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China's Muslim Majority Face New Challenges - 2003-07-03

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.
Lost in deepest thought, I miss her all the time.
I burn with the desire to kiss her.

Prince Tigin lived and loved in Central Asia, a region where more than seven-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 says 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 an 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. The Chinese government has blamed various Uighur groups for two hundred violent attacks in the past decade, including more than 160 deaths. Bejing considers Uighur separatists 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 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. Nury Turkel of the Uighur-American Association in Washington 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. And it's so hard to mix with the Chinese. We don't have anything in common from my perspective."

Nury Turkel notes the Uighurs have been fighting for independent statehood since the 18th century, when China invaded their kingdom in East Turkistan. (They regained it for a while in the 1940-s). He says they have never been religious extremists. "Uighurs are not very religious. They are very secular. I am a Muslim myself. I was born Muslim, but I don't practice. Many Uighur people don't believe in Wahabism, which many Islamic groups in Arab states practice, because we are not really religious. We were a people before we turned to Islam."

Some human rights watch groups have condemned China's crackdown on Uighurs. In its latest report, Amnesty International confirms gross violations of human rights in Xinjiang, including torture, arbitrary detention and unfair political trials. The report says the crackdown on suspected terrorists includes new 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 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 also notes 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 among broader nationalist groups among the Uigurs. But I would bet, 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."

Some analysts say China's Muslims could also learn from others, especially from the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia whose example they seek to follow. Many of these now independent states are not doing as well as they did under Soviet rule, and there is some nostalgia for Soviet times when people had less freedom but more security and a higher standard of living.

China has made efforts to develop Xinjiang, fueling funds into industrialization, education and employment, but the Turkic groups claim mostly the Han Chinese have benefited. They have moved to the region in droves, threatening to outnumber the indigenous Turkic people.

Analysts say there is little chance that Uighurs will have an independent state in the near future. The outcome of the conflict will depend on developments in China as a whole. Frederick Starr, Chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, says Chinese economic success alone will not necessarily improve the Uighurs' lot. Some political change is essential to avoid violence. "A successful China should be willing to confer a serious degree of autonomy at Xinjiang. We think allowing greater local initiative, communal self-government at various levels, allowing a degree of oppositional sentiment by Turkic and Uighur and Muslim people within the system -- this really in the long run is the not just the best variant, but possibly the only one that truly escapes the threat of conflict."

Although China's northwest province is predominantly agricultural and pastoral, 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.