Volume 21 Issue 9 September 2017

Bordering such Muslim countries as Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, Xinjiang is a Muslim-majority province in Western China and is home to over a 10 million-strong ethnic Uighur populations. A Turkic ethnic group, Uighur Muslims live mostly in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and are officially recognized as an ethnic Muslim minority out of a total of 55 minorities currently living in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), a constitutionally socialist state.

More than eighty per cent of Uighurs live in the Tarim Basin that lies south-west of Xinjiang, while the remaining Uighur population in China resides in Taoyuan County located in the south-central Hunan province. Other than China, Uighurs are found in Turkey and in such Central Asian countries as Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. They are also found in small numbers in other such countries as Canada, Australia, Afghanistan, Belgium, Germany, Norway, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, the Netherlands and the United States.

However, the Xinjiang region has had a turbulent history as the political and geographical control of the region was repeatedly shifted between the Qing dynasty, the last Chinese dynasty, and rival Chinese warlords, despite numerous rebellions by the Uighurs, say Lindsey Kennedy and Nathan Paul, U.S. based demographic researchers.

Having had occasional independence and short-lived sovereignty in different periods, the region finally came under China’s rule in 1878. This was in the 1940s, when the Uighurs managed to create the East Turkestan Republic, a separate state created with the help of the former Soviet Union. However, it was quite a short-lived independence, as in October 1949, Xinjiang became a part of Communist China.
“As close cultural and ethnic cousins of the Uighurs, the Turks lent a hand in the administrative and cultural shaping of the republic. But it didn’t last as five years later, the USSR’s loyalties switched to Chairman Mao and the Russians helped the Communist People’s Liberation Army recapture the nascent state,” according to Lindsey Kennedy and Nathan Paul.
Under the chairmanship of Mao Tse-tung, from 1949 to 1959, his harsh agricultural policies escalated to the point of famine in Xinjiang and severely affected the rural Uighur communities, who had to migrate to the USSR in that era to avoid further disaster hovering over them in the form of ethnic cleansing.

The most tumultuous period for China-based Uighurs brought them a series of added calamities as well, as they were left with no distinctive cultural and religious identity owing to a total ban on practicing Islam, while Uighur-language schools, seminaries and customs were officially outlawed.

Those who raised their voice against state-orchestrated persecution and repression of Uighurs were all but exterminated and from the 1950s to the 70s in particular, ethnic tensions in Xinjiang were at their peak, thanks to the mass migration of millions of Han Chinese into the predominantly Muslim province of the country. Revolving around the Han immigration, the government’s strategy helped dilute the Uighur population in the province.

“Beijing continues to encourage Han movement into the region; the typically strict rules limiting internal migration in China are relaxed for this specific ethnic group and destination. Han Chinese now make up 58% of the Xinjiang population, up from just 6% in 1949,” say Lindsey Kennedy and Nathan Paul.

The fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s brought Uighurs a ray of hope and they started reorganising their efforts to achieve an independent state under the name of Uighurstan or East Turkestan. For Uighurs, according to political experts, the call of independence from Chinese rule was based on logic as “their closest cousins” just across the border — Tajiks, Uzbeks, Kazakhs and the Kyrgyz — were able to form their own independent states with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Contrary to ground realities, Uighurs were confronted with an innocent desire to break away from China and this resulted in mass riots, protests and violent attacks across the Xinjiang region, which ultimately led Beijing to re-launch a brutal crackdown on the Uighurs in the 1990s. This still continues today with all its severity and intensity. Most importantly, Xinjiang lies at the centre of the Belt and Road initiative (BRI) of China, a $900 billion development project that aims to link Asia with Europe for trade and other exchanges by constructing a large-scale infrastructure. Pakistan and China’s joint CPEC project is a part of this. However, the way Uighurs are being dealt with, one wonders the rationale behind Beijing’s policies that seem to stoke the flames of rebellion.

The systematic political repression, pervasive human rights violations and state persecution of the Uighurs has become a norm in today’s China. Religious freedom is being confined and numerous restrictions are enforced on the practice of Islam. Muslim women of any age are not allowed to fully cover their bodies or wear burqa (veil) in public places, Muslim men cannot have abnormal beards and


children cannot be given such names that might “exaggerate religious fervour.”

In the third week of August 2014, the local authorities in the region's capital Urumqi seized 259 jilbabs (loose-fit coat or garment), 1,265 headscarves and clothes printed with star and crescent symbols. In August 2014, the government officials also “rescued” some 82 children from studying the Holy Qur’an, according to Dawn. Local authorities have also started confiscating copies of the Qur’an published before August 2012, “declaring them illegal for containing extremist content”, says Radio Free Asia, a US-funded outlet.

The government has released a list of banned baby names, including Imam, Saddam, Arafat, Islam, Quran, Mecca, Medina, Hajj and Jihad. Otherwise, children with those names will not be issued a national identity card, “a crucial document that grants access to education, health care and social services,” reports The Guardian.

In addition to that, all Muslim children under 16 are being forced to change their names if found ‘over-religious’ or against the true spirit of the ruling party. Retired officials are no more allowed to attend religious ceremonies and in June, the Xinjiang government officials expelled a Communist party member for attending religious activities at a local mosque. Watching state television, listening to state radio and attending government rallies and conventions to pledge allegiance to the Communist Party is mandatory.

“Fundamentally, these rallies are just a show of force, and part of the audience is the Han Chinese population in Xinjiang, to show the power of the state. But in terms of the Uighur population, it’s difficult to see how these kinds of mass rallies will win the hearts and minds over average Uighurs, and will likely do quite the opposite,” says Michael Clarke, a political science professor at the Australian National University.

Comprising Qazi Hussain Ahmad, Liaqat Baloch, Prof. Mohammad Ibrahim, Sirajul Haq, Syed Munawar Hasan and others, a seven-member delegation of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) Pakistan was officially invited to visit China by the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) in February 2009. On a weeklong visit, the JI’s leadership met with key government officials and Communist leaders. At the end of the rather unusual visit, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed between the Communist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami.

The MoU says both parties will collaborate in the fields of development, justice, solidarity and security and “will not interfere in the internal matters of each country.” In plain words, the MoU made the Jamaat-e-Islami back off from its earlier stance that openly supported the ongoing East Turkmenistan movement in the border Xinjiang region.

Adding a black chapter to the history of Jamaat-e-Islami, this happens to be the only occasion when Pakistan’s main Islamic political party and a staunch supporter of Islamic separatist movements all over the world, moved away from its principled stance and officially disregarded the century-long independence struggle of Uighur Muslims only for the sake of Pakistan-China friendship. As rightly said by an American diplomat, “The fact that you support one side one day and the other side the next day is what real diplomacy is all about.”

The same goes for Pakistan, China’s closest ally and neighbour. Though the country leaves no stone unturned in raising its voice against atrocities on Muslim minorities living in any part of the world, Pakistan maintains a diplomatic silence over severe human rights violations being committed by China against the Uighurs The spirit of Pakistan-China friendship, which is said to be higher than the Himalayas and deeper than the oceans, cannot be sacrificed at the altar of principled diplomacy.

Left alone in the lurch amidst 50 Muslim-majority countries, the Uighurs of China happen to be the worlds’ most forgotten people today. On the one hand, China’s overcautious approach toward its own citizens is all but reprehensible and on the other, the fully state-controlled media in China does not convey the true picture with regard to the current state of Uighur Muslims. In simple words, when Muslim persecution does not become news in mainstream media, it must be taking place in China.

The writer is a member of the staff.

©2017 SouthAsia.com.pk. All Rights Reserved