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Islam’s Invisible Frontier: The Muslims of Chinese-Occupied East Turkestan

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  • Zafar Khan
    Islam’s Invisible Frontier: The Muslims of Chinese-Occupied East Turkestan http://www.geocities.com/WestHollywood/Park/6443/China/eturkestan.html By Haroon
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 1, 2004
      Islam’s Invisible Frontier: The Muslims of
      Chinese-Occupied East Turkestan


      By Haroon Moghul

      If I were to announce that a Muslim country, slightly
      smaller than the size of Iran – but still three times
      the size of France – blessed with bountiful oil
      reserves, a rich culture and a long attachment to
      Islam, was suffering brutal torment, one would justly
      be disturbed. Perhaps all the more so because one
      might not know which country I refer to. That, indeed,
      is the greatest tragedy of Chinese-occupied East
      Turkestan, bounded to the east by China, the south by
      Tibet, and the west by Pakistan and the
      newly-independent Central Asian states, emerging from
      Russian domination.

      We hear, perhaps day in and day out, of the treatment
      accorded indigenous peoples in lands such as Tibet –
      for a variety of reasons, including the preponderance
      of celebrity advocates and Muslim and Arab sympathies.
      Inexcusable, though, is the ignorance over East
      Turkestan. Because of a century of communist control
      over Central Asia, a great blanket of ignorance veils
      this part of the Ummah from many Muslims.

      Muslim Central Asia: A Background

      The Eurasian steppe is a formidable belt of rolling
      grassland, almost flat land stretching over five
      thousand miles, from Manchuria, China, and ending at
      the fringes of Hungary, another nation newly freed
      from the communist curtain. From these plains have
      arisen some of the mightiest warriors of history: the
      Turkic Huns, who plagued Rome under Attila; the
      Scythian Iranians, who dominated Caucasia; and the
      Mongol Hordes (from where we get the word “Urdu”), who
      nearly overthrew the Islamic world – until they were
      stopped by the Muslim rulers of Egypt, the Mamluks,
      fittingly, also horsemen of the Eurasian steppe.

      However, though the steppe has birthed Hungarian,
      Mongol and Iranian (relatives of the Persians in
      modern-day Iran) peoples, the dominant group of the
      last millennium and a half has been the Turkic one,
      who emerged by displacing or conquering the native
      Iranians – their remnants found today in the only
      non-Turkic Central Asian state, Tajikistan – whose
      language is remarkably close to Persian. Nevertheless,
      considering the great spread of Turkic peoples, and
      common confusion over their relation to Turks in
      modern day Turkey, it would do us well to look a
      little further at these peoples’ history.

      Around 522, the Turks appeared on the world stage,
      establishing an empire that stretched from Mongolia
      (Turks and Mongols are closely related) to the Black
      Sea. Out of this empire grew the many tribes of the
      Turkic people, some moving into Russia, but more
      towards the Muslim southeast. Indeed, what binds the
      Turkic people together is not language or culture, but

      To better understand the Turkic role in the universal
      Islamic civilization, one must divide them into
      Western and Eastern halves. In the West, Seljuk Turks
      established dominance over the Middle East around the
      10th century. As they pushed into Anatolia, Turkic
      farmers and merchants followed behind them, spreading
      Islam wherever they went. One of the small states that
      was founded by these pioneers was a principality ruled
      by a khan (leader) named ‘Uthman. The famous traveler
      Ibn Battuta met ‘Uthman, noting that he was a
      particularly unique leader – and concluding that great
      things were in store for ‘Uthman’s children. Little
      did he know how right he was.

      From ‘Uthman’s line rose the Ottoman Empire: in 1453,
      the Ottomans took Constantinople, making it their
      capital. The current Turkish flag, featuring the
      crescent and star design, commemorates this victory:
      the crescent represents the armies of Islam, while the
      star represents Constantinople, which is being
      conquered. At its height, the Ottoman Empire stretched
      from Algeria to the Caspian Sea, south to Yemen and
      north to Austria. Their navies fought the French and
      British in the Atlantic Ocean, and even helped the
      Indonesians resist Portuguese and Dutch forces as far
      as the East Indies. The Ottoman dynasty was also the
      longest-lasting in history, but its decision to fight
      against America, Britain and Russia in World War I led
      to its collapse in 1924. The last khalifa, an Ottoman,
      was exiled to Madina, where he died in the 1940’s.

      As for the Eastern Turks: they have had a similarly
      splendid history, though much of it remains unfamiliar
      – perhaps because they formed many ethnic groups, such
      as the Kazak, Uzbek, Uighur (East Turkestani) and
      Volga Bulgar (Tatar). The idea of ethnic
      nationalities, as developed in Europe and the
      Americas, never existed in so rigid a form in the
      Muslim world until colonization. Thereafter, tolerance
      and acceptance of diversity were replaced with
      totalitarianism, authoritarianism, and a desire for

      The Eastern Turks

      In the 1300’s, the Eastern Turks, as well as members
      of the Muslim Mongol Golden Horde, ruled over Moscow
      and its environs. In the Volga River valley, the Tatar
      established a sultanate called Volga Bulgaria, with
      its capital at Kazan. At its peak, Volga Bulgaria was
      a prosperous, powerful land, famed for Islamic
      erudition. In fact, when Muslim Spain fell to invading
      Christian forces, many Andalusian scholars and
      scientists arrived in Volga Bulgaria, where they were
      eagerly welcomed. Up until the early 1900’s, Kazan was
      a major center for Muslim scholarship and reform.

      To the south, a warrior named Uzbek was the khan of
      another Turkic tribe. He converted to Islam (his
      people, converting en masse after him, named
      themselves Uzbek in his honor) and established a
      powerful dynasty in Central Asia, known for fostering
      many Islamic disciplines. Al-Biruni, the great
      geologist, linguist and sociologist of India, was from
      Central Asia; and Ulugh Beg, the highly regarded
      astronomer, was also Turkic. Following after Uzbek
      Khan came another of this tribe, named Shayban, who
      established a second dynasty to the south, in the
      early 16th century. At one time, the Uzbek (close
      relatives of the Uighur) and the Ottomans contemplated
      building canals between the Black and Caspian Sea, to
      connect their empires. This, however, was never

      Divisions in the ranks made the Turkic Muslim lands a
      tempting target for a resurgent Russia. In 1552, Volga
      Bulgaria was stormed by Russian forces. The Kazak, who
      only converted to Islam in the 1700’s, were next. By
      the 1800’s, all the Muslim steppe people, excluding
      the Ottomans (who were never colonized), were under
      foreign rule. The situation took a turn for the worse
      in the 1920’s, as much of Muslim Central Asia found
      itself not under a distant Czar in Moscow, but under
      the powerful thumb of an aggressive Communist Party,
      bent on the destruction of Islam. East Turkestan was
      at his time under Chinese rule, separated by the
      powers of the day from their ethnic and religious kin,
      and in 1949, East Turkestan suffered China’s similar
      switch to Communism. The Soviet Union quickly
      collapsed in on itself, leading to independence for
      much of Central Asia. The Uighur of East Turkestan,
      however, remain under occupation – and are perhaps
      forgotten because of this.

      The Uighur of East Turkestan

      In 751, the Muslims and the Chinese met on the
      battlefield for the first time, at Talas River. Local
      Tibetan and Uighur tribes, which were at the time
      Buddhist, allied themselves with the Muslims – the
      resulting victory allowed the Uighur peaceful
      relations and expansion in eastern Central Asia. In
      934, the Uighur leader, Satuk Boghra Khan, accepted
      Islam. Many fellow Uighur followed, though conversion
      was not forced. The Uighur ruled an independent
      kingdom, mixing Muslim and Buddhist populations, that
      stood until 1759, when the Manchu Chinese invaded and
      destroyed it. A fate similar to Tibet in the south, a
      Buddhist region with an important Muslim minority also
      brought under unfortunate foreign domination.

      In 1864, the Uighur revolted against foreign rule,
      with some help from the distant Muslim Ottomans.
      Although they won, their independence was short-lived.
      The Chinese returned with more force in 1884,
      conquering the land yet again – this time renaming it
      “Xinjiang”: the New Dominion, the name by which the
      region is commonly referred to today. The Uighur,
      however, refused to bow. One of their many revolts
      succeeded in 1945, leading to the independent Republic
      of East Turkestan. At this time, there were few other
      independent Muslim nations excepting Afghanistan and

      But once more, independence did not last. The people
      of East Turkestan were invaded in 1949 by a new China,
      a communist one. This was to prove a more destructive
      occupying regime than any previous, principally
      because communism has been, since its inception,
      uncomfortable with Islam because of its potential for
      creating an alternative social system and for
      inspiring spirited resistance, as it did with the
      Central Asian Basmachi fighters who held out against
      Russian communism for over a decade.

      East Turkestan’s Strategic Importance

      Before going on to highlight the gross human rights
      violations committed in East Turkestan (again, what
      China calls Xinjiang, or alternatively Sinkiang), one
      must understand why China is so aggressive in its
      policies towards the region. Firstly, East Turkestan
      is simply enormous; it is 1/6th of the land area of
      China. As if this was not enough, the occupied nation
      borders five newly-independent Central Asian
      countries. Should East Turkestan become independent,
      it is conceivable that it may, in the long-term, unite
      with, or create some form of economic bloc, with its
      kin countries to the west. This would form a territory
      quite nearly the size of China itself. This is
      especially dangerous to the strategic interests of not
      only China, but Russia and other powers, because each
      of these Central Asian nations, including East
      Turkestan, is blessed (one might say, from a
      historically Islamic perspective, cursed) with vast
      reserves of oil and gas, a common cultural background
      and an Islamic faith, however currently weak. For
      these reasons, China cannot afford to let go of East
      Turkestan. It would mean the end of its energy
      independence and the possibility, however distant, of
      the creation of a check to its expansion into Asia. In
      the same manner as Western nations practice divide and
      conquer with the Middle East, so too Russia and China
      with Islamic Central Asia.

      The one thing China does have is a huge population, in
      comparison to a sparsely settled East Turkestan. In
      order to control East Turkestan’s territory, China has
      decided to pursue a two-pronged policy. On the one
      hand, it will do whatever it can to sap Uighur
      strength, weakening their identity and culture.
      Significantly, this means an assault on Muslim values.
      On the other hand, China is importing huge settler
      populations, to create “facts on the ground” that
      cannot be reversed. By virtue of China’s enormous
      demographic advantage, hundreds of thousands of
      Chinese can annually be entered into the territory,
      changing a Muslim region into what will soon be –
      unless something stops them – a Chinese one. Then, the
      region’s oil and resources will be in “local” hands.
      Essentially, this is the same policy Israel has tried
      to us in the West Bank and Gaza, but Israel has too
      few people to successfully attain its goals.

      Chinese Human Rights Violations in East Turkestan

      In light of September 11th, things have only become
      more difficult. America has cooperated with China, in
      the “War on Terrorism,” by freezing the assets of
      Uighur resistance movements, most of whom have nothing
      to do with terrorism. Further, with the world’s
      attention drawn to Iraq and previously to Afghanistan,
      China has been freer to do what it wants without a
      spotlight, however feeble its shine. Prior to 9/11,
      the Uighur were already suffering an occupation that
      was perhaps among the worst, if not the worst, in the
      Ummah. Now, as difficult as it seems to imagine,
      things are surely worse. I have listed below only
      several of China’s most severe violations of human
      rights and dignity, to give the reader a taste of the
      darkness blanketing East Turkestan.

      • As of 1996, the Chinese government has detonated
      forty-four nuclear devices in East Turkestan, using
      the country as an experiment in permanent radioactive
      pollution. In other words, it is a policy of rendering
      huge regions of an occupied territory uninhabitable.
      The result has been a sickeningly high incidence of
      cancer among Uighur; Uighur children also have a
      disturbing occurrence of debilitating birth defects.

      • As mentioned, China imports ethnic Chinese settlers
      to drown out the local population. In 1949, when it
      lost its independence, East Turkestan was 93% Muslim;
      today, it is only 50% Muslim. To ensure their plan
      succeeds beyond settlement colonialism (a la Israel),
      the Chinese government forces a number of Muslim
      families to practice abortions.

      • As part of their drive to destroy Uighur culture,
      the Chinese have attempted to switch Uighur to the
      Latin script. However, the Uighur have refused,
      sticking to their Arabic-based script, thus making
      them the only Turkic people still using this alphabet.
      As a result of such resistance, Uighur are denied
      access to education, such that their illiteracy rate
      is now a disastrous seventy percent. Considering the
      high number of Chinese settlers, competition for jobs
      is ever more fierce by the year, and Uighur, who are
      already heavily discriminated against and unlikely to
      get any jobs, have even less chance with their
      diminished technical and literary skills.

      • Uighur can be jailed for refusing to eat during
      daylight hours in Ramadan, part of an orchestrated
      campaign to oust from the Uighur their identity and
      values. This policy was instituted only a few years
      ago – and few Muslim countries paid any attention.

