Which begged the question: who are the Uyghurs, and why should we care about them?
The Uyghurs are a group of ethnically Turkish people who live in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China. The region became automomous in 1955 and has long been pressing for complete autonomy, by means of a sovereign state called Uyghurstan, or East Turkistan.
Round faced, pale-skinned and dark-haired; as I look at pictures taken in and around Uyghur, the people share a slight resemblance to the ethnic Hazara minority of Afghanistan, who are descended from the ancient Mongolians. (An interesting note: the movie The Kite Runner, set in Afghanistan, was actually filmed in Kashgar!)
And as I read more about Xinjiang, I realize that it’s a fairly large place for something so off our mental radars. Xinjiang is about similar in size to Iran, and it is one sixth the size of China’s total territory. It houses about 19.6 million people, which is about eight times more than Toronto’s population. The capital (an industrial city) is Ürümqi, and the region borders India to the South, Mongolia to the east, Russia to the north, and Kazakhstan, Afghanistan and Pakistan to the west.
Xinjiang is home to Kashgar, an important and ancient oasis city that was once a hub on the famous ancient Silk Road; the vast network of trade routes connecting East, South & Western Asia to the Mediterranean, Africa & Europe. This road was extremely crucial to the rise of many military empires, including the Islamic one.
The Uyghur people were once rulers of a vast empire that stretched from the Caspian to Manchuria, from 745 to 840 CE. The Empire was eventually overrun by the Kirghiz, another Turkic people, and the majority of the tribal groups under the Empire migrated to what is now Xinjiang. Conversions to Islam began about a century later.
We should care then, beause Xinjiang is inextricably linked to Islamic history. Currently, it has commercial and economic ties with South Asia too (Kashgar’s sister city is Gilgit, Pakistan; near the Afghan border in the Northern Area). Historian George Michell writes in Kashgar: Oasis City on China’s Old Silk Road that Kashgar is the “best preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in Central Asia.” This makes it a tourist hotspot; attracting more than a million backpackers and Islamophiles per year.
The Old City is also home to the Id Kah Mosque, the largest mosque in China. Jum’aa prayers attract about 10,000 Muslims every week, and the mosque itself is able to house about ten thousand more than that still.
But the fate of the Uyghurs is uncertain, and has been for quite some time.
--> According to the Uyghur Human Rights Project, the Uyghur language is forbidden in schools. What is called a bilingual policy is really just a front for compulsory Chinese language education.
--> Chinese authorities have forbidden government employees from fasting during the month of Ramadan: any workers not found eating lunch face losing their jobs. In a statement to the Epoch Times, Dilxat Raxit, the World Uyghur Congress spokesman, said that cadres in Xinjiang were forced to sign “letters of responsibility” promising to avoid fasting and promising to rat out those who did.
-->Long beards and head scarves are also forbidden in government workplaces.
--> And the beautiful city of Kashgar is now being razed by the Chinese government which plans to replace the ancient, historical buildings with new ones. Preservationists are losing their minds at the idea that 85% of the old city is being demolished. The government says the Uighur residents are constantly consulted prior to decisions being made, but the 13,000 families being asked to move complain that they are simply given eviction notices. They are not even given enough compensation to cover the move to a new residence. The Chinese government claims to be undertaking this project to protect the Uyghurs from earthquakes common in the region. Old buildings are unable to withstand the pressure as well as the new ones in store. China has done this before with many ancient and unprotected sites in Beijing. But the residents are not convinced that Islamic culture will be protected when the city is rebuilt. They sense a more malicious plan to rid Xinjiang of its Islamic roots.
--> Uyghur children have been removed from their homes and sent to places in mainland China for education. Similarly, Han Chinese people, who comprise about 90% of China’s population are encouraged to live and work in Xinjiang, in an effort to distil the Uyghur concentration. The numbers of ethnic Han Chinese settlers in Xinjiang has risen from about half a million in 193 to 7.5 million in the year 2000.
It is not too difficult to liken the plight of the Uyghurs to that of the Aboriginals in 20th century Canada. In disproportionately high numbers, Aboriginal women were falsely deemed to be “mentally deficient” and forced into sterilization so they could not have offspring. Children were taken away from their communities and raised away from their families; not allowed to learn their language, their culture or their traditional skills of hunting and fishing. The result?: psychologically abused children who have been trained to think of themselves as “bad Indians”; not fit for the white world or the reserves.
The Chinese government is not motivated purely by race discrimination. If the Uyghurs continue their fight for separation, China stands to lose a huge chunk of land. Since the 9/11 attacks, Chinese authorities have been given more ammo against the Uyghurs. Their non-violent and violent separatist movements have been labelled dangerous terrorist campaigns. Many political leaders in Xinjiang have been jailed, and accused of being linked to Al-Qaeda.
The whole thing is getting very political. Though the Uyghurs have strong ties with the Turks, Ankara denied Kadeer a visa to enter the country. Clearly then, Naim is right: the Islamic community has remained totally silent. Though Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan calls the Uyghurs “brothers”, his actions prove otherwise.
The Chinese government responded swiftly to anything resembling Turkish defense of the Uyghurs. With veiled blackmail. On July 10, Global Times, an official Chinese press outlet, published an article by Mo Lingjiao titled "Turkey, another axis of evil!?" It read, if Turkey “does not want to ruin the relationship between two peoples, please stop standing behind those mobs and separatists...
”Naim’s point is clear: China is an up-and-coming superpower. They are able to influence and affect politics with simple veiled blackmail. A rising industrial power, they are quickly partnering with many of the more sketchy Islamic countries around the world. Iran – another country you would have expected outcry from – has also stayed mum on the issue, because they have strong economic ties with China. Since China is basically America’s banker and money lender, even the US is careful about not indulging in too much China-bashing. And besides, the United States has shown a clear willingness and ability to ignore violations of human rights that do not affect its self-interest in any clear way, so relationship with China or not, there would not likely be any constructive action from this power.
China is also a heavyweight because it has veto power in the United Nations Security Council. As one of the winners of World War II, it got this power as a victory prize, and will never let it go. (And who would?) But this can be frustrating: this means that any resolution passed against China vis à vis the Uyghurs, or against China’s trading partners has zero weight. I sometimes do Model UN Conferences and the person who plays Sudan in General Assemblies is always giddy with pleasure. Why? Even though the Sudanese authorities are accused of gross abuses against the people of Darfur, no resolution can be passed against Sudan. Why? China is Sudan’s chief economic partner and arms supplier. So long as China has its precious veto power, no crisis secretly funded by China can be stopped by any well-meaning international body.
So this article was meant to educate Muslims in Toronto about the Uighurs and about the crises that plague them. While Moises Naim was talking about Islamic governments, the regular Ummah (me and you) around the world has been largely silent too. Why? Because we haven’t a damned clue who the Uyghurs are. We’re mostly apolitical and apathetic; we just don’t care. And why should we? Its maths and sciences that are mandatory in schools; not politics and history. So this article ends on a melancholic note: even if we now know more about the Uyghurs, can we do anything about it?
Last week, Hufsa Akbar wrote it true and wrote it best: “Politics: Oh how I deeply despise thee.”