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Uighurs: China’s Muslim Minority Claims to be Marginalized in Its Ancestral Homeland

The July 5th riot in China’s remote western province has brought attention to one of China’s largest minorities, Muslim Uighurs. Here’s a look at a people who have been living there for hundreds of years.

In the 6th century, Uighur-Turkic prince Aprin Chor Tigin wrote the following verse:
I desperately long for my woman.
With her lovely eyebrows, she is the fairest of all.
I yearn for a re-union.
Immersed in deepest thought, I miss her.
I burn with the desire to kiss her.

Prince Tigin lived and loved in Central Asia, a region where more than eight million Uighurs still make their home. In his time the Uighurs shared their kingdom with other Turkic peoples of Central Asia and Southern Siberia. But they were far more advanced than most because they lived along the Silk Road, which served as a major route of commercial, cultural and religious exchange throughout history.

At the turn of the 20th century, scientific and archaeological expeditions to East Turkistan led to the discovery of numerous Uighur cave temples, monastery ruins, wall paintings, miniatures, statues, valuable manuscripts, documents and books.

German explorer Albert von Lecoq said the medieval "Uighur language and script contributed to the enrichment of civilizations of the other peoples in Central Asia. Compared to the Europeans of that time, the Uighurs were far more advanced. Documents discovered in Eastern Turkistan prove that a Uighur farmer could write down a contract, using legal terminology. How many European farmers could have done that at that period?"

When the Uighurs embraced Islam in the 10th century, they started to build mosques, religious schools and libraries. Remnants of the medieval Islamic architecture can still be found in cities such as Kashgar, Urumqi, Turpan and Gaochang.

But in recent years, Uighurs have become better known as China's separatists, often labeled as terrorists. Even before this year’s riots in Xinjiang, the Chinese government had blamed various Uighur groups for 200 violent attacks in the past decade, including more than 160 deaths. Bejing says Uighur separatists are part of a network of international Islamic terrorism with funding from the Middle East, training in Pakistan and combat experience in Chechnya and Afghanistan. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, the United Nations added many separatist groups to its lists of terrorist organizations. Among them was the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, or ETIM. The United States has also labeled this mostly Uighur group as terrorist.

But Xinjiang separatists say China is using the international anti-terrorist campaign to justify its long-standing repression of non-Chinese minorities. Washington-based Uighur-American attorney and activist Nury Turkel says the Chinese government has consistently enforced cultural assimilation of Turkic people with the majority Han Chinese culture. “They are using all the possible tactics, such as banning the Uighur language, banning the Uighur names -- they come up with a Chinese version of the Uighur names -- encouraging the Chinese people to marry the local people,” he said. But he said the Uighurs have never been religious extremists and that most of them do not practice Islam.

Several human rights watch groups have condemned China's crackdown on Uighurs. In a recent statement, Amnesty International said the ethnic identity of Uighurs in western China is being systematically eroded. Earlier reports have said the crackdown on suspected terrorists includes restrictions on religious freedom, closure of mosques and enforced "political education" of academics, key personnel in the media and arts, and Islamic clergy.

But some analysts warn that even though the Uighurs' connection to international terrorism may be minimal, it has to be watched. Graham Fuller, former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council and one of the authors of a new study on China's Uighur Autonomous Region, says examples of Russia, Sri Lanka, Serbia and other countries with large ethnic minorities show that frustrated independence movements may resort to terrorist acts.

He says religion plays an increasing role in supporting these movements. "There is militant Judaism, even militant Buddhism in Sri Lanka. So we are witnessing the phenomenon of religion coming in and bolstering, if you will, ethnic minority. So political Islam is involved here. How much will political Islam become a dominant force in the Uighur struggle? Today it has been a lesser force, but I would bet that if the rest of the Muslim world is any indicator, Islam will be growing in its role in China, supporting and cheering this nationalist struggle," says Fuller.

China has made efforts to develop Xinjiang, fueling funds into industrialization, education and employment, but Uighurs say the Han Chinese have benefited the most from it. Frederick Starr, founder and Chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, says China’s economic success will not necessarily improve the Uighurs' lot. He says ome political change is essential to avoid violence. He says China is more likely to avoid conflict by allowing greater local initiative, communal self-government at various levels, and some expression of oppositional sentiment by Turkic and Uighur and Muslim people within the system.

China's northwest province is predominantly agricultural and pastoral, but it is also rich in mineral resources and energy. The oil fields in the far north are among the largest in China. The region has extensive deposits of coal, silver, copper and lead. Analysts say people who have called this land home for thousands of years must have more say in how these resources are to be used.