On Uyghuristan

The Hipster’s Tibet

Lately, there’s been a fair amount of ink spilled regarding the resettlement of four Uyghur detainees from Guantanamo Bay’s Camp X-Ray to Bermuda.  While the usual right wingers are kicking up a load of ignorant hoo-hah about “letting terrorists go” (after all, “if they weren’t terrorists, what were they doing at Guantanamo Bay?” goes the specious reasoning: apparently, the bounty hunters of Central Asia have unimpeachable honesty), I for one am glad that these men have finally got their freedom.  What will happen to the remaining 13 Uyghurs remains to be seen, though the Pacific Island nation of Palau may be taking them. [Since writing this, the 13 remaining Uyghurs have indeed been accepted by Palau.]

The best thing about this story, however, is that it may finally bring East Turkestan (or Uyghuristan) to the attention of the West.  While the plight of Buddhist Tibet is well known and receives the requisite hippie support, the human rights situation of the Uyghurs is not well-known.  It doesn’t help, of course, that they practice Islam rather than the more fashionable Buddhism and that they don’t have a figurehead like the world’s most photogenic theocrat, the Dalai Lama.  However, this lack of attention makes Uyghuristan the perfect cause-célèbre for contrarian hipsters (hence, the glib sub-title).  Indeed, one could say that Uyghuristan is Animal Collective to Tibet’s Coldplay.

As many are unaware, Uyghurs are a Turkic speaking minority in the far west of China who practice Sufi Islam.  Contrary to what many in the media are saying, they are not “Chinese Muslims” (pseudo-journalist and noted military cartographer Geraldo Rivera weighed in with the suggestion that they be shipped to Taiwan ’cause, y’know, Taiwanese people are, like, Chinese or something, right?).  No, instead, Uyghurs are Muslim Turks whose homeland, though once independent, is now part of China.

Though their homeland is the ostensibly “Autonomous” Region of Xinjiang-Uyghur, ethnic Uyghurs are subject to various human rights abuses ranging from being forced to breed pigs and not being able to practice their religion to being the unwilling victims of nuclear testing.

See, China’s nuclear testing site is at Lop Nur, a group of salt lakes that for centuries nurtured various Silk Road civilizations.  A direct (and not necessarily unintended) consequence of this is that the Uyghur tribes who happen to live in the vicinity have ridiculously high cancer rates and other assorted illnesses as a result of radiated land, water, and food.  This has led some to label China’s nuclear testing an “undeclared nuclear war” against the Uyghurs.

While one could argue that these adverse effects are “limited” to the area around Lop Nur, throughout the Autonomous Region, basic human rights are virtually non-existent.  According to Human Rights Watch, Uyghurs in Xinjiang are subject to arbitrary arrest and even execution for any “unauthorized” expression of religion.  Uyghur students at state schools are prohibited from celebrating holidays, studying the Koran, and “showing one’s religion through personal appearance” — i.e. wearing a beard.

The concern, however, is not merely an issue of religious freedom, but rather one of cultural identity as the restrictions on Islam are one part of a larger effort to erase Uyghur culture.  The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization documents the coercive birth control rules for Uyghur women which contradicts the supposedly special considerations offered to China’s ethnic minorities (for example, in a town of 180,000, only 100 women were allowed to have children: a somewhat more draconian manifestation of China’s one-child policy).

Any books which question the official line are banned and Uyghur literature in general is severely limited by accusations that any expression of Uyghur culture is an advocation of separatism.  Nury A. Turkel, a lawyer and former president of the  Uyghur American Association described in the Wall Street Journal last year how “China regularly dubs Uyghur historians, poets and writers ‘intellectual terrorists’ and sends them to jail. In 2005, a young intellectual, Nurmemet Yasin, was sentenced to a decade in prison for writing an allegory likening the Uyghur predicament to that of a pigeon in a cage.”

The conflict is sadly crystallized in China’s plans for the historic Silk Road city  of Kashgar, a centre of Uyghur culture described by architect and historian George Michell as “the best-preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in central Asia.”  The old centre of the city, conspicuously absent from China’s proposal for UNESCO heritage status for its Silk Road cities, is in the process of being razed so that it can be replaced by beautiful concrete apartment blocks.  Thirteen thousand Uyghur families will be forcibly relocated as a result.

Moreover, Uyghurs have now become almost a minority in their own homeland.  Under the auspices of Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (a sprawling, somewhat sinister, military organization that controls much of the area and its population and answers only to the central government in Beijing), millions of Han Chinese have been settled in the province.  While ethnic Han Chinese accounted for 6 per cent of East Turkestan’s population in 1949, they now constitute (at least) 40 per cent (a figure which does not include military personnel and undocumented workers).

This literal colonization goes along with a more insidious linguistic colonization of the Turkic Uyghur language itself.  As the UNPO states in their report on the region:

Today, Chinese authorities are pursuing a policy of systematic sinocization of the Uyghur language and literature. Until 1949, the literary language of the Uyghurs contained almost no Chinese words, whereas now, a large quantity of Chinese words has been introduced into the Uyghur vocabulary. In this regard, several thousands of already existing Uyghur words have been removed for reason such as “not favourable to the socialist construction”, “national unity” or for other seemingly political reasons.

Jesus H. Christ! Even O’Brien thinks that’s going too far.

It’s not surprising that such oppression has fuelled a separatist movement.   Although to be fair, China defends its harsh policies as a necessary bulwark against separatism, so there’s a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg thing going on here.  Anyway, in the wake of September 11th, China lobbied the United States to include one of the movement’s the more militant groups, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, to be included on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. Of course, much of the condemning information against the group comes from official Chinese sources leading to some questions about the group’s actual existence.  From an article in the Christian Science Monitor:

According to Dru Gladney, president of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College and a widely acknowledged authority on the Uighurs, few experts “had ever heard of” ETIM until after China began trumpeting the group as a threat. He also noted that the majority of information on ETIM “was traced back to Chinese sources,” providing for “a real credibility gap.”

To many experts, the inclusion of ETIM on the list of terrorist organizations was part of quid-pro-quo for Chinese support for the War on Terror.  After all, both powers ostensibly faced a monolithic common enemy in Radical Islam.  Yet, this oversimplifies the byzantine ethnic relations of Central Asia in to the childish rubric of goodies vs. baddies.  Indeed, many writers, such as the Washington Post’s John Pomfret, have observed that Uyghurs constitute the most pro-American and pro-Western group in the region.

It is therefore most unfortunate that the simplistic manichaeism of the War on Terror has slandered a resistance movement that, like its southern neighbour Tibet, deserves Western sentiment.  It is also unfortunate that the uninformed reporting of this issue in the media may thwart the opportunity to bring the oppression of the Uyghurs into mainstream consciousness.

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~ by Isaac Bickerstaff on June 20, 2009.

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