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Uighurs: Uprising from the ashes of history

August 14, 2008

CBC News (Canada)
August 12, 2008

Chinese Muslims at a mosque in Linxia, a city known as the 'small
Mecca of China.' Islamic cultural influences can be traced back
nearly 1,000 years in China. In the far northwest of the country,
some Muslims known as Uighurs favour greater independence. China
accuses such groups of links to al-Qaeda. Chinese Muslims at a mosque
in Linxia, a city known as the 'small Mecca of China.' Islamic
cultural influences can be traced back nearly 1,000 years in China.
In the far northwest of the country, some Muslims known as Uighurs
favour greater independence. China accuses such groups of links to
al-Qaeda. (Andy Wong/Associated Press)Travellers in today's China are
often surprised to discover that the country has a sizeable Muslim population.

According to the Chinese government, there are more than 20 million
Muslims who live in all parts of the country.

Others say the number may even be higher.

Many Chinese towns have mosques.The call to prayer can be heard on
Fridays from Beijing to Yunnan in the south, and especially in the
oases of arid Xinjiang in the far northwest.

But there are subtle differences among the communities that follow
Islam in China -- cultural, linguistic and nationalist nuances that
formed over centuries of an often-troubled history.

Muslims have lived in the Middle Kingdom from just after the death of
the Prophet Muhammed in 632 AD.

They came as traders and missionaries from Arab states, and later
from Islamic Persia and Ottoman Turkey.
1st mosque built 1,400 years ago

Tang and Song Dynasty emperors, with an eye on the riches of the
Muslim world, made them welcome and even built China's first mosque
in what is today the city of Guangzhou.

A mosque is seen with the moon in the background in the ancient Silk
Route city of Kashgar, near China's far western border with
Pakistan.A mosque is seen with the moon in the background in the
ancient Silk Route city of Kashgar, near China's far western border
with Pakistan. (Ng Han Guan/Associated Press)Over the years, traders
and travellers married into Han Chinese families, and settled and
assimilated while keeping their Muslim faith.

Descendants of this group are contemporary China's largest Muslim
group, known as Hui.

Centuries of co-existence have made many Hui people distinguishable
from Han Chinese only by the practice of their faith. When decades of
mandatory atheism under Mao Zedong ended in the late 1970s, many
devout Hui flourished, reopening mosques and signing up for
government-approved trips to Mecca.

The same wasn't true of the country's other large Muslim group, the
Uighur people of Xinjiang.

Ethnically, Uighurs are Central Asian, speakers of a language related
to Turkish.

They look west to the Middle East, Turkey and Tashkent, not east to Beijing.

Like the Tibetans on their southern border, they remember when they
inhabited a sovereign land and even conquered parts of past Chinese
empires in battles centuries ago.

On the northern branch of the historic Silk Route between Mongol
China and Rome, the Uighurs traded and travelled widely and forged a
distinctive local approach to Islam.

Xinjiang named China's 'new frontier'

But the Chinese have long regarded the region as an integral part of
their vast country.

A young Uighur boy waits for customers to sell Muslim caps to at a
traditional bazaar in Hotan, northwest China's restive Xinjiang
region. A young Uighur boy waits for customers to sell Muslim caps to
at a traditional bazaar in Hotan, northwest China's restive Xinjiang
region. (Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press)In the 19th century, Chinese
regimes cemented their authority over the Uighurs and named their
ancestral lands Xinjiang, or "new frontier" in Mandarin.

Briefly, in the political chaos that engulfed China in the 1930s and
early 1940s, the Uighurs declared independence under the name East
Turkestan, but the victory of Mao's communists in 1949 brought them
firmly back under Chinese rule.

Zealously atheist Maoists stamped out religious worship of all sorts,
although Xinjiang's remoteness and cultural disconnect with
Han-dominated China meant Islam survived more openly than elsewhere
in the country.

But Uighur discontent with rule from Beijing intensified as the
discovery of oil and mineral wealth brought migrants from all over
China. The Chinese government encouraged migration with official
campaigns with names like "Go West."
A surge in Han Chinese migrants

Today, there are almost as many Han Chinese as Uighur in Xinjiang.

In the 1990s, foreign media began reporting on Uighur grievances and
human rights groups highlighted their cultural and religious concerns.

Lacking a charismatic leader like Tibet's Dalai Lama, the Muslims of
Xinjiang found little interest in their plight in the west.

China opposed Uighur activism as vigourously as its Tibetan version,
restricting Islamic teachings and cracking down hard on community
leaders and others who advocated sovereignty or civil rights.

Huseyin Celil, of Burlington, Ont., was arrested in March 2006 in
Tashkent, Uzbekistan and extradited to China a few months later. He
is currently in jail in China and China is ignoring Canada's pleas
for consular access, accusing him of support for Uighur militantcy.
Huseyin Celil, of Burlington, Ont., was arrested in March 2006 in
Tashkent, Uzbekistan and extradited to China a few months later. He
is currently in jail in China and China is ignoring Canada's pleas
for consular access, accusing him of support for Uighur militantcy.
(Canadian Press)Jailed Canadian Huseyin Celil knows this only too
well. He is jailed in an unknown location in China while Beijing
refuses Canada's demands for consular access, calling him a wanted
international terrorist whose dual citizenship is not legal. A
Uighur, Celil was born in China, though he holds Canadian citizenship.

The Sept. 11 attacks gave China an opportunity to press its case that
Uighur Muslim and independence leaders were affiliated to
international Islamist militancy.

The authorities stamped down hard on demonstrations and civil
disobedience campaigns and gave frequent news conferences, saying
they had stymied plans for terror campaigns.
Experts doubt al-Qaeda links

Little evidence for this was ever presented, although China will
certainly point to attacks during the Beijing Olympics as proof that
Islamist Uighurs have violent aims in their independence campaign.

Most international experts on jihadist groups say whatever links
exist between Uighur militants and the likes of al-Qaeda are
relatively recent in origin, as much a product of the crackdown on
them as anything else.

The fact is that Xinjiang is regarded by Beijing as one of China's
most sensitive regions, and a place with huge economic potential.

It borders on some of the country's most important allies and has
huge reserves of oil and gas.

While China may pay lip service to cultural and religious freedom, in
practice it constrains those rights in the name of social harmony and
increasingly, a surging economy. The state appoints religious prayer
leaders and restricts the contents of their sermond to topics
approved by the authorities.

For now, Uighur dreams of independence and Islam sit uneasily
alongside the ambitions of a emerging superpower.
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