Friday, July 10, 2015

On Uyghur Issue and Chinese-Turkish Relations

Friday, June 26, 2015 

Tugrul Keskin

Not many people are aware of this, but the Uyghur issue is little more complicated than "banning" fasting during Ramadan. This has been a very controversial issue in the context of ethnic nationalism in China. As a scholar who has been working on Uyghur Nationalism for more than a decade, let me explain my own interpretation on Uyghur Nationalism and its relationship with Chinese, Turkish and US Foreign Policies. There are different dimensions of Uyghur Nationalism and what it looks like depends very much on on which country is involved and the country's foreign policy.

First of all, Xinjiang ('New Territory' in Chinese) also called Eastern Turkistan but Turks and Uyghurs, was once an Uyghur- populated region in Central Asia, with direct cultural connections to Uzbek, Kazakh Kyrgyz, Turkmens and Turks. Even though Uyghur and Chinese territorial disputes over this terrority started before 1882, Modern Uygur Nationalism (as a social movement) emerged right after 1882. This conflict escalated after 1949, especially during the collapse of the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Republic. Both SSCB and PRC divided the region into two different parts; Eastern Turkistan (Xinjiang) and Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan. In 1955, Xinjiang’s population was more than 90 % Uyghur; whereas today the Uyghur population is just 45%, because Chinese migration and economic policies toward Xinjiang led to the migration of more Han Chinese to the region. The historical town, Kashgar used to be a center and cultural hub of the Uyghurs. Important Uyghur intellectuals were also buried in Kashgar: Kashgari Mahmut (who is the writer of the Divan’i Lugati Turk, the first Turkish dictionary); Yusuf Has Hacip (who is the writer of Kutadgu Bilig, similar to Machiavelli’s Prince) and Abdulkerim Saltuk Bugra Khan (who is the first convert to Islam among Turks). For many reasons, Kashgar is a historical place for Turks and other central asian "Turkic” tribes. Most of the Uyghur diaspora live in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. After 1949 and the collapse of the Eastern Turkistan islamic Republic, most of the Uyghur leadership moved to these countries through Afghanistan and Pakistan, including former president Isa Yusuf Alptekin who died in Istanbul, in 1995. There was a quiet time in Xinjiang between the late 1950s until the early 1990s. Most of the Uyghurs were traditional and not very religious during this time, and the Chinese Central Government did not touch the local cultural and religious activities; however, after Tiananmen in 1989, we saw the re-emergence of modern Uyghur Nationalism with global connections, specifically the US.   

In 1997, the Gulja incident took place in the northeast city of Xinjiang which was the beginning stages of the modern Uyghur uprising. In Beijing, the Chinese Central government authorities created a master economic development plan in order to eliminate the issue, which included new government- financed housing projects, new military zones in order to create a new cultural, political and economic hub. The government supported specific cities for economic development to supplant their original historical characters. Therefore, Urumchi (as a new city) has been created to work against Kashgar. Economic development policies have in this way established new social and political environments. The migration of Han Chinese to the region has also changed population dynamics, and these together are the source of the conflict today. Uyghurs are now becoming a minority in their homeland.

Until the late 1990s, Turkey used to be the center of Uyghur Nationalism; however, the Turkish government banned Uyghur flags and some Uyghur activities in Turkey in 1998. Interestingly, we began to see more US involvement in this issue right after this date. The Uyghur Human Rights project and Uyghur-American association were established and received quite a bit funding from NED, NDI and IRI. The Radio Free Asia Uyghur section was established and they started to broadcast all over Xinjiang, very similar to th role of Free Radio Berlin during the cold war. This has created a conflict between US and China. Chinese calls this new US policy the 'Xinjiang Project'. According to Chinese officials, this has been supported by the CIA. Then, Rabia Kader who was a business woman in Xinjiang and made millions during the 1980s and 90s, was jailed in China because of her separatist activities. However, with a secret meeting between Chinese and US officials, she was freed from jail, moved to Washington DC and became a leader of the Uyghur Movement from there. After the death of Isa Yusuf Alptekin in 1995, the Uyghur Movement lacked sufficient leadership. Kader has partly filled this vacuum over the last ten years.

However, after the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan and the emergence of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (Uyghurs understand 90% of Uzbek), the local Uyghur population became more radicalized, especially under the leadership of Tahir Yoldashov who was killed in November of 2001, after the US invasion of Afghanistan. From 1996  to today, we see the radicalization of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. 29 Uyghurs were captured in Afghanistan by the US forces and sent to Guantanamo. This created another important conflict between the US and China, again not many people paid attention to this. The US wanted to release them; however China asked the US to return them to China. Finally they were released, and placed in small countries outside of China with political asylum.

Some of the Uyghur nationalists were then trained under the Taliban and Al-Qaida/ISIS, and Modern Uyghur Nationalism has in this way been hijacked by either Al-Qaida/ISIS or by US national security interests. Over the last few years, Uyghurs have been fighting in Syria, Iraq and Libya for ISIS to help create an Islamic State. Some of them have returned to Xinjiang to fight against the PRC. On the other hand, Turkey has become a center of these activities. The IHH established Uyghur dorms in Istanbul and many other locations in Turkey.

China did not ban fasting (in social and cultural spaces, except in the government buildings for the employees) or any other religious activities, but they are afraid of growing radicalization of the Uyghur population and the US support for American-friendly Uyghur associations, which the US then uses against China. This is not an easy conflict, it is more complicated than we can imagine, because global actors are directly involved.