      • There has even been an attempt at creating a
      Communist Islam: China demands that Uighur mosques
      display pictures of Communist leaders, while Imams
      must speak favorably of atheist Communism in their

      • However, the Communization of Islam has certainly
      failed to some degree, as evinced by China’s attempt
      to simply destroy Islam outright: More than 29,000
      mosques have been shut down or destroyed; some are
      even converted into pig farms.

      • Imams are regularly persecuted, often for no reason
      other than their attachment to religion. Some are
      forced to clean sewers, stables and pig farms.

      • Young men are often kidnapped by the government,
      never to be seen again. This is especially the case
      with young men who show an interest in their religion
      and/or culture. China makes the pitiful excuse that
      these young men are terrorists. In fact, they are
      youth who are sick and tired of suffering the
      indignities of a brutal occupation and thus are a
      potential threat to despotism and dictatorship.

      • And finally, as a result of Chinese occupation, at
      least 300,000 Uighur have died (out of a population
      that today equals only ten million, this is a
      frighteningly high percentage).

      What Can Be Done: Three Proposals

      So what is to be done? Below, I have three proposals,
      of varying intensity, as suggestions for handling this
      conflict in a reasonable and legitimate manner.

      Firstly, we need education as an Ummah, so that we and
      our future generations are aware of the many branches
      of the Muslim Nation, the better to increase awareness
      and call attention to injustices. For Islamic schools
      and mosques, this could mean organizing teach-ins,
      lectures, special programs, and so on, to familiarize
      ourselves with the Uighur and their plight (please see
      the resources at the end of this article).

      Secondly, there are more ambitious options for the
      many promising Muslims interested in academia and
      linguistics. They may want to consider taking courses
      in this region of the world, or even specializing in
      Eurasian studies. In the coming decades, as the
      petrochemical wealth of this region becomes more
      significant, demand will skyrocket for specialists,
      thinkers, writers and the like, much as high demand
      has been established for the Muslim Middle East.
      Options are also available to Muslims with an interest
      in languages: One may wish to consider learning Uighur
      or other Central Asian languages. Indiana University,
      with a website link below, has an excellent summer
      program for Uighur, with large federal grants and
      scholarships also available.

      Consider the effect of only a handful of committed
      Muslims learning such a language. The Uighur have
      been, for quite some time, prevented from learning
      Arabic. Thus much of their religion is out of reach.
      Armed with the knowledge of local languages,
      specialists can translate important books and
      resources; furthermore, easy-to-access websites could
      be created, offering essential Islamic resources and
      news which would be gradually disseminated. As poor as
      the Uighur are, the Chinese cannot stop the benefits
      of the Internet and mass media from reaching their
      controlled state. There should also be translations of
      the Qur’an, books on prayer, etiquette, manners and
      virtues, etc. Such action on our part would also
      prevent the influence of extremist groups, which
      capitalize on people’s deficient knowledge of Islam,
      peddling erroneous and dangerous beliefs (some groups
      are even fronts for missionaries; in Albania, after
      the fall of Communism, some fringe Christian groups
      sold Bibles labeled “The Holy Qur’an”).

      Thirdly, we can take an overtly political role. If the
      goal of Operation Iraqi Freedom was Iraq’s freedom,
      then why does East Turkestan not even receive a
      mention in speeches and policy direction, let alone
      the kind of ridiculous attention lopped onto Iraq in
      the run-up to the (ultimately unjustifiable) war? One
      should never underestimate the power of political
      pressure. This also means we must involve the American
      community at large, moving outside the boundaries of
      our religious groups and organizations, so as to
      create the largest possible effect. There is a great
      potential for alliance with those who trumpet the
      similarly just cause of Tibet, a vast groundswell of
      support for action. Thus the oppressed are always
      wronged, and always seeking allies in a proactive and
      appropriate fight to change their situation.

      For now, however, East Turkestan struggles almost
      entirely on its own. It is our responsibility not to
      leave them as such. Our efforts, resources and prayers
      must make an invisible people visible again.

      Haroon Moghul is the author of My First Police State,
      available through most major bookseller websites, such
      as Barnes and Noble, Borders and Amazon.com. He writes
      for a variety of newspapers, Islamic media and
      journals, and invites your commentary, criticism and
      curiosity. Email him at HSMoghul@...

      For more Information on Chinese Muslims see:

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