Exploring China’s Wild West

December 17, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

The Jakarta Globe

silk road hotan There is a smell of goats, fresh bread and melons. A cacophony of bleating animals rises, mixed with conversations full of hard-edged Turkic gutturals. A small boy clambers deftly onto the back of an unbroken, barrel-bellied pony, and reining it back sharply he somehow stays in place as it gallops wildly over the stony ground. Horse-trading elders with beards and skull caps look on with approval and begin to count wads of tattered money. Above everything arches a vast Central Asian sky.

I am in China, but here, at the Sunday livestock bazaar on the outskirts of Kashgar, an ancient city in the southwest corner of Xinjiang, I have to keep reminding myself of that fact.

Xinjiang is China’s Wild West, a state of deserts and mountains peopled by Muslim Uighurs, and leaning more to Bokhara than Beijing. It has long had a troubled relationship with the rest of the country, slipping in and out of effective Chinese control as imperial power waxed and waned over the centuries. Today the tensions continue. In July, protests by Uighurs in Urumqi, the state capital, turned violent and a government crackdown followed. But unlike in neighboring Tibet, the government has kept Xinjiang open to tourists. When I arrive in Kashgar on a long-distance train, rolling though vineyards and pomegranate orchards, there has been a state-wide telecommunications shutdown for over four months and army trucks bearing antiseparatist slogans were rolling down the streets. But I am free to go wherever I like, and the first place I head is Kashgar’s famous Sunday Market.

Kashgar stands astride the ancient Silk Road, the much-mythologized trade route that once linked China with Europe. From here trails led east along the fringes of the desert, and west over mountain passes. For centuries, people, religions and ideas passed along the caravan routes. The Uighurs’ Turkic ancestors dropped out of the mountains in the sixth century. Before them, Buddhism, Manichaeism and Nestorian Christianity had traveled west. A few centuries later, Islam arrived.

Today a hint of this old romance survives — the borders of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan lie within 150 kilometers of Kashgar, and trade goes on in weekly markets across the region. In the Kashgar Sunday Market I see carpets, fruits and embroidered cloth, mixed in with everyday metals and plastics. Women in sparkling headscarves jostle with old men in embroidered pillbox hats.

But the Chinese government is determinedly dragging Xinjiang into the mainstream. The market has now been corralled into a modern complex, and beyond it new high-rises tower over the remnants of the old mud-walled city. In recent years, swathes of the Uighur old town have been bulldozed, and immigration from other parts of China has been encouraged. These moves — and the dominance of immigrant Han Chinese in the job market — have only increased tensions. English-speaking Uighurs I meet on my journey whisper their disquiet in hushed, paranoid tones. A man at the Sunday Market explains the resentment at the destruction of old Kashgar.

“There is no privacy in a Chinese apartment,” he says. “Our traditional houses are built around a courtyard so we all live together, but with privacy. We don’t want to live in apartments.”

Looking for something a little more authentic, I head to the livestock bazaar. It is a glorious chaos of goats, donkeys, horses and sheep and haggling men in fabulous hats. I am hoping to see a camel or two — real evidence that I am on the Silk Road — but to my disappointment there are none. I console myself with a plate of greasy kebabs and plot my onward journey.

From Kashgar I head east. Human habitation in Xinjiang has long been squeezed into the narrow margin between the mountains and the desert. A string of oases runs along what was once the southern branch of the Silk Road. My first stop is Yarkand — a place once as fabled as Samarkand or Xanadu. During Xinjiang’s periods of independence from Chinese rule, Yarkand was usually the capital city. It was also the terminus of skeleton-strewn caravan trails over the mountains from India.

Today, it is a backwater. A Uighur old town of mud alleyways remains, and a dusty graveyard of royal tombs studded with the faded flags of mystic Sufi cults sprawls behind a medieval mosque with a vine-shaded courtyard. A modern Chinese town of arrow-straight boulevards dominates, but away to the south I can pick out the faint white line of the Kun Lun mountains, the back wall of the entire Himalayan range.

