Amnesty International recently issued an extensive report on the policies of the Chinese government towards the Uighur minority in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR). The 24-page document details the various legislative provisions recently introduced into Chinese law with a view to curbing "terrorist, separatist and illegal religious activities." Loosely translated, China is attempting to create domestic legal sanctions for the post-September 11th crackdown on Muslims and Islam in XUAR.
By no means is a Chinese crackdown on organized religion unique; China has a long-standing antagonism towards religion, as evidenced by the highly publicized crack down on the Falun Gong sect a few years back, and the ongoing persecution of the Tibetans. However, unlike Falun Gong, Uighurs are not exceptionally popular in the West, and unlike the Buddhists of Tibet, have no charismatic leader in exile or celebrity converts in Hollywood to rally to their cause.
The report, however, is a poignant reminder of a persecuted Muslim community that has been ignored far too long.
A note on names: Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is the name given to Eastern Turkistan by the Chinese government, and is the cause of much resentment; Xinjiang is Chinese for "New Dominion," or "New Frontier," a legacy of their former Manchu rulers, who invaded Eastern Turkistan in 1759 and incorporated it into China. The reference, understandably, does not go down well with Uighur nationalists.
One feels the need to stress that, while this article focuses on Eastern Turkistan and the Uighur population thereof, this is in no way meant to denigrate or disregard the suffering of countless other Muslims at the hands of the Chinese government.
The Uighurs are not the only Muslims in China; the Hui Muslims are also a recognized minority of several millions, and minorities of Tajiks, Kyrgyz, and Kazakhs are to be found in Xinjiang. Two percent of China's population is Muslim; a deceptively small statistic until one realizes the reference is to a country with a population of 1.2 billion, leading to a total of 24 million. The Uighurs, however, are distinct for various reasons.
Ethnically, the Uighurs are a Turkic people, their language being part of the larger Altaic family. Since their adoption of Islam in the 10th century, during the reign of the Karakhanid kings, the Uighurs used Arabic script until the Chinese forced them to adopt a new Latin-based alphabet. Eventually, the Uighurs were allowed, in one of the Chinese government's parsimonious concessions to their "national" minorities, to return to their Arabic script in 1983.
Historically, the Uighurs have a rich and distinct history, a fact official Chinese propaganda has long sought to bury. The Manchu rule of Eastern Turkistan was violently opposed by the Uighurs until they were successfully expelled in 1862. Independence was short-lived, however, with the Manchu reoccupying the land in 1876, and annexing it proper in 1884. Resistance to Chinese rule continued, regardless of whether the rulers were the Imperial Manchu dynasty or the Kuomintang nationalist government, culminating in the establishment of two republics in the 20th century, one of which was crushed with the assistance of Soviet troops in 1934. The second and more important state was the Eastern Turkistan Republic (ETR) established on November 12th, 1944. Coming under intense pressure from both the Kuomintang and the Communists, the leaders of the ETR accepted an invitation to Beijing for negotiations. Their plane never arrived at Beijing. It was announced months later that it had crashed en route in the Soviet Union. In October of 1949, People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops marched into the Eastern Turkistan Republic, effectively ending the ETR.
Though lasting only five years before coming under the occupation of Mao Zedong's PLA troops, the creation of the Republic was an epic moment for the Uighurs, the memory of which is cherished and marked by Uighur nationalists to this day.
Mao's Cultural Revolution was a period of terrible suffering for the Uighurs. Religion was identified as a "bourgeois" conception and therefore bore the brunt of the Red Army's wrath. A Human Rights Watch report, "Xinjiang, China's Restive Northwest" tells of how the Uighurs were forced to breed pigs, and mosques were shut down and occasionally used as pork warehouses, to add terrible insult to devastating injury.
Fast-forward a few decades. An aggressive population transfer policy has seen the rapid growth of the Han community in XUAR, from an original 6% in 1949 to 40% in 1978, and has effectively made the Uighurs second-class citizens in their country, discriminated against in both employment and education.
Animosity is rife between the Uighurs and the Hans; one reporter relates asking a group of Han children gathered near a statue of Chinese revolutionary Wang Zhen why he was considered a hero. The answer: "Because he killed many Uighurs." Such a response from a ten year old is perhaps somewhat indicative of the feelings of the Han colonialists toward the indigenous Uighurs.
Tensions are also exacerbated by the fact that Han enterprises exercise a monopoly on most of the area's scarce resources. All this, coupled with the obvious hatred and disdain the Chinese feel towards the Uighurs and their religion, mean that it comes as no surprise that some Uighurs have concluded that armed resistance is the only option available.
