Unrest in China’s far western region, known as Xinjiang, should not come as a surprise. The communist authorities maintain intense and unrelenting pressure on Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority group. Over the past week, the violence that has killed at least 156 and injured hundreds more came after the ethnically motivated murder of two Uighur migrant workers late last month. Communist Party control of the media makes it difficult to know what actually happened when initially peaceful protests became riots. Chinese authorities have arrested hundreds, sent in troops and begun a propaganda campaign against the Uighurs. While majority Han Chinese have been photographed armed with baseball bats, axes and pipes, government control of the media ensures that most Chinese will absorb official propaganda depicting Uighurs as terrorists.
Most Chinese and Andy McCarthy, it seems.
Comparisons to the uprising in Tibet last year seem apt. In Tibet, peaceful protests by monks were met with force, and demonstrations proliferated throughout the region. Like the Tibetans, Uighurs experience harsh repression of their religion and language. Like those of the Tibetans, Uighurs’ efforts at asserting their identity are smeared as subversive by Chinese authorities and used as justification for further repression.
The task of supporting Uighurs has become more difficult than it should be. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, China capitalized on the American desire for cooperation in fighting terrorism — and general suspicion of Muslims. The State Department’s designation of the small East Turkestan Independence Movement as a terrorist organization was derided by human rights activists, who saw the danger of approving a freer Chinese hand, as well as scholarly experts on Xinjiang. Moreover, the detention of fewer than two dozen Uighurs at Guantanamo Bay dominates American perceptions of this ethnic group. Testimony before Guantanamo review panels and press interviews have indicated that the detained Uighurs were focused on China, not the United States, and most were cleared for release in 2003. Nevertheless, their cases, and the domestic political battle over closing Guantanamo, have unfairly stigmatized all Uighurs.
COUGH COUGH COUGH.
Moreover, the Communist Party’s religious policies, along with a reaction to non-Muslim rule that scholars have noted in many countries, have led to a growing role for Islam in Uighur nationalism.
It is in America’s interest to cultivate democratic, secular political thinking among Uighurs no less than among Iraqis or other Muslim populations.