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News from Tartary

November 27, 2009 6 comments

To talk to Uygur leader Rebiya Kadeer has been a personal ambition ever since I visited China’s Xinjiang Province in 1999. It was a meeting with the first Uygur leader, the late Isa Alptekin, that inspired my travels through two dozen countries seeking to understand the essence of Turkishness in my 2005 book, Sons of the Conquerors. By chance, a discussion about Turkey at the National Endowment of Democracy in Washington DC – which bravely and rightly gives Mrs Kadeer a helping hand, despite great pressure from China — led me to her small office on Pennsylvania Avenue. Our hour together made me feel that those years of travel were worth it all over again.

I still find it remarkable that Mrs Kadeer understands when I speak my Istanbul Turkish, and that I can understand the gist of what she says in Uygur – even though the languages are separated by thousands of miles and centuries of completely separate development. Luckily, though, Omer Kanat was on hand to translate – as he had been when I last met Isa Alptekin in Istanbul in the mid-1990s. But many things about Mrs Kadeer need no translation.

Rebiya Kadeer has had an extraordinary career: she rose to become one the richest women and a member of parliament in China, became an activist for Uygur rights, was thrown in jail in 1999, won her freedom, took up residence in the United States, and even survived an apparent assassination attempt in Washington DC. 61 years old in 2009, she is the mother of 11 children, diminutive and wears a trim black long skirt and jacket topped by an embroidered black Central Asian cap. She often plays with her two traditional Uygur plaits of hair, thick, long and reaching down to her waist, and her serenely beautiful face and compelling manner are passionate and commanding.

Like Isa Alptekin, she insists on the non-violent nature of her increasingly successful quest to unify the squabbling factions of Uygur exiles and to win international recognition of the Uygur cause. Her goal is to win the same status enjoyed by the Dalai Lama. As a one-woman human force field, working the world from Washington, she certainly has a much better chance of doing so than Alptekin did in Istanbul.

Her people, the Uygurs (sometimes spelled Uyghurs or Uighurs), can only be included in the broadest of all possible definitions of the Middle East, since they are a distant Turkic-speaking Muslim people in Central Asia. Their claim to importance is that they are half the population of Xinjiang, itself one-sixth of China’s territory. The problem is that their 8 million population is a drop in the ocean of 1.3 billion Chinese. They are being crushed by fate, history, overwhelming immigration by ethnic Han Chinese and an extraordinarily strict and illiberal approach by Beijing, about which I wrote at length in Sons of the Conquerors.

Our conversation reminded me of a problem that is a theme of Dining with al Qaeda: the question of  what makes a violent Islamist or a terrorist. For me, Islamism is closely bound up with nationalism, indeed I’d say these two phenomena are two sides of the same coin. Mrs Kadeer also saw them as closely linked, a reaction to the way the Chinese first neutralized Uygur religious leaders in the mid 1990s, then the intellectuals and urban commercial middle class like herself and her husband in the late 1990s.

When I visited Xinjiang in 1999, Chinese government bulldozers were driving great boulevards through Uygur neighborhoods in towns – work that is now nearly done, with the Uygurs pushed out of their old courtyard homes to soulless apartment blocks — but they had left alone the villages and the traditional, almost mediaeval lifestyle there. In recent years, Mrs Kadeer said, Uygurs felt that this rural repository of their culture was increasingly under threat from population transfers and work-seeking immigration of young Uygur women to the industrial towns of the Chinese east – according to her, a key factor behind the outburst of violence in Urumqi this year.

Given her feeling of being part of a culture under existential threat, she says she cannot bring herself to label the occasional Uygur “Islamist” militants who use violence as terrorists, at the same as she is trying to dissuade her people from using such tactics. “We have marginal groups, but we won’t say [they are] terrorists. China has put them in this state,” she said.

As a journalist, I faced the same problem when writing about the Middle East. Using the ‘terror’ label made it look as though I’d taken sides, whether in relation to Iranian policies, the Palestinians’ struggle against Israel, or the Turkish Kurd rebellion against the Turkish government. Militant groups’ actions could deliberately or inevitably kill civilians — my understanding of a terrorist act — but then so could the actions of the state they were fighting — which people called terrorist only if they disapproved its politics. I do use the word terrorist as an adjective to describe to individual outrages. But I try to avoid using the noun “terrorism” or “terrorist” as an adjective to describe groups that have real popular support, and among whom I live and report. There is no neutral path to take. Whether I use or don’t use the term, it makes one side or the other think I’ve taken sides against them.

The underlying point she made was about why young people sometimes turned to Islam. “The Uygurs were very desperate, so they embraced God,”  as she put it. I’ve seen the same thing even in Israel, where my research assistant said her sister adopted the Orthodox Jewish tradition of a wig to cover her hair because she thought the difficulties faced by Israel were a punishment by God for lack of adherence to religious ways.

Those difficulties in Israel pale in comparison with the hopelessness of the Uygur fight for more rights – “our people are crushed” as Mrs Kadeer puts it. These days, when the world is increasingly turning to Beijing on many matters, it seems anachronistic to suppose that the Uygurs are “splittists” automatically seeking a separate and doubtless impoverished state of their own. In fact, Beijing would be well advised to seek some compromise with a charismatic, secular leader who can unite most Uygurs and better manage this aspect of the complex minority issue within China, rather than to scorn her and face the near-certainty of endless tensions and Islamist radicalization over the coming decades in Xinjiang. Any Chinese researchers who came to visit Mrs Kadeer in Washington and really talk to her would soon be convinced of that too.

(title note: News from Tartary is the title of one of my favorite Central Asia books, by Peter Fleming, elder brother of James Bond creator Ian Fleming. In it Fleming describes his daring journey through Xinjiang and China in the 1930s. The title’s evocation of utter obscurity reminds me of the way my account of visiting the Uygurs only saw the light of day in newsprint when a Sons of the Conquerors chapter excerpt appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal Asia as a news story a whole six years – yes, six years – after I had visited Xinjiang. Nothing had much changed in that time, and judging by Rebiya Kadeer’s and visitors’ accounts, I believe that today the situation is not qualitatively much different).

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