Freedom Song in Xinjiang

Jul 16 2009 / 5:55 pm

Aijaz Zaka Syed – Dubai

Xinjiang does not exist. For nearly a century, China has done everything to help the world forget about the existence of its large and once vibrant Muslim region. Like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World, it had been conveniently forgotten by the world, including China’s numerous Muslim neighbours as well as the rest of the Muslim world. 

While China has tried to suppress the Islamic identity of Xinjiang and its proud Muslims before and during the Communist rule like a dirty secret, what amazes one most is the wilful and shameful role most Muslim countries have played in this systematic marginalisation and obliteration of the distinct Islamic character and identity of the Uighurs. 

They may not have nodded in collusion but by looking the other way, with the rest of the world, they helped in the most ruthless purge of a great people and culture. So much so for years few in the next door Pakistan, Afghanistan and beyond knew what had been going on in the red paradise. As for the Middle East, the less said the better. The Arabs have been so busy tending to their own little turf wars that they have had little time or patience to think about the poor Uighurs. 

Even the ineffective angels of the OIC, who have over the years dutifully passed those perfunctory resolutions, on Palestine to Chechnya and on Kosovo to Kashmir, did not ever cast a cursory glance beyond the Karakoram toward Xinjiang.  

Which is perhaps why the magnitude and intensity of the uprising in Xinjiang this month have come as a huge surprise to the world, reminding it of the existence of China’s forgotten Muslims.      

Clearly, you cannot suppress a people — however vulnerable and powerless — forever even if you have one of the world’s most powerful armies and states at your disposal. Ask Israel. Ask Uncle Sam, woefully stuck and spread thin from Iraq to Afghanistan to Pakistan. Why, the wise old Chinese could have even asked their equally big neigbbours across the endless border. The Russians are still licking their wounds sustained in Afghanistan. 
If Beijing thought it could “integrate” Xinjiang by force into the so-called One China, just as it did in the case of Tibet, or just as the Russians have been trying with disastrous results in Chechnya, it has been proven wrong. And how!

The spectacular protests in Xinjiang’s capital Urumchi or Urumqui this month go to prove that the brute force and tanks and endless indoctrination cannot crush a free-spirited people’s will to live life their own way. Freedom will find its way even in the remotest and most terrorised corners of the world.
The massive government crackdown killing more than 140 people in Urumqui has been the biggest case of using raw state power against a civilian population since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. However, it got lukewarm response in the Western media that went delirious over the opposition protests in Iran last month, playing them over and over again. 

Interestingly, in both Iran and Xinjiang the protesters happened to be young Muslims demanding their rights and protesting injustice. Yet they received decidedly different treatment from the world media and global champions of democracy and human rights. But this is not about the classic Western hypocrisy and dual standards. What interests me more is how with changing times authoritarian regimes everywhere as well as liberal democracies are finding it difficult to keep the long subjugated people under their thumb. In the global village where time and space have lost their meaning and borders are increasingly shrinking assailed by the 24/7 satellite television and Internet, you cannot keep a people locked away against their will forever. Like life and nature, freedom finds a way — to express itself. And when it does so, nothing can stop it. Not even the most fearsome armies, or their awesome weapons.
It’s all the more difficult to do so when those at the receiving end happen to be Muslims. Historically, Muslims have seldom given in to tyranny, wherever they are. Call them terrorists or what you will, but they just can’t come to terms with injustice and oppression and suffer in silence, whether it is in the sleepy Xinjiang or the cold climes of Chechnya. Thanks to years of duplicitous colonial policies and America’s never-ending wars, localized sources of anger and conflict around the world are coalescing into a global movement of resistance. Like it or not, a new global Muslim consciousness is taking shape and this is not just confined to the Muslim heartlands but envelopes regions as diverse and dissimilar as Kosovo and Kashmir.

Increasingly, Muslim resistance groups and movements are inspiring, influencing and responding to each other even as they defy all modern notions of borders and nation states.

China has accused both Al Qaeda as well as the ‘CIA-backed separatist leaders’ based in the US for the current crisis. But what could be really at work here are the liberating influences of what is happening across the Muslim world, especially next door in Pakistan and Afghanistan. No matter what China might have persuaded the Uighurs all these years but they are not willing to part with their Islamic identity and still see themselves as a living part of the Muslim world.

More important, China’s Muslims have suffered long enough and obviously cannot take it any longer. With Hans Chinese systemically taking over their lands, homes and jobs, the Uighurs are facing an existential crisis that is not very different from what has happened in Palestine. Turkey’s Reccep Erdogan was not far off the mark when he accused Beijing of ‘genocide’ in Xinjiang.
As the centre and destination of the global trade along the fabled Silk Route, Xinjiang had once been one of the richest and most culturally vibrant civilisations in the world. This is the land that attracted hordes of traders from the Middle East, Africa and Europe for thousands of years including the legendary travellers such as Marco Polo and Ibn Batuta. The region with its ancient cities like Kashgar had once been part of the Caliphate. 

No wonder Kashgar was a constant point of reference for the South Asian bard Iqbal as he talked of the Muslim glory from the river Nile to the edges of Kashgar (Nile ke sahel se lekar tha ba khake Kashgar…).
It’s a real shame therefore what a mess successive rulers of China have made of this ancient centre of civilisation and culture and its proud people. It’s all the more unfortunate considering China historically has had excellent relations with Islam, right from the time of the Prophet.

Some of ancient China’s top generals and statesmen have been Muslims (one such hero is celebrated by Dubai’s Ibn Batuta Mall reliving a little known piece of history). Even today, a whopping majority in the Arab and Muslim world sees the Asian giant as a friend and a healthy counterweight to the West’s tyranny.
After 9/11, the Arabs have increasingly reached out to China investing heavily in its exploding industries and markets. China’s direct trade with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and other Arab states has multiplied incredibly fast over the past couple of years. All this could change if China does not change its ways of treating its Muslims. And if festering wounds in Xinjiang are not treated soon, Beijing could have a problem on its hands that would make the Tiananmen Square carnage look like picnic.  

- Aijaz Zaka Syed is Opinion Editor of Khaleej Times. He contributed this article to Contact him at:

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