A little more than a week ago, Islamic State — actually, let’s call them Da’esh, because they hate it — finally unleashed its propaganda machine on China, a month after a Chinese citizen was executed by militants in Syria.
It came in the form of a song presented by Al Hayat Media Center, the propaganda arm Da’esh established in May 2014.
Some call their productions slick and sophisticated. There’s something to that claim — after all, they’re using social media in ways unseen before with other terror groups, perhaps because they have managed to attract a heavy foreign element to join their ranks.
Angry millennials who understand the reach of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram now also wield Kalashnikovs while high on Captagon, the poor man’s meth. But that doesn’t hide the fact that Al Hayat is an ugly collective of brainwashed zealots whose media production skills are mediocre.
Yet their content reaches its intended audience. In this song’s case, singers perform a chant song — called a nasheed — in Putonghua that calls for Chinese Muslims to “wake up” and “take up weapons and fight”. They bring up “a century of slavery, leaving that shameful memory”.
Heavy-handed as it may be, it’s impossible to ignore the parallels in language with the Chinese national anthem and buzzy phrases repeated ad nauseam by state media.
Al Hayat has previously featured an 80-year-old man who left China to fight alongside jihadis in Syria.
Muhammed Amin, an Uyghur from Xinjiang, apparently uprooted his family after he saw a video of his son dying in battle in Syria and made the journey to what may be the world’s most discussed war zone. In Al Hayat’s fluff piece, he claims to have completed training but hasn’t received permission to engage the enemy in battle.
China has a testy relationship with its Muslim population, particularly the Uyghur minority.
The CIA World Factbook says 1.8 percent of the country’s population are adherents of Islam. That’s over 24 million people, of which 40 percent are Uyghurs from Xinjiang.
The Han-Uyghur conflict isn’t so much about religion. It’s about identity, heritage, and what it means to be an oppressed minority. It’s a struggle for dignity and independence.
Beijing says Uyghur separatist groups have conducted multiple terror attacks on Chinese soil. 2014 was a particularly bloody year: in March, knife attacks in Kunming killed 29 and injured 140; in April, a knife attack and two suicide bombings took place in Urumqi’s South Railway Station, killing three and injuring 79; in May, five men lobbed bombs into a busy market to kill 43 and injure 90.
It isn’t a major leap to see how the successful land grabs by Da’esh in Syria may attract the most extreme elements of Xinjiang to join their ranks, or at least be inspired to put their twisted ideas into practice without actual support from Da’esh itself.
It is also easy to see why Beijing might be concerned about this propaganda move by Da’esh.
The danger of Da’esh, aside from the immediate threat to civilians still trapped in Syria, lies in the inspiration it leaves on the internet. Its sleazy, grotesque videos of beheadings or “military” training are meant to suck in a specific type of individual — angry, hateful, maybe even a little inferior.
We may watch Muhammed Amin’s interview and declare it absolutely absurd that an octogenarian would think he could brave the Syrian battlefield. But a zealot, with a disturbed mind that sees little beyond the haze of hate, may see a true believer, someone he hopes to match in aggression and determination. High-definition video makes the message even clearer.
After Paris was hit last month, Da’esh claimed responsibility.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China is also a victim of terrorism. He suggested that the Uyghur “threat” needs to be seen as part of the global war on terror. (Never mind that China doesn’t seem to have participated in international anti-terror efforts in meaningful ways.)
Of course, the overwhelming majority of Uyghurs from Xinjiang don’t harbor radical views in line with those of Da’esh or even those of the extremists within their own society. Plenty migrate to work in Han-dominated areas within China, even if it means dealing with racial prejudice every single day.
The truth is Beijing fails to distinguish true terrorists from political activists and applies the same brutal methods to both. That attitude only adds pressure to the Xinjiang pot.
Does that mean Al Hayat’s Putonghua nasheed will be effective in any way?
Unlikely, but it was, at least, a shot across the bow.
IS urges Chinese Muslims to ‘wake up’ in new Mandarin chant (Dec. 9, 2015)
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