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China Letter-News and Human Rights

China human rights news with focus on the Uygur of Xinjiang, Tibetans and Tibet, Chinese mining workers, religion, corruption and censorship.

Monday, May 03, 2004

Islam on the ropes In Xinjiang?

Uygur kids in front of the Id Kah Islamic Mosque in Kashgar Xinjiang "Now, the traditional identity of the Muslims is under siege. Their historic streets are being demolished to make room for Chinese shopping malls. Their language and culture are eroding under a tide of newcomers from China's Han majority. Hundreds of mosques still survive, but they are tightly controlled and monitored. Thousands of Muslims have been arrested as suspected terrorists, and hundreds have been executed."

An excerpt from an excellent article looking at the current situation of the Uygur of Xinjiang and particularly Kashgar and the effects of Chinese policy on their culture and religion.

As the author rightly points out that "Here, however, Islam has collided with the ruthless methods of the world's biggest Communist state -- and the state is winning."

But it is a little unfortunate that the author puts such a major emphasise on the religious aspects of the Uygur’s plight. What is happening in Xinjiang is the death of a culture. Culture is described in dictionaries as the customs and civilisation of a particular people, religion being but one component.

It is true that the Uygur are a Muslim people and it is true that their practice of religion is being heavily oppressed by Chinese policy. But the Uygur deserve to be viewed for more than just being a Muslim people, the "restive Muslims of Xinjiang" as they are so often portrayed in the media.

Long before progressively converting to Islam between the 10th and 15th centuries the Uygur practised a variety of religions from Shamanism to Manachaeism to Buddhism. At one stage Kashgar was recognised as one of the major centres of Buddhist learning in the world and the Uygur one of the religions great champions and adherents. Christianity too has even had an influence on the culture and history of the Uygur people.

Being once a mighty empire in Central Asia, mentors to Mongol Khans and living at the hub of the "Silk Routes" linking the cultures of east and west the Uygur have absorbed a variety of influences that makes them unique among the world's Muslim peoples.

Perhaps to say that this mix of historic influences has produced a hybrid of Islam may be going a little too far but it certainly has made for a very moderate form of a religion that is known more for its extremism than its temperance, especially of late.

I think it is fair to acknowledge however that religion and language are two important determinants of any culture. To attack either or both will erode a culture and eventually destroy it. The Chinese have recognised this and the Chinese Communist government has targeted these two elements in their policy with the Uygur.

It has often been said to me, and it is something the Chinese push, that Chinese policy in Xinjiang as it concerns the Uygur is not about "cultural genocide". To a degree I would agree. What the Chinese have done in Xinjiang especially as it concerns "racial flooding" was not done with the sole reason of destroying the culture and ethnicity of the Uygur people. Too many Uygurs believe this and wrongly so. The prime motivation in promoting Han migration to Xinjiang was and is strategic. It was actively encouraged to protect China's borders. The situation in Tibet is similar with Han migration to that area, Tibet unlike Xinjiang offers no economic pot of gold. Having said that Han policy in Xinjiang toward the Uygur is chauvinistic at best and racist at worst.

The quote from the article, to wit "The Uighur people are wild and rude," an army general explains during a flight to Xinjiang. "But in the future the Uighurs will be like the Manchus, assimilated by the Chinese, because the Chinese culture is much stronger." is not an isolated sentiment. It is one held by a large proportion of Chinese from illiterates to educated people and one I believe has been held firmly by the powers in the CCP since their takeover of Xinjiang in 1949.

I have no doubts that it is the aim of the Chinese to assimilate the Uygur totally into the great “Han oneness”. But that is not so easy in these days of China’s opening up, in these days of the “New China” They can not be as overt as they once could have been. International scrutiny is now a given and the home of the 2008 Olympics can not afford bad press.

That is one reason that the Chinese happily enlisted in the “war on terrorism” It has provided them with a perfect excuse to treat the "Muslim Uygurs" in a manner to achieve the objective that would have brought international condemnation elsewise.

Professor Colin Mackerras, a China and Xinjiang expert from Australia’s Griffith University, rightly points out that what the Chinese have visited upon the Uygurs is worse than what they have done with the Tibetans,. But the Tibetans are Buddhists and as Buddhists do not have an internationally recognised proclivity to violence and it is harder to lump them into the terrorist basket as the Chinese have successfully done with the Uygur (though they have tried). As such the Uygur’s plight has not received the same level of international attention. We have Tibetan Hunger strikers currently in New York getting more media attention than the thousands of Uygurs imprisoned or the hundreds executed in the last seven years for political “crimes”

We have to look past religion, we have to see the people. The music, the dance, the literature, the traditions the wonderful history., the architecture, the soul. The “whole” culture.

It is not only the deprivation of religious freedom or a case of “Islam on the ropes”. The Uygur are ”on the ropes”. Their bazaars and homes are being bulldozed, their right to wear the clothes they choose and affect the look that they favour, the right to have the number of children they wish. The right to learn and read and even speak in their own language. Their traditional agriculture.

Name any aspect of their unique culture, one so highly appreciated and respected by the likes Gengis Khan and the Tang dynasty, and it is under sustained attack by the Han Chinese. So far thank God and against all odds, the Uygur are holding out but for how long?

Look into the eyes of an Uygur child. Do you see a Muslim first? Do you see a terrorist in the making? Or do you just see a beautiful smiling child that has the God (be it Allah, Christ or whomever) given right to grow up in a culture that has carried his or her genes forward for two thousand plus years, through immense glory and now immense pain.

(P.S. The author mentions in the article the construction occuring outside the Id Kah mosque in Kashgar. This renovation of the square has been completed and it is fair to point out that the result is not disliked by the Uygurs I have spoken to.)

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The Globe and Mail; Islam on the Ropes: