World Muslim Communities Council Creates Western Uproar By Visiting China’s Xinjiang Province
Unpacking the differing opinions concerning the Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang Province
The World Muslim Communities Council has been in the centre of a Western media backlash for accepting an invitation from the Chinese government to visit Xinjiang Province, home to millions of Chinese Uyghur Muslims. The group’s Chairman, Ali Rashid Al Nuaimi stated in Chinese media that they were ‘impressed’ by their Chinese visit and that it is ‘‘important for the Muslim world to understand Xinjiang’. Other anti-China media described the trip as a ‘junket’ while other, pro-Uyghur platforms derided it as ‘staged’. One visit, two widely differing perspectives. In this article I will try and unpack the reality from the hype.
Who are the Chinese Uyghurs?
These are an ethnic Caucasian group, predominantly Muslim, which roots going back thousands of years in Central Asia. They practice Sunni Muslim, and number about 12 million in China’s Western Xinjiang Province, although smaller populations live throughout China. Many are descendants of old Turkic silk road traders who ultimately settled in China.
Where and What is Xinjiang Province?
Xinjiang Province is based in far West China, and shares borders with Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tibet. More recently regarded as the Uyghurs ‘ancestral home’, Xinjiang isn’t in fact Muslim in origin. The Uyghurs were part of the Mongolian Golden Horde, and known to Chingghis Khan, where their linguistic skills were useful in the civil service. Xinjiang itself has a varied historical past, with ancient tribes, pre-dating the Uyghurs arrival being revealed, somewhat astonishingly as being from north-west Europe – identifiable as such by the way they wove their clothes (Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s insightful book ‘The Mummies of Ürümchi’ goes into this in comprehensive detail). With the territory essentially home to gangs of brigands and various warring tribes, the region was long considered dangerous – with accounts as recently as Joseph Rock’s 1925 essay ‘An American Agricultural Explorer Makes His Way Through Brigand- infested Central China en Route to the Amne Machin Range, Tibet’ detailed in some harrowing accounts just how difficult – and unmanaged – the region was. Predominantly Buddhist and Islamic warlords – effectively carved up the Xinjiang region into small fiefdoms, although some influence also filtered in from merchant travellers practicing Taoism, Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and elements of Hinduism and Shamanism as well. Quite a melting pot. The Mongolian written language incidentally is based on Uyghur scripts, being adopted in the 18th century.
Fast forward to 1927 and the outbreak of the Chinese civil war between the Republican Kuomintang and the Chinese Communists, Islamic warlords took advantage of the warring Chinese factors and established short-lived Islamic Republics. I describe them as follows:
East Turkistan: TIRET
‘East Turkistan’ is a Western historic term for the Xinjiang region, originally coined in the 19th century by Russian Turkologists, including Nikita Bichurin, who intended the name to replace the common Western term for the region, and to define it as a ‘loose’ part of China in the early part of the 20th century when it was unclear what its destiny would be. Russia was engaged in the regional ‘Great Game’ with the British Empire at the time. Now officially known as ‘Xinjiang’ the term ‘East Turkmenistan’ has become symbolic of some Uyghur claims that the entire region belongs to them. In fact, it never has. The situation is somewhat historically confusing to non-scholars, as in November 1933, the Turkic Islamic Republic of East Turkestan (TIRET) was founded by the warlord Khoja Niyaz. The so-called independent republic wasn’t uniquely Uyghur, it also comprised Turks, Kyrgyz, and White Russian intellectuals fleeing the Russian Bolsheviks. Born into a prominent local Islamic family, Niyaz fought – winning and losing – various regional skirmishes before attending the Hajj in Mecca in 1911. Returning to his homelands, he organised the TIRET enclave based around Kashgar and proclaimed independence. It didn’t last long. TIRET failed after just six months when it was reoccupied in April 1934 by the Chinese nationalists. Niyaz fled, fighting again numerous battles in a region now inflamed by the Chinese civil war, and appealing to Stalin for assistance. Niyaz was eventually executed, in Urumqi, on orders from Moscow in 1938. TIRET was never recognised as an independent state by any other country.
East Turkistan: ETR
A second ‘East Turkistan Republic’ (ETR) was formed over 1,500km north of the TIRET attempt to declare an independent state in North-West Xinjiang, on the border with Russia, in November 1944. It lasted until December 1949. Initially supported by Stalin, the ETR was funded from Moscow. During 1946, the ETR participated in the Xinjiang Provincial Coalition Government, while maintaining its independence. In February 1947, officials of the ETR withdrew from the Coalition and re-asserted their independence, arguing that all of Xinjiang should be liberated from Chinese rule. The rest of Xinjiang was under Kuomintang control at the time. Much of the Uyghur claims to possessing all of Xinjiang therefore stem from this debate. The argument was short-lived. Stalin, concerned about regional Islamic fundamentalism, agreed to return the ETR land to China after a deal was done with Mao, on condition that Beijing would keep the warlord, jihadist elements of extremist Islam under control. The ETR collapsed in late 1949 after most of its leaders were killed in Russia on route to a summit in Moscow.
