in restive Xinjiang. People can’t see beyond the simple narrative of Chinese repression.
Any serious effort to look at what’s happened and where things might go from here has to look at Chinese policy, and I’m sure that there’s plenty of blame to be laid there. But it should also factor in—and this is a far from comprehensive list—the rise of Wahhabism and other fundamentalist sects much further to the west; the Mujahedin in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal; Bin Laden and AQ; their bloody work; the whole idiotic enterprise of the GWoT; networks like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan; the Afghan training camps (where let’s not forget there were many Uyghurs); the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; and the Arab Spring in more recent years. It has to look critically at the WUC and the pared-down, simplistic narrative it’s managed to sell, and on and on.
It’s depressing that instead people are quibbling over how well organized ETIM is, with some even denying that any organizations like it exist at all. Or they quibble over whether scare-quotes should be used with the word terrorism. (Yes, I’ve been quibbling over that, but I think it’s important: Like many people, I find that the word’s been badly abused, mostly at the hands of the Bush 43 Administration, and is deeply problematic, but dropping our use of it now, or deploying it only with the scare-quotes, is too loaded a statement and sends very wrong messages).
But to my main point: Yes, let’s talk about the underlying problems. But let’s not for a second believe that if only the Chinese would be nicer all the nasty, violent radicalism would just disappear.
This post was originally published on Kaiser Kuo’s Facebook page on 3/3/14. It received so much attention that we reached out to Kaiser for a repost on ExSE. This is posted with the permission of the author. Comments and discussion welcome.