From the next oasis, Karghilik, I take a taxi into those hills along a road that leads, eventually, to Tibet. An army check-point by the chilly banks of the Tiznaf River is as far as I can go, but I scramble up a steep brown slope to take in the view. A mass of brown mountains, ribbed and scored with dark shadow, spreads east and west. Behind them, rising in a glittering white line, is the backbone of the Kun Lun. This was the barrier that Silk Road traders from India once had to cross en route to Kashgar, Yarkand, and my own final destination — Hotan.

The road to Hotan blazes across the stony desert, the mountains floating to the south. The vast void that surrounds it makes arrival in Hotan a strange experience, for here, at the very limit of China’s vastness, is another large, modern town. As a Uighur heartland, the Chinese government has been particularly keen to integrate Hotan with the rest of the country. Roads from the north now plough straight across the Taklamakan Desert, and from next year a railway line will link it to Kashgar. A Uighur man I meet at a kebab stall hisses, “When the railway is ready we will be finished — Hotan will be all Chinese.”

But something remains here: a week has passed and it is time for Hotan’s own Sunday Market. Nothing has been regimented here; the bazaar sprawls over a vast area, filling all the lanes and alleys of the old quarter with a mass of color and commerce. There are sections given over to cloth and carpets, to the jade mined from the banks of nearby rivers, to animals and even tractors. Donkey carts clatter through the crowds, the drivers calling out “ Bosh! Bosh! ” (“Coming through!”). When I am tired of wandering I feast on laghman (Uighur noodles) and slices of fresh watermelon.

And as I leave the market I spot something — what I had hoped to see in Kashgar. A boy is leading a pair of shaggy, twin-humped Bactrian camels through the crowd. They are enormous beasts and they pass through the chaos unperturbed and disappear among the trucks. I stare after them as they go, now sure, despite the political tensions and the heavy-handed Chinese modernization, that I am in Central Asia, and on the Silk Road.

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Myths and Facts about al-Qaeda

September 3, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

By Karin Friedemann, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)

al_qaeda The media myth of a global Islamic conspiracy never got much traction in America before 2001 because the minority Muslim American population simply did not seem like much of a threat, because Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States are loyal US allies, and because Americans generally have a positive attitude toward wealthy investors. After 9/11 pro-Israel propagandists exploited public ignorance and created a nightmarish fantasy of al-Qaeda in order to put the US and allies into conflict with the entire Islamic world. What is al-Qaeda? What do they believe? What do they actually do?

Osama bin Laden first used the term “al-Qaeda” in an interview in 1998, probably in reference to a 1988 article written by Palestinian activist Abdullah Azzam entitled “al-Qa`ida al-Sulba” (the Solid Foundation). In it, Azzam elaborates upon the ideas of the Egyptian scholar Sayed Qutb to explain modern jihadi principles. Qutb, author of Social Justice in Islam, is viewed as the founder of modern Arab-Islamic political religious thought. Qutb is comparable to John Locke in Western political development. Both Azzam and Qutb were serious men of exceptional integrity and honor.

While Qutb was visiting the USA in 1949, he and several friends were turned away from a movie theater because the owner thought they were black. ‘But we’re Egyptians,’ one of the group explained. The owner apologized and offered to let them in, but Qutb refused, galled by the fact that black Egyptians could be admitted but black Americans could not,” recounts Lawrence Wright in The Looming Tower. Qutb predicted that the struggle between Islam and materialism would define the modern world. He embraced martyrdom in 1966 in rejection of Arab socialist politics.

Azzam similarly rejected secular Palestinian nationalist politics as an impediment to moral virtue. He opposed terrorist attacks on civilians and had strong reservations about ideas like offensive jihad, or preventive war. He also hesitated to designate any Muslim leader as an apostate and preferred to allow God to make such judgments. Inspired by the courage and piety of Afghan Muslims struggling against the Soviets, Azzam reinterpreted Qutb’s concept of individual and collective obligation of Muslims in his fatwa entitled “Defense of the Muslim Lands, the First Obligation after Iman (Faith).” Qutb would have prioritized the struggle of Egyptian Muslims to transform Egypt into a virtuous Islamic state while Azzam argued that every individual Muslim had an obligation to come to the aid of oppressed Muslims everywhere, whether they are Afghan, Kosovar, Bosnian, Thai, Filipino, or Chechen.

