by Stephen Schwartz
IN EARLY JUNE, partisans of democracy in China commemorated the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre of June 3-4, 1989--one of the events of a remarkable year that dramatized the accuracy of Ronald Reagan's description of communism as evil. In retrospect, the killing of students and workers protesting peacefully in Beijing's famous square can be seen as a kind of forewarning that the fall of the Soviet empire would not bring the final end of communism.
One observance of the Tiananmen anniversary, in Washington over Memorial Day, brought new lessons about China. This was the fourth national convention of the Uighur American Association (UAA).
The Uighurs (pronounced "Weeghers") are a Turkic people in the region of northwestern China that Beijing calls Xinjiang and the Uighurs call Eastern Turkestan. They are linked to Tiananmen in the person of Wu'er Kaixi, a prominent figure in the 1989 democracy movement, and a Uighur, who spoke at the recent convention.
The Uighurs, who number at least 9 million, are overwhelmingly Muslims, of the spiritual, Sufi variety. The primary message the conference spokesmen sought to convey to Americans is simple. As Wu'er Kaixi put it, "Beijing will never accept political or ethnic pluralism, without significant pressure from other countries. Nationalism is the basis of the Communist party's continued domination of China." As evidence, he cited Beijing's unsympathetic attitude toward Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, and other properties it considers rightfully its own, as well as the Communist authorities' intention, noted in official Chinese media and Western news reports in May, to impose unification by 2008.
There are only a thousand or so Uighurs in America, but we are likely to hear more of them as their aggrieved community inside China resists the intensifying nationalism sponsored by Beijing.
"We are in the same position as the Tibetans," says Erkin Alptekin--president of the World Uighur Congress in Munich, a former Uighur-language broadcaster for Radio Liberty, and a leading figure at the UAA convention. "The Chinese want to replace us with their own people as colonists, and assimilate those of us who remain, wiping out our culture." Alim Seytoff, UAA president, points out that Uighur-language education is now limited, and university courses must be taught in Chinese. There are no independent media in the Uighur tongue, and U.S.-funded Radio Liberty, Alptekin's former employer, discontinued its Uighur-language service in 1979 as a favor to the Chinese.
At the same time, the Uighurs have a curious bit part in the saga of Islamic extremism.
First, there are reportedly 22 Uighurs among those interned at Guantanamo Bay. According to Alptekin, there are several reasons for this. Some Uighurs were trained by the Chinese, in tandem with the Pakistanis, to fight the Russians in Afghanistan.
Chinese repression drove other Uighurs to flee into Afghanistan (which has a short border with China); these people were natural targets for al Qaeda and Taliban recruitment. Still others were Uighur children sent by their parents to Pakistan to escape Communist indoctrination--only to be trained in jihad and shipped off to fight in Kashmir, then to defend the Taliban.
A Uighur organization, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), was declared a terrorist group by the State Department in 2002 at the insistence of the Chinese, who alleged it had ties to al Qaeda. However, information about the ETIM is hard to come by, and before September 11, 2001, according to Alptekin, the Chinese party secretary of Xinjiang, Wang Lequan, denied there was terrorism in his bailiwick. The global war on terror has been "hijacked by Beijing," according to Alptekin, as an excuse to brand all Uighurs as Islamist radicals.
Alptekin insists, however, that he and his World Uighur Congress have made nonviolence a basic principle of their activities. Armed resistance to the Chinese would only lead to more victimization, he told me. Few Uighurs seek their own state, Islamic or otherwise. According to Wu'er Kaixi, "we don't ask for independence, but for respect, and an end to forced assimilation."
Chinese respect for minority rights will doubtless be a long time coming, and in the meantime foreigners can exploit local grievances for their own benefit. Central Asian experts have long warned that the vast tracts where the Uighurs and other Chinese Muslims live have been infiltrated by Saudi/Wahhabi agents. Before September 11, according to the Uzbek authorities, these agitators dreamed of seizing the oil-rich and nuclear-technology-littered states of former Soviet Central Asia, including Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, as well as Uzbekistan, and joining them to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Grabbing a slice of Eastern Turkestan from the Chinese was considered a major side goal.
China probably has more Muslims living outside a Muslim-ruled state than any other country. In addition to the Uighurs, the vast country has a Chinese-speaking Muslim community of up to 20 million called the Hui, also living in the northwest. The Hui have been the object of extensive evangelism, going back a century, by Wahhabis from Arabia, assisted by Hui returning from the pilgrimage to Mecca. As presented by Professor Dru C. Gladney of the University of Hawaii at Moana, a leading Western expert on Chinese Islam, Wahhabism in Chinese dress enjoys the backing of the Communist authorities. In a 1999 paper entitled "The Salafiyya Movement in Northwest China: Islamic Fundamentalism among the Muslim Chinese?" Gladney averred that Beijing has supported an explicit Wahhabi trend in Chinese Islam, through a movement called the Yihewani.
This group takes its name from the extremist Ikhwan, or brotherhoods that helped found the Saudi state in the 1920s and then emerged, in somewhat different form, as the radical Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
According to Gladney, Chinese Wahhabism has millions of devotees, who show all the characteristics of the creed's Saudi inventors, beginning with hatred of Sufism. With the founding of the People's Republic of China, the state quickly suppressed all Sufi orders, and endorsed the Chinese Wahhabis, financing an official "China Islamic Association" under their influence (much like the puppet "Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association" and similar phony Christian bodies). Beijing renewed state patronage of the Yihewani after Mao's so-called Cultural Revolution, which featured widescale depredations against all religious groups.
So while ethnic suppression has driven some Uighurs toward al Qaeda, official Chinese Islam promotes the Wahhabi ideology from which al Qaeda sprang. Either way, ordinary Chinese Muslims, whose total numbers are unknown, are being shoved in the wrong direction.
The lesson here was well articulated by Erkin Alptekin: "The United States should raise the problem of the Uighurs to the same level as that of the Tibetans, and pressure China to open dialogue with all its minorities," even if the Chinese government resents it. The alternative: more, rather than fewer, recruits for Islamist terrorism, drawn from the turbulence of China.