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August 26, 2009

Uighurs: The living history of a forgotten people

Javed Akbar

Javed AkbarUighurs have been in the news and on and off, but coverage is usually too brief to shed much light.

Not long ago when seventeen of the Uighur prisoners from Guantanamo were re-settled in Bermuda, and more recently when violence erupted in their homeland, cell-phone cameras and the internet offered a glimpse of their struggle which for the most part remains obscured.

Not many people know that China annexed what was once an independent East Turkestan in 1949.

The territory was renamed Xinjiang and made into a province, situated in the western deserts seen by China as integral parts of its own territory.

Long ago East Turkestan was an important passage for the Silk Road, where people travelled, lived and traded for centuries. Currently, Xinjiang’s importance for China hinges on its vast mineral and oil deposits.  “Its 21 million population”, according to Fu Ying, China’s ambassador to Britain: “with largest ethnic group of Uighurs (pronounced WEE- gerz) who account for 45.7%.”

Uighurs are predominantly Muslim and have cultural ties with Central Asia. 

In the West, little is heard about their plight as they struggle for an autonomous rule which China sees it as a threat to its unity. China labels Uighur protestors as separatists and terrorists.

China’s policy of transforming the demographic situation in the former East Turkestan is similar to its policy of moving vast numbers of mainland Chinese into Tibet. The government-encouraged flood of Han Chinese immigrants into Xinjiang has caused that element of the population to rise “from 5% in the 1940s to approximately 40% today”, according to the BBC.

This influx caused huge resentment among the indigenous population, as the Uighurs are now reduced to a minority in their homeland. The use of "Eastern Turkistan", (the traditional name for this region) is outlawed, along with the blue star-crescent Uighur flag.

In early July, police blocked worshippers from going to mosques all over the city of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.

Thousands of Uighur Muslims demanded access to their mosques, and the clashes between the Han Chinese and Uighurs, according to New York Times resulted in 197  killed and 1721 injured. These clashes between the ruling Han Chinese and Uighurs were the outcome of deep frustration and resentment felt by most Uighurs at Han’s domination, and have escalated to a new level. They parallel the conflicts that periodically rise to the surface between Han Chinese and Tibetans. Both these ethnic groups remain fundamentally different from the Han Chinese in terms of history, culture, language, religion and even physical appearance.  

Historically Islam gave the framework for countless social and political movements in East Turkestan since the region became Muslim in the 10th century. Islamic institutions have provided education, morality, community cohesion and political legitimacy.

There is little doubt that Islam is an integral part of Uighur life in Xinjiang. Today, even the most secular Uighur, who do not adhere at all strictly to Islamic law, identify strongly as Muslims.

Attending mosque on Fridays is just one of many popular Islamic traditions that the Uighurs consciously follow and that contribute to the solidarity they feel with each other.

Many Uighur groups meet to read and discuss Qur’an. This network of groups became very influential.  They were recognized as a force for positive social change, especially in addressing alcoholism and drug abuse.

But as inter-ethnic tensions rose, the government violently cracked down on these groups, calling them illegal separatist gatherings. Even the mosques were closed for a time during the crackdown.

It seems clear that the Chinese administration fears the unrivalled power of Islam in Xinjiang to bring people together.  Perhaps the administration now fears that its efforts to restrict the power and reach of Islam in Xinjiang have backfired, making Islam a stronger rival for the domination of public space.


Since September 11, 2001, China has worked to raise international fears of Uighur-related activism, interpreting the movement as part and parcel of international terrorism and linking its own counter-reaction to the Bush administration's so-called war on terror.

But many experts say China is exaggerating the danger posed by Uighur terrorists.

China expert Dru C. Gladney, professor of anthropology at the Pacific Basin Institute in Pomona, notes that many of the "terrorist incidents" that China attributes to ETIM (East Turkestan Islamic Movement) are actually "spontaneous and rather disorganized" forms of civil unrest.

Most experts say ETIM has no effective ties to al-Qaeda. In a 2008 report, Amnesty International has accused Chinese officials of using the war on terror to justify “harsh repression of ethnic Uighurs."

Last October, the US government suffered a withering court defeat of its claim that the Uighurs imprisoned in Guantanamo were "enemy combatants” and in June 2009 they were released from that notorious prison.

China demanded that the Uighurs be returned to China after their release. But the Obama administration, knowing that the Uighurs would be at risk of execution in China, asked other countries to accept them as refugees. Some were sent to Albania, some resettled in Bermuda, and the remaining thirteen were resettled in Palau.

This strategy of choosing small nations as hosts allowed larger countries with significant trade and other ties with China to avoid having to deal with the consequences of incurring China’s wrath.

Historian Andy Worthington, author of The Guantanamo Files, has interviewed attorney Jason Penny who has done important legal work for the Uighurs.

Worthington writes: “In 2002 and 2003, we (US) needed China's support to invade Iraq. In exchange for Chinese acquiescence in our war plans, we agreed, among other things, to label the Uighurs as terrorists and house them at Guantánamo…On August 26, 2002, the US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage met with senior Chinese officials in Beijing to discuss the invasion of Iraq and immediately afterwards announce[d] that [ETIM would] be placed on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations. The month after, Chinese interrogators arrived at Guantánamo.  In the history of our republic, I cannot think of another example where a Communist country was invited in to interrogate, unsupervised, prisoners in a United States detention facility.”

After a secret trial, Uighur rights activist Huseyincan Celil, a Canadian citizen, was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment in China. Canadian officials under pressure from the opposition and the media reluctantly and faintly tried to gain access to him, but so far in vain.

International Apathy

In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, protests in Tibet reaped international attention. But protests in Xinjiang, according to International Herald Tribune, went relatively unnoticed.

Because Tibet gets more global attention than Xinjiang, some reporters (e.g. on the al-Jazeera network) have referred to Xinjiang as China’s other Tibet.

International interest in Xinjiang is muted for a variety of reasons.

The Uighur community lacks an effective leader. For the Uighurs, their most prominent spokesperson is Rebiya Kadeer in Washington, who really doesn't have the infrastructure or the Nobel Prize that the Dalai Lama has.

In an article for The China Quarterly, Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch says that the Chinese government has succeeded in branding Uighur separatists as terrorists, which has reduced international sympathy for their mission. Amidst international apathy, most experts say the human rights situation in Xinjiang is likely to get worse before it gets better. There's no international pressure to change policy in Xinjiang right now, so why would China make any changes?

East Turkestan (Xinjiang) and Tibet are storehouses of mineral wealth to feed China's voracious economic appetite. Their fate reminds us that old- fashion colonialism is alive and well.

Neither the Uighurs nor the Tibetans have any realistic hope of independence. But if international understanding of their situation comes alive, they would have a better chance of persuading the Han to be more respectful of their rights and less invasive of their culture and identity.

Javed Akbar is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

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