Is Separatism Terrorism?

What is the difference between separatism and terrorism and why is it important for governments to understand this?


Several mosques in riot-hit Urumqi opened for Friday prayers after boisterous crowds gathered outside, despite notices posted earlier saying they would be closed in the wake of ethnic violence that left 156 dead. Credit: AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko

A tide of global separatism seems ravaging in every country.

Whether in democracies such as the United Kingdom, Canada, India and Spain, or in authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia, this fanaticism is gaining supporters.

While separatism is frequently misunderstood, the diversified nature of separatism gives us a chance to examine the difference between separatism and terrorism, which the later could be categorized as an abhorrent act of violence that is perceived as directed against society, and the former is not necessarily using violence to disrupt life.

As separatism evolves into different kinds of organization, some of them, such as Parti Québécois, are becoming a political party playing the game under the existing system. However, others such as the East Turkestan Independent Movement, adopt violence to oppose the Chinese government.

It is hard to admit that the the majority of separatist movements are more likely to become terrorists or even extremists. This is not only because their voices are often intentionally ignored by the incumbent power-holder, but also because there is no clear blueprint for separatist leaders to persuade their compatriots to change.

Therefore, resorting to violence appears to be their only option. Separatism does not necessarily transform into terrorism, unless those dissidents are unable to give their voice to the government through legitimate measures or they are oppressed by the authorities by using discriminative measures.

The assertion that separatism is equal to the terrorism is not justifiable, because their nature is distinct from the beginning. While they both strive for attracting the attentions from society and media, separatists’ ultimate goal is to achieve autonomy independence.

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Three factors may contribute to a rise in separatist movements: ethnic conflict, religious discord and dominant culture bullying.

For example, in Xinjiang, Uyghurs constitute the largest ethnic group while more and more Han Chinese are forming their society in the Northwestern part of China. Ethnic tensions between the Uyghurs and Han is the first reason separatism can be established in Xinjiang, where traditionally the province is controlled by Uyghurs, who have a distinct cultural background, linguistic system, and living style compared to the the majority Han Chinese population.

Second, religion makes the Muslim Uyghurs more distinct from the Buddhist Hans. Third, in 1955, the Chinese Communism Party controlled the Northwest, and Xinjiang became a part of China. Since then, Beijing has adopted a series policies of Siniziation, which is sort of ethnic-based discrimination policies that Uyghurs resent as they believe that they are biased in favor of Hans and work at the expense of the indigenous population.

In the past decade, although the independent movement in Xinjiang became more violent, the Chinese government did not make any concessions. This is in part because if Beijing granted greater freedom to the Uyghurs, Taiwan, Tibet and Hong Kong may be emboldened to pursue their grievances against China in a more direct way.

With respect, empathy, and understanding, you can realize that separatism is not equal to the terrorism. To set up proper negotiations to the minority seems a bit idealist; however, it is the only solution to avoid conflict and violence.

Hsiang-en Huang is pursuing a Master’s degree in the Department of Politics at New York University with a concentration in International Affairs. Read other articles by Hsiang-en.