Friday, 26 July 2019 00:00

China's Brutality Can't Destroy Uighur Culture

Screen Shot 2019-07-31 at 10.42.14 AM

A police vehicle patrols in Kashgar, China, June 25, 2017. PHOTO: JOHANNES EISELE/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES via Wall Street Journal

The Turkic people has an ancient language and traditions. Even Mao didn't expect to erase it.

By S. Frederick Starr

July 26, 2019

Uighurs are one of the oldest Turkic peoples and were the first to become urbanized. When the ancestors of modern Turks were still nomadic, Uighurs were settling into sophisticated cities. One of their branches, known today as the Karakhanids, had a capital at Kashgar, near China’s modern border with Kyrgyzstan. When Karakhanids conquered the great Silk Road city of Samarkand, they established a major hospital and endowed not only the doctors’ salaries but the cost of heating, lighting and food. That was 1,000 years ago, before the Normans conquered England.

Uighurs were active experimenters in religion. Besides their traditional animism, they embraced Buddhism, Manichaeism, Christianity and finally Islam. They were also among the first Turkic peoples to develop a written language. And with writing came literature and science.

Yusuf of Balasagun (c. 1020-70) was chancellor of the Karakhanid state. His “Wisdom of Royal Glory” celebrates the active and civic life. Rejecting mystic Sufism, Yusuf embraced the here and now, proclaiming that “the next world is won through this world.” The widely read text helped popularize a literary version of the Turkic language, the equivalent of the works of Chaucer in English or Dante in Italian. His rhymed couplets bemoaning the disenchantments that come with the passage of time reach across the centuries.

A contemporary of Yusuf was Mahmud of Kashgar, a pioneer linguist, ethnographer and geographer. Mahmud spent much of his career in Baghdad, capital of the Abbasid Caliphate. He knew that the Arab Caliph was totally dependent on Turkic soldiers and civil servants, but saw how the Arab rulers scorned and segregated them as second-class citizens. Mahmud’s mission was to promote Turkic peoples and to encourage Arabic and Persian speakers to learn Turkic languages.

Both Yusuf and Mahmud have been considered saints in Uighur culture, and they remain part of the public consciousness. The Chinese government doesn’t dare touch their grand mausoleums near Kashgar, so instead it seeks to strip the two Uighur heroes of their religion and ethnicity, regarding their monuments as undifferentiated landmarks in a Chinese world.

Meanwhile, Kashgar itself, which was 99% Turkic when Mao Zedong conquered it in 1949, is rapidly being transformed into a Han Chinese city. The government has bulldozed much of the old city and entire districts of traditional Uighur homes, replacing them with generic Chinese high rises. In Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang, the Han are now an overwhelming majority, and Kashgar is fast following suit.

Beijing hopes its ruthless “Strike Hard” campaign will stamp out the Uighurs as a distinct group. But sheer numbers will make that effort near impossible. Official data put the Turkic population of Xinjiang at 8.6 million, but it is likely well over 10 million. To exterminate them would require a double Holocaust.

Beijing’s alternative to genocide is to destroy the language and culture, but a culture’s identity cannot be so easily destroyed. Memories of Yusuf, Mahmud, scores of other poets and saints, the language, folklore, cuisine and way of life are simply too deeply rooted. The Uighurs also have developed coping mechanisms. While the government demands that boys be sent to Chinese schools, girls are continuing the study of their native language. Efforts to suppress the Uighurs’ culture will further radicalize them and drive their lives deeper underground.

The Uighur tragedy now holds the world’s attention. Beijing has managed to bribe Saudi Arabia, Turkey and several other Muslim countries into silence, but the gag order cannot be sustained for long. Meanwhile, multiple countries near and far now host large, well-educated and active communities of Uighur expatriates. They report on developments in Xinjiang that might otherwise pass unnoticed and provide Uighurs at home a channel to communicate with the world. They also translate books and articles into Uighur, which helps their co-nationals in Xinjiang overcome their isolation.

Even Mao recognized the distinctness and resilience of the Uighur people. Faced with the vast territory of Xinjiang that was overwhelmingly Turkic and Muslim, he named it the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. He thus acknowledged the Uighurs’ identity and proposed to grant them a degree of self-government.

