Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Uighur Watch

The title of this post loses some of its alliterative zing if you don't know how to pronounce the first word. In America, we usually pronounce it "Weeger," hence the repeating w sound. But from some people in the know, I've actually heard it said "Oi-Ger," which sounds a bit more Turkic to me.

Whatever you call them, the Uighurs are an intriguing people group. About 9 million of them occupy Xinjiang province, which covers the northwest quadrant of China's huge landmass. I encountered them on a trip to Xinjiang last year, and I was so interested that I decided to write one of my term papers about them.

Uighurs are predominately Sunni Muslims, Turkic people more closely related to Central Asians in the "Stan" countries than they are to the Han Chinese. As such, they really stick out in China. In contrast to the Hui people, China's other large Muslim ethnic minority, the Uighurs look almost Middle Eastern. Walking through the Uighur section of Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital, is much more like a scene from Jordan than Beijing.

Uighurs aren't on great terms with the Chinese, whom they see as encroaching on Uighur homeland. The Chinese (the government at least) don't much care for Uighurs either, so Xinjiang is an interesting limbo, a forced coexistence between groups trapped in stark borders established by the Qing dynasty in the late 1800s, now maintained by a resource-hungry Communist government in Beijing.

This conflict has caused some skirmishes in the past. Uighur separatists have been blamed for bus bombings on a two or three occasions in the past 20 years. Perhaps the most interesting time period in modern Uighur history was the late 1940s. As the Communists and Nationalists fought it out for control of the Mainland, the Uighurs set up independent state they called the East Turkestan Republic. But the honeymoon was short-lived. Mao consolidated power and the fragmented four-year-old republic could do little but surrender.

As more Han Chinese migrant to Xinjiang, the animosity persists, but without violence for the most part. People usually maintain the status quo, but Uighur groups sometimes complain about human rights abuses by the Chinese government, which claims that all its minority groups have religious freedom. Uighur watchdog groups here in America try to promote awareness about these abuses, and many still hold onto the hope for an independent republic.

I say all this to say that I'm now searching for Uighurs in Atlanta or the surrounding area, so I can learn more about them. Many have come to America for political asylum, and I'm looking to befriend some here. The closest I've gotten is Birmingham. I received that tip from a Turkish guy I interviewed not to long ago and I have a few other leads to sniff out. Uighurs, I'm watching.

The Uighur pictured (far right) owned 60 sheep, and we rented his 4x4 to visit a remote hot springs resort.

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