Uighurs Should Develop Tolerance in Chinese Lands

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By Chris Devonshire-Ellis

Jul. 29 – China is a multi-faceted nation with some 55 officially recognized, non-Han minorities and banknotes that depict six separate languages so the potential for conflict is always simmering just beneath the surface. Nowhere is this more starkly demonstrated than in Tibet and Xinjiang. Yet Xinjiang is not really the sole reserve of the Uighur anymore than it is the Han Chinese.

Oft described as the indigenous inhabitants, a closer look at history and study of the background to the Silk Road reveal a far more complex background to Xinjiang than that of a Uighur people merely displaced by the Han. Comparisons between Tibetan and the Uighur people are flawed.

The area now known as Xinjiang has had a checkered history, and it is an area which I have traveled extensively. Found at the far eastern edge of Central Asia, it comprises of massive and almost ungovernable mountain ranges and some of the world’s most inhospitable deserts. Crossed at three points by the Silk Road, the area was long the preserve of the hardy, the foolishly brave and the dangerous. Caravans traveling this region were regularly plundered and passengers killed. It is no surprise then that the grottoes at Dunhuang and Bizeklik are studded with religious motifs, carvings and prayers. These were the last refuge for travelers to lay down their souls before their God and many would not live beyond such havens to see their trading profits realized.

It is into this region that Chinese armies tried to maintain law and order. The fact that they were not always successful shows the amount of banditry that Xinjiang possessed over the decades. Warlords sometimes from Central Asia, sometimes from Tibet or Russian tribes would massacre, and rob from the various trading towns, settlements and caravans bold enough to take their chances. It’s a situation that to some extent is still played out today, albeit under tighter Chinese military control. But what of the Uighur?

A Muslim Turkic ethnic group, the Uighurs have a partially nomadic identity that has become forged over the years. However, they tend to be fiercely tribal, even within the confines of Islam, making them successively unpopular. Islam is a tolerant faith and is a religion without borders- stretching from Spain to Eastern Asia. Yet even within Islam, the Uyghurs have historically proved troublesome. That is not to say the same is true today. Their self–imposed Muslim insularity has seen them dispossessed across Central Asia and pushed out from one country to the next, ever eastwards as their tribal beliefs became locally problematic.

An argumentative nature, a ban on marrying outsiders and a tendency towards banditry has seen the Uighurs across Central Asia ostracized and forcibly moved on. The legend of the Satanic verses of the Koran* in which early Christianity identified Islam’s lack of tolerance as an intellectual flaw, is well-illustrated within the Uighur culture.

I have witnessed these first hand in attempts to visit mosques in Xinjiang. I have almost invariably been refused, mainly on the grounds that I am a non-believer. This is a far cry from early Islam, whereby a mosque existed within the walls of St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, or in secular Turkey where I have never been refused entry to a mosque. The same is true of Kazakhstan and elsewhere in Central Asia. Only in Xinjiang have I been denied entry.

Photo from flickr user ulftomas under the creative commons licenseAdditionally, there is the matter of their harsh treatment of young Uighur women. The wailing and cries of a young girl, no more than 14 or 15, in a public square in Urumqi as she was forced to wear burqa and was now to be denied the previous pleasures of innocent childhood – the effective closeting away of a young girl who had just entered puberty – is a cruelty of the first order. As was demonstrated by the smashing plates and intense wailing I heard in a restaurant by a young woman when she was informed by her father that she was to marry a much older man and was not to see her own boyfriend again.

Such a practice usually used for a family’s advantage does not belong in the modern world. Yet it is still actively carried out by the Uighurs, especially those living in Urumqi. This is a shame, because elsewhere in China, Uighur traders and restaurateurs tend by far to be more friendly and open than their Urumqi-based counterparts.

Mao’s infamous comment, “All religion is poison,” made to the Dalai Lama on his visit to Beijing may not in fact have been a reference to Buddhism, but to Islam. Mao was intelligent, and must have been aware that Buddhism is not a religion per se. Yet problems with a clash of cultures between Islam, the Uighurs, and the Chinese state may well have served Mao to issue a warning to the Dalai Lama to control his senior clerics. In the event, the Dalai Lama was unable to, and ultimately left Tibet.

Mao subsequently closed Xinjiang’s mosques, in a move that only drove the religion underground, to a level that China found difficult to penetrate. Reopening in the 1980’s, however, the Uighurs may have gained some control back but an intolerance of other people when you are living in a land controlled by others is not such a smart way to attempt to push the community forward.

Stories of an independent homeland also ring false. A small part of Xinjiang, mainly the area around Kashgar and Khotan, declared independence in 1930 as the Islamic State of East Turkistan. It existed for just three months and during the period the Chinese army let a local warlord, Sabit Damolla, take the initiative.

10 liang banknote printed on mulberry bark from Xinjiang’s short-lived East Turkistan state (1933)  Damolla issued money printed on sack cloth and mulberry bark and issued it as currency to raise money for weapons until the Chinese promptly marched back in and had the ringleaders executed for their pains. A three month-old existence based on a Muslim warlord’s personal ambition is a somewhat flimsy claim to make when demanding an independent state on historic grounds.

China however has not been completely clear of failings when it comes to Xinjiang. While the Chinese secured the area and put up with the almost ungovernable situation on the far Western border, they have been guilty of oppression and asset stripping. Xinjiang’s natural resources were taken away from the province and used to develop other cities, thousands of miles away. It’s also ironic that Urumqi and Kashgar are in fact among Central Asia’s wealthiest cities, with a per average income four times of that found in Tashkent for example. Yet still not enough has been done to help integrate the Uighur population.

The literacy rate of Uighurs remains low. While China may well bear a lot of responsibility for the misplacement of Xinjiang’s wealth, the Uighur community should also grasp the reality and take steps to develop into a more modern world. The opportunity is there to extend dialogue with the Chinese and develop a more moderate branch of Islam, in which young women are allowed to grow up in a modern, multiracial society and not be kept locked away as soon as they begin menstruation.

A more tolerant approach to Islam too, which may attract Chinese followers much as Tibetan Buddhism is starting to do, may also help the faith flourish. Denying others access to understanding the nature of the Uighur culture, and imposing a 15th century mentality on their own people is not the way for the Uighur people to move forward. An embracing of a more tolerant attitude towards others may be an historic milestone for a Uighur community historically divorced from much of Central Asian society.

* It is this legend, said to have been created by Christians in the very early days of Islam to discredit the religion, that was used by the novelist Salman Rushdie as the premise for his novel “The Satanic Verses.” The legend, which has been noted since early times by Islamic historians, in the eyes of Christians, demonstrates a demonic intolerance that influences certain sections of Islam. Rushdie’s point was made when a fatwa in the form of an irrevocable death sentence imposed for blasphemy was made against him and publishers of the work by the Ayatollah Khomeni in 1989. For more information see here.

Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the founding partner of Dezan Shira & Associates and the publisher of China Briefing. He lived in China for 21 years and is now based in Mumbai.

Further reading:

The Silk Road – Bezeklik and Dunhuang

China’s Minority, Ethnic, Racism and Sensibility Issues