The historical reality therefore is that as concerns Uyghur claims to independence in Xinjiang, the only previous attempts to do so were both short-lived, small in territory, unpopular, and failed.
East Turkistan: ETGE
That is not to say an independence movement doesn’t live on – because it does. The East Turkistan Government-in-Exile, or ETGE, is a parliamentary-based exile government established and headquartered in Washington, D.C. by Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other peoples from East Turkistan (Xinjiang). It was set up in September 2004. The ETGE claims to be the sole organ representing East Turkistan and its people on the international stage. The East Turkistan Government-in-Exile has offices in the U.S. Capitol Building. China sternly opposes the East Turkistan Government in Exile and has accused it of acts of terrorism. Much of the anti-China arguments concerning Xinjiang and the Uyghurs are encouraged and funded, directly or indirectly, by the ETGE. Much borders on the historically inaccurate and histrionic.
The World Muslim Communities Council
The World Muslim Communities Council was established in the UAE and is part funded by the UAE and other Arabic nations such as Egypt. The Chairman is Ali Rashid Al Nuaimi, a leading international expert on religious extremism and education. The mission of the WMCC is highlighted in some detail on their ‘About’ page, and includes the simple Vision brief: “The resettlement of Islam where Muslims live to achieve harmony between commitment to religion and belonging to the homeland” while their message is “Achieving intellectual and cultural change in Muslim societies in different countries of the world by making Muslims builders of civilization, advocates of peace and pioneer of tolerance, coexistence and giving.”
These issues are key to understanding the furore concerning Uyghurs – with exiled groups such as the ETGE pushing for ‘independence’ rather than addressing the needs for them to ‘belong to their homeland’ – in this case China, as is advocated by the WMCC. It brings the two bodies into conflict.
Xinjiang’s Contemporary Stresses
There is no doubt that contemporary Xinjiang faces considerable, and some unique pressures. The far West of Xinjiang borders a small finger of Afghanistan, while the Southwest has a 596km border with Northern Pakistan – home to the also warlike Northern Frontier tribes. Although this area has remained relatively peaceful in more recent years, during the US occupation of Afghanistan (which only ended 18 months ago) key cities such as Gilgit were reported to be full of weapons – many for resale on the black market (a similar situation is being created in Ukraine, which will later lead to problems in Eastern Europe, Southern Russia, and the Caucasus).
With the Taliban needing to enforce intense belief and to some extent, religious extremism to motivate fighters to resist the United States occupation, significant elements of Islamic extremism have crept into the region – some aimed directly against China and the wishing to secure the recreation of a third Islamic state in Xinjiang.
This has been a pressing security issue for China – the region is highly mountainous and impossible to completely secure – making these soft borders that inevitably permit both extremist views – and smuggled weapons – to enter Xinjiang. There have been incidents in China as a result. Terrorist attacks, perpetrated by Uyghur separatists (possibly belonging to the East Turkestan Islamic Party) detonated a bomb on a public bus in Urumqi, and a bomb attack took place in an hotel in Kashgar in 1992. Riots in 2013 and 2014 included attacks on railway stations and a market in Xinjiang in which seventy people were killed and several hundred wounded. Bomb threats have been made against Chinese aircraft in Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing.
This result of this has been a massive Chinese crackdown in Xinjiang, which began in 2017 and includes responses such as mass surveillance, increased arrests, and a system of re-education camps, estimated to hold a million Uyghurs and members of other Muslim minority ethnic groups. There have been no further incidents since that time.
Here, China largely fails to receive the benefit of the doubt, and especially from the Western media. There have been no doubt problems with human rights, and apparent deviations from China’s strict controls concerning civil rights will have inevitably taken place. These will have been dealt with internally. While the 1 million figure of detained Uyghurs may seem excessive, in fact if true, it still accounts for 1 in 12 Uyghurs in Xinjiang – a minority with a minority.
There are other stresses within the Uyghur community itself. Regrettably, the Uyghurs have become somewhat inward-looking, and have not moved on with the times and assimilated to work together with the Chinese. Traditional Uyghurs are discouraged from learning Mandarin, while girls are still removed from society at ages as young eleven or twelve; placed into purdah as soon as they reach puberty. The education of women is discouraged. Marriages may only take place between Uyghurs – and are not encouraged with other Muslims let alone Chinese. They have become an inwardly backward people. In fact, given their geographical position and their linguistic capabilities – they ought to have become one of the wealthiest groups in Central Asia, using their skills to trade and prosper. Urumqi, the capital, is the richest city in Central Asia. Instead, whatever has gone wrong in their own society has rendered them regionally illiterate.
Accordingly, the visit by the World Muslim Communities Council to Xinjiang should be welcomed, to assist the Chinese in teasing out the reasons why the Uyghur community has degenerated and become insular, and to assist the community get back on track. Criticism otherwise deflects away from the real issues of integration and social development of a Muslim group with a previously influential history, seeking a new future, and denies them that opportunity. Beware instead the vested interests in perpetrating and encouraging the Uyghurs plight.
Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the Chairman of Dezan Shira & Associates. He has a 30 plus year career advising foreign businesses and governments into China and has travelled extensively in Xinjiang Province. Contact: email@example.com
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