Violent opposition to Chinese rule in East Turkistan is sporadic; occasional bombings or shootings take place and are met with a terrible fury. Every so often, reports are issued about the arrest, trial and execution of "terrorists" or "ethnic splittists" as the Chinese insist on calling them. Even peaceful protests are met with excessive force.
On one notable occasion in 1997, the town of Ghulja was brought to a halt by large-scale Uighur demonstrations in Ramadan; in response, the Chinese government sealed off the town, imposed a press black-out, and proceeded to viciously quell the protests. The official count suggested 10 deaths and 198 injured, and 500 arrests, according to Human Rights Watch. Uighur sources insist the numbers were many times higher. A similar situation occurred in the town of Baren, where an alleged armed insurgency was quelled with military forces, reportedly leaving dozens, if not hundreds dead.
The Human Rights Watch report is also particularly illuminating. The report describes the various forms of repression and persecution suffered by the Muslims of Eastern Turkistan under Chinese rule.
It is particularly painful to hear of the draconian measures utilized by the Chinese to stamp out any manifestations of religious sentiment among the Uighurs in the aftermath of September 11. Examples of this are plentiful in Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the U.S. Department of State's reports. These include but are not limited to nighttime patrols of student dormitories to ensure no prayers are taking place, the banning of fasting during Ramadan, outlawing of Qur'an study meetings and religious schools, the curbing of mosque building, the identification and surveillance of religious leaders, and the banning of history books that do not conform to the "accepted" version of history. There is also the ominous-sounding "political education" that Imams are subjected to. One is led to understand this consists of extensive indoctrination to, as it was put, provide them with "a clearer understanding of the Party's ethnic and religious policies."
Eastern Turkistan is also home to the Lop Nur desert, the Chinese nuclear test grounds in the south of XUAR. China was, relatively speaking, one of the most aggressive states in terms of nuclear weapons acquisition policy, testing its first hydrogen bomb 32 months after its first fission bomb test. The fallout from these tests has resulted in the wide-scale contamination of water sources and land, in turn resulting in a disproportionately large number of cancer cases, congenital birth defects, and various other related diseases among the Uighur population.
All the above, combined with China's notoriously repressive birth control policies (including but not limited to forced abortions), would seem to suggest to the observer that Eastern Turkistan is one of the worst places in the world to be a Muslim right now. In the context of the ongoing global war on Islam, that says something.
It is of little surprise that China, like so many other countries, has chosen to take advantage of September 11th to further its own political agenda and silence - ruthlessly so- internal dissent. All recent human rights reports point to a drastic escalation of persecution and repression against the Uighur minority. UN High Commissioner Mary Robinson expressed her concern over the treatment of the Uighurs in a November visit to China. The Chinese government, predictably, responded that "terrorism," that ephemeral and much-abused term, is an infringement of human rights and is a threat to international peace and security. Case closed.
The question that inevitably comes to mind upon reading of such terrible persecution is: What can we do about it? Islamically, we are obliged to keep track of conditions of Muslim communities around the globe, particularly when said communities are the target of state-sponsored terror and persecution, numerous as they have become. However, our abilities and efficacy vary substantially depending, sadly enough, on location.
Here in the Arab world, our role is substantially limited by a government blatantly antagonistic to the concept of pan-Islamism or even just plain old concern for fellow Muslims, going so far as to arrest and try people who collect money for Chechnya or similar causes. It also virtually impossible to seek to influence government policy in any sense, due to the autocratic nature of the regimes.
Muslims in most places in the West, on the other hand, have more flexibility with regards to issues of this type. The minimum we can set out to do is seek to be aware of the situation in East Turkistan. Those who can should attempt to raise others' awareness of the situation by any means possible, whether by a simple talk, or by trying to get something published in a local or campus paper. In this regard, The Uyghur Human Rights Coalition has compiled a small, yet comprehensive list on how one can contribute to the support of the Uighurs. While the list is tailored for a Western audience, a number of the suggestions can be undertaken by Muslims anywhere.
In that regard, I would urge readers to explore and bookmark the links in this article, as a gateway to information on the plight of the Uighurs in China.
To conclude, one need not point out that we as Muslims are having our identity systematically erased. One minor way to counter this purposeful erasure is to ensure a consistent and dedicated effort to maintain and cultivate links to and an awareness of the larger community of Muslims around us.
We can longer afford to disregard Islam outside our borders. Where possible, we must aggressively lobby the media and the government to bring these issues to the forefront of domestic and international attention, not so much for the benefit of the Western audience, but rather for the benefit of the uninformed amongst us Muslims. And while it is only natural that the question of Palestine will be more central to many of us, we cannot allow it to completely overshadow the suffering of Muslims elsewhere, who have for years suffered in silence.