Book Review: The mystery of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement

Rumors, half-truths and on occasion downright lies make credible research on the Uyghur people of Xinjiang very difficult to conduct. The Chinese government keeps such a tight lid on information that the outside world is often left guessing at what is happening in the region.

The confusing and contradictory reports, often laced with political motivation, that do emerge from Xinjiang mean that a high degree of skepticism need be applied. The unrest that took place in Urumqi on July 5, 2009 is a case in point. Contending political perspectives have all offered versions of the events that day, but the only definitive conclusion is that the world will never know what happened.

This information gap is more than a pity. It not only does a disservice to academia and journalists, but more importantly, it also puts the outside world's perception of the Uyghur people largely in the hands of others.

So it is with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Scholars, activists and government officials working with limited or subjective evidence have all pondered questions on the organization that range from questioning its very existence to its capacity to conduct acts of terror. For academics such as George Washington University's Sean Roberts, available evidence to answer those questions is "murky"1. Roberts' counterpart at Georgetown University, James Millward, writing in 2004, states "the notion of an imminent terrorist threat in Xinjiang or from Uyghur groups is exaggerated"2.

However, for the Chinese government there is no question in the matter with the official media claiming "ETIM and other East Turkistan organizations have joined international terrorist forces to create violent terrorist incidents inside and outside of China for a long time"3.

In The ETIM, Reed and Raschke have compiled a comprehensive account of the known information on the ETIM from Chinese and American government sources, as well as from non-Chinese and Chinese media reports. The book also includes details gleaned from the ETIM's, predominately online, material, but Reed and Raschke only briefly touch on the existence debate in the book's introduction.

The brevity with which the authors deal with the existence question may be representative of the dearth of credible information surrounding alleged Uyghur terror organizations; however, the existence question also contains the kernel of the geopolitical interests of the various actors that promote the notion of an organized Uyghur terror threat in China. Despite the authors' clarity in acknowledging the sources of their information, these geopolitical interests should make the authors ask more questions than they do of the available evidence from interested parties. In essence, the authors' could have explored their assertion that "the ETIM is a viable organization" with a more analytical and critical eye.

The authors' chronological list of incidents to chart the frequency and timing of violence in the region is a good example. The authors readily acknowledge the listing's reliance on Chinese reporting. However, and in one case particularly, further or contrary evidence is absent. In the 2008 Beijing Olympics period a series of attacks occurred in Xinjiang. One of these was a serious incident in Kashgar on August 4, 2008, which killed 16 people. The authors attribute this attack to the ETIM, but do not mention evidence4 presented by New York Times reporter, Edward Wong, that is at odds with the Chinese government version. While the veracity of the New York Times' evidence should be thoroughly questioned too, it is important to present to give a fuller picture.

Reed and Raschke concisely, but prominently, document the issues of cultural and economic marginalization facing the Uyghur that provide a context to the contentious politics in the region, and examine how the Chinese government has exploited the "war on terror" to justify the general repression of the Uyghur populace. These are key points to outline in understanding the patterns of dissent and political control in Xinjiang. The ETIM clearly illustrates how China conflates Uyghur opposition to state policy with terrorism when expedient, as well as China's struggles in handling genuine concern over internal security issues.

Fieldwork by overseas scholars on even the most benign of issues affecting the Uyghur is difficult to undertake in Xinjiang, and on security issues it is virtually impossible. Limited to secondary sources, Reed and Raschke are restricted in offering a perspective from the Uyghur people in Xinjiang on alleged Uyghur terror groups, such as grassroots depth of awareness of such organizations to concerns over Chinese counterterrorism measures. The absence of Uyghur perspectives is troubling; however, evidence from the Uyghur Diaspora organizations may have opened up a deeper understanding on these issues.

What emerges from The ETIM is that essentially not much is known about the organization. If it exists, its operational strength is unclear. If it existed at one time, its self-alleged attacks, contrary to Chinese reports, seem unsophisticated. If it never existed, the plausibility that it forms part of an elaborate fiction to repress Uyghurs is untested. All of these questions remain unanswered.

What does remain after all the evidence has been presented and analyzed is the lamentable situation that innocent lives have been lost, and that the Uyghur people continue to be voiceless in issues of their concern.

Henryk Szadziewski is Manager of Uyghur Human Rights Project in Washington, DC

1. See: Lambs to the Slaughter: What is the East Turkistan Islamic Movement and is it really a Terrorist Threat at the Olympics?

2. See: Violent Separatism in Xinjiang: A Critical Assessment

3. See: China Appreciates US Decision to Put ETIM on Terror List

4. See: Doubt Arises in Account of an Attack in China