Three-quarters of a century later, the only workable solution is still for Beijing to give Uighurs and the other Turkic peoples of Xinjiang more political and cultural autonomy. If China’s other provinces demand the same treatment, President Xi Jinping can remind them that he is simply following Mao’s lead on the issue and not advancing a new model for Chinese governance as a whole. It might seem unlikely that Beijing would back down in such a way. But its alternative is to continue a costly conflict that brings shame at home and abroad and is unlikely ever to subdue the proud and ancient Uighur people.

Mr. Starr is editor of “Xinjiang: China’s Muslim Borderland” and author of “Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age,” which is being translated into Uighur.

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News

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    In 2016, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program launched an initiative on documenting the interrelationship of religion and the secular state in the region. This initiative departed from the fact that little systematic reserch had been undertaken on the subject thus far. While there was and remains much commentary and criticism of religious policy in the region, there was no comprehensive analysis available on the interrelationship of religion and the state in any regional state, let alone the region as a whole. The result of this initiative has been the publication of six Silk Road Papers studying the matter in regional states, with more to come. In addition, work is ongoing on a volume putting the regional situation in the context of the Muslim world as a whole.

     

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    Articles and Analyses

    Svante E. Cornell, "Religion and the State in Central Asia," in Ilan Berman, ed., Wars of Ideas: Theology, Interpretation and Power in the Muslim World, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.

    Svante E. Cornell, "Central Asia: Where Did Islamic Radicalization Go?" in Religion, Conflict and Stability in the Former Soviet Union, eds. Katya Migacheva and Bryan Frederick, Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2018.

  • Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories
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  • Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict
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    Develop a substantial and prolonged Western initiative on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

    o This initiative must be led by the United States, in close consultation with its European partners – primarily the EU Commission and External Action Service, and France. Barring some process to reinvigorate the Minsk Process – a doubtful proposition given Western-Russian relations in the foreseeable future – Western leaders must be prepared to bypass that process, utilizing it where appropriate but focusing their initiative on developing direct negotiations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders.

    o The U.S. and its European partners must abandon the practice of relying solely on the Minsk Group co-chairs to resolve the Karabakh conflict. These diplomats have contributed greatly to formulating a workable framework agreement. However, strong and sustained U.S. Government leadership from the top level is needed to complement or, failing that, to replace the Minsk Process. In practice, this means the expressed support of the President, involvement of the White House, and leadership manifested in the appointment of a distinguished citizen as Special Envoy for the resolution of the conflict.

    o The EU must take a more clearly defined and substantial role in the process, by integrating to the highest degree possible the French co-chairmanship of the Minsk Group with EU institutions. While Washington will need to take the lead on the political side, it would be natural for the EU to take the lead in organizing an international development program for the currently occupied Azerbaijani provinces and Karabakh itself. That effort, too, would need to be led by a senior EU figure.

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    In 2011, CACI & SRSP helped launch an extensive study of the steps needed for the post-conflict rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's occupied territories, in cooperation with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus. The monograph "Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories" can be accessed here

     

    More background resources:

    Svante E. Cornell, "Can America Stop a Wider War Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?", The National Interest, October 2020

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, Occupied Elsewhere: Selective Policies on Occupation, Foundation For Defense of Democracies, January 2020. 

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, "The U.S. Needs to Declare War on Proxies", Foreign Policy, January 27, 2020

    Svante E. Cornell, “The Raucous Caucasus”, American Interest, May 2017

    Svante E. Cornell, Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, RoutledgeCurzon, 2001.

    Svante E. Cornell, The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, Uppsala University, 1999

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     “Cross-Border Escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 9/25/20, Natalia Konarzewska

    Russia and Turkey: Behind the Armenia-Azerbaijan Clashes?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 8/31/20, Avinoam Idan

    Armenia and the U.S.: Time for New Thinking?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 10/2/19, Eduard Abrahamyan.

    Why Washington Must Re-Engage the CaucasusCentral Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 7/8/19, Stephen Blank

    Azerbaijan’s Defense Industry Reform”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 5/7/19, Tamerlan Vahabov.

    Military Procurements on Armenia's and Azerbaijan's Defense Agendas”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/27/19, Ilgar Gurbanov

    Armenia's New Government Struggles with Domestic and External Opposition,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/20/19, Armen Grigorian.

    Bolton's Caucasian Tour and Russia's Reaction”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 12/17/18, Eduard Abrahamyan.