April 7, 2004
The Uighurs and the
War on Terror
By Doug McGill
The McGill Report
ROCHESTER, MN -- A complete
list of the victims of 9/11 would include Amina Tursun, a St. Paul
she was nowhere near New York City
or Washington on the day of the attack.
She was living in St. Paul at the time. But in the months following
the attack, the Chinese government discovered it could use America's
war on terrorism to intensify a repressive campaign against a little-known
minority group in Western China to which Tursun and her family belong.
"I am at high risk for being spied on by the Chinese," said
Tursun, a member of the Uighur minority of western China. "The U.S.
government will protect me here, but who will protect my family still
in China?" The name Amina Tursun is, in fact, a pseudonym so the
Chinese authorities cannot use this article to locate her relatives.
The Uighur (pronounced WEE-gurr) are a Caucasian Turkic people who weave
beautiful carpets, grow 60 percent of China's cotton, and farm some of
the world's finest grapes, melons and pomegranates. Most Uighur are Muslims
although very liberal ones, and most Uighur women do not wear a veil.
The Uighurs look like Turks, speak a Turkic language, eat Turkic food,
sing Turkic songs, and dance Turkic dances.
Nevertheless, they are Chinese citizens because their land, on China's
remote western border, was annexed by China and called Xinjiang Province
after the Communist Revolution of 1949. China covets Uighur territory
because it contains enormous proven oil reserves; is agriculturally fertile
in many places; and is sparsely populated.
Poor and overcrowded everywhere else, China for more than 20 years has
thus resettled millions of ethnic Han Chinese into Xinjiang Province,
which Uighurs call East Turkestan. In recent years, as the Uighurs have
become a minority population in their own land, more and more of them
have vocally protested the takeover of their region by China.
Things worsened after 9/11, when China stepped up repression of Uighurs
in the name of "rooting out radical Islamic terrorists." For
example, a national "Strike Hard" campaign aimed at common
criminals was targeted at Uighur activists in Xinjiang. Today, fear of
arrest for even casual promotion of Uighur nationhood is at an all-time
high, as China has in recent years jailed hundreds of Uighur patriots,
and executed dozens.
In August 2002, the U.S. government added to the Uighurs woes when
it placed an obscure Uighur Muslim group on the State Department's
list of global "terrorist organizations." Despite strong evidence
that the group has no ties whatsoever to al-Qaida, China used the listing
as an excuse to increase surveillance of Uighur groups, expand its programs
to "re-educate" Uighur imams, and broaden attacks on Uighur "terrorists."
In 2002, China outlawed use of the Uighur language in all schools and
public places such as courthouses, sports arenas, and government offices.
The Uighur community in the United States numbers about 500, with Amina
probably the only Uighur living in Minnesota. She knows most of the Uighur
refugees in the United States, but knows none but herself in this state.
Tursun's journey to America began at precisely the moment her radicalization
against China began -- when she applied for a passport to study Russian
in neighboring Kazakhstan in the late 1990s. Russian is widely spoken
in East Turkestan and is helpful in getting good jobs.
"I'd spent three months getting a special letter written, and the
passport officer tore it up," she recalls. "The officer yelled
at me, 'You know why I am not giving you a passport! You are a Uighur!
You know we have a separate policy for the Uighur people. Why do you
want to go to Kazakhstan? It's because you want to go and join the separatists,
the splittists, the terrorists!' When I objected, he called the police.
Carpets and Silks
"When the police came, seven of them jumped me. They beat me
on my chest and chopped at my head and my arms. They tore my shirt,
was under my jacket, and they broke one of my fingers. We were on the
second floor and they grabbed me by my arms and legs, bent my head
down, and they carried me down the stairs and threw me on the street."
In St. Paul, Tursun's dream is to start her own company. "My goal
is to have a business for my people," she says. "I want to
build an import-export business in Uighur carpets and silks. If I only
buy from Uighur I will create jobs for Uighur people and help preserve
"It will be very difficult," she adds. "Where will
I find the funds? And everything has to go through China. I have very
dreams. But sometimes I think of a Uighur saying, 'We are the egg, and
China is the stone. If the egg hits the stone, which one will break?'"
Copyright @ 2005 The McGill Report