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 graduate student, although 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.

Strike Hard

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.

Tursun's Journey

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 official 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, which 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 Uighur culture."

"It will be very difficult," she adds. "Where will I find the funds? And everything has to go through China. I have very big 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

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