In recent years, reports about the oppression of Muslims in unusual places such as the plight of Rohingya in Myanmar have filtered down to Western audiences. However, little is known about the brutal oppression the Uyghur Muslims face in the autonomous territory of northwest China named Xinjiang but known to the indigenous Uyghurs as East Turkestan.
Historical background of the Uyghurs
Uyghurs are predominately Turkic-speaking Sunni Muslims who live primarily in the autonomous region of East Turkestan (Xinjiang). Prior to Islam, the Uyghurs embraced Buddhism, Shamanism, and Manicheism.
Islam arrived in the region in the 10th century. Uyghurs embraced Islam in 934 during the Karahanid Kingdom. Kashgar, the capital of the Kingdom, quickly became one of the major learning centres of Islam.
During this time, the Islamic institutions enabled the society to flourish in the sciences and literature. In this period, hundreds of world-renowned Uyghur scholars emerged and thousands of valuable books were written. Among these works include the Uyghur scholar Yusuf Has Hajip’s book, The Knowledge for Happiness and Mahmud Kashgari’s dictionary of Turk languages.
The Islamic Uyghur Kingdom of East Turkestan maintained its independence and prosperity until the Manchu Empire invaded the nation in 1876.
After eight years of bloody war, the Manchu Empire formally annexed East Turkestan into its territories and renamed it “Xinjiang” (meaning “New Frontier”) on November 18, 1884.
After Chinese Nationalists overthrew the Manchu Empire in 1911, East Turkestan fell under the rule of the nationalist Chinese government.
The Uyghurs, who wanted to free themselves from foreign domination, staged numerous uprisings against Nationalist Chinese rule – once in 1933 and again in 1944. They eventually succeeded in setting up an independent East Turkestan Republic.
The Uyghur Muslims have little desire to assimilate into Han society due to their strong attachment to Islamic values and culture which are at odd against the atheistic, Chinese culture. Their reluctance to do so is met with reactions ranging from chauvinism to claims of ingratitude by the Han elite.
The Geopolitics of East Turkestan
The reason why the Chinese Government maintains a pervasive system of ethnic discrimination against the Uyghur Muslims, is because of the geopolitical importance of Xinjiang.
Xinjiang is one of China’s ethnic “autonomous” regions where China has critical strategic issues at stake. The province, like Tibet, is one of the vast buffer zones shielding the core of China from an invasion by foreign hordes.
Xinjiang also has long served as a key route for Chinese commerce via the Silk Road. Throughout Chinese history, various dynasties sought to maintain a grip over the cities linking China to Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
China defended these routes from the Mongols in the north, the Central Asians and even the Tibetans. These trade routes, were so useful in supplying China with anything it could not find or produce at home.
These Western land routes were so vibrant that there just wasn’t a pressing economic need for a major naval presence. But as China entered the modern era, the Silk Road routes faded as sea commerce became the dominant form of economic intercourse with the world.
From the foreign treaty ports to the booming coastal cities like Shanghai and Qingdao or manufacturing hubs in Guangdong, China now looks more and more to the seas for its economic lifelines.
But the U.S Domination over the seas leave China’s maritime trade routes vulnerable at a time when Beijing has grown more dependent upon these sea routes for vital commodities especially, energy and export markets. This had led Chinese strategists to look back to the old days, to the old Silk Road routes, as a way to preserve economic security.
Central Asia has vast energy resources, and the oil and natural gas doesn’t have to be loaded into tankers and shipped by sea. Instead, it is moved by pipeline in a steady flow to China’s booming coast. And the gateway to Central Asia is Xinjiang.
This reinforces Beijing’s perceived need to keep the Uighurs and other ethnic minorities under control. Beijing prevents these ethnic communities from attempting true autonomy or even secession, through a policy of internal migration.
During nearly six decades of annexation, China has pursued a policy of assimilation and changed the demographics of the region. China has moved the majority Han Chinese into these ethnic regions to dilute the population. These Han settlers are given economic incentives and dominate certain segments of the local economy and political machinery.
In 1950, the ethnic Han population accounted for only 5 percent of Xinjiang residents. That jumped to over 40 percent in 2009, including an influx to the Chinese paramilitary Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps. Compared to the Uighurs, there are now nearly as many Han, and in the capital Urumqi, Han outnumber Uighurs by nearly 3 to 1.
This reality has created its own tensions, as the Uighurs feel discriminated against in their own homeland. China has responded to this through the use of overwhelming force and political repression of the Uyghurs.
21st Century Concentration Camps
In recent years, there have been many reports of students, teachers, and civil servantshave been forbidden from fasting during Ramadan, forbidden from wearing their traditional dress and even keeping a beard.
As of 2017, the Uyghur language has been banned from schools and a religious crack-down has morphed into a total ban of Islam. In the last 12-18 months, China has put more than a million Uyghurs in re-education camps, where they are held without charge or any terms of release.
They have demolished thousands of mosques (almost 70 percent) in Kashgar city and confiscated religious books, including the Quran.
Beijing played the terrorism card against the Uyghurs by hijacking the 9/11 tragedy and conflating civil disobedience as terrorism.
The Uyghur homeland has become China’s springboard to Central Asia and beyond, and an obstacle to Chinese global expansion.
Uyghurs are seen as a barrier to Xi’s ambition. China requires the absolute silence of Uyghurs on their historic land to advance its plan. The current use of concentration campsas a tool of collective punishment of Uyghurs should be understood in this context.
With the rise of China as the expected superpower of the 21st century, such repressive policies against the Uyghur Muslims are likely to get worse. Muslims should play their role in supporting the Uyghur Muslims by raising their profile so that Muslims living in the West are aware of their situation.