John Calvert of Creighton University writes, “This ideology… would soon energize the most significant jihad movement of modern times.”

At Azzam’s call, Arabs from many countries joined America’s fight against Communism in Afghanistan. No Arab jihadi attack was considered terrorism when Azzam led the group, or later when bin Laden ran the group. Because the global Islamic movement overlapped with the goals of the US government, Arab jihadis worked and traveled frictionlessly throughout the world between Asia, Arabia and America. Azzam was assassinated in Pakistan in 1989, but legends of the courageous sacrifices of the noble Arab Afghans energized the whole Islamic world.

After the Soviets left Afghanistan, bin Laden relocated to Sudan in 1992. At the time he was probably undisputed commander of nothing more than a small group, which became even smaller after he lost practically all his money on Sudan investments. He returned to Afghanistan in 1996, where the younger Afghans, the Taliban welcomed him on account of his reputation as a veteran war hero.

There is no real evidence that bin Laden or al-Qaeda had any connection to the Ugandan and Tanzanian embassy attacks or any of the numerous attacks for which they have been blamed. Pro-Israel propagandists like Daniel Pipes or Matthew Levitt needed an enemy for their war against Muslim influence on American culture more than random explosions in various places needed a central commander. By the time the World Trade Center was destroyed, the Arab fighters surrounding Osama bin Laden were just a dwindling remnant living on past glories of Afghanistan’s struggle against Communism. Al-Qaeda has never been and certainly is not today an immensely powerful terror organization controlling Islamic banks and charities throughout the world.

Al-Qaeda maintained training camps in Afghanistan like Camp Faruq, where Muslims could receive basic training just as American Jews go to Israel for military training with the IDF. There they learned to disassemble, clean and reassemble weapons, and got to associate with old warriors, who engaged in great heroism against the Soviets but did not do much since. Many al-Qaeda trainees went on to serve US interests in Central Asia (e.g. Xinjiang) in the 1990s but from recent descriptions the camps seem to currently provide a form of adventure tourism with no future enlistment obligations.

Although western media treats al-Qaeda as synonymous with Absolute Evil, much of the world reveres the Arab Afghans as martyr saints. Hundreds of pilgrims visit Kandahar’s Arab cemetery daily, believing that the graves of those massacred in the 2001 US bombing of Afghanistan possess miraculous healing powers.

Karin Friedemann is a Boston-based writer on Middle East affairs and US politics. She is Director of the Division on Muslim Civil Rights and Liberties for the National Association of Muslim American Women. Joachim Martillo contributed to this article.

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Uyghurs & Chinese Can Live Together in Peace in East Turkestan

July 23, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Harun Yahya

www.harunyahya.com
www.eastturkestan.net

2009-07-17T085631Z_01_DBG207_RTRMDNP_3_CHINA-XINJIANG

Ethnic Uighurs and Han Chinese Muslims pray together during Friday prayers at Yang Hang mosque in the city of Urumqi in China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region July 17, 2009.       

REUTERS/David Gray

The efforts being made today to stir up ethnic conflict in East Turkestan are extremely dangerous. Our Muslim brothers in East Turkestan have been subjected to various difficulties for the last 60 years or so, but have never turned to violence and conflict. The Uyghur Turks are a noble people, known for their good manners, honesty, fortitude, reconciliatory natures, obedience to the state, loyalty and devotion. These fine people possess excellent virtues, such as forgiveness, loving peace, lovableness, respect for different ideas and beliefs and judging people according to their moral values rather than their race. There has therefore never been any conflict based on ethnicity with the other peoples living in the region, especially the Han Chinese, and neither will there be any in the future. The Uyghur Turks want a climate in which everyone can live together in peace and security, respecting the right to life of everyone in East Turkestan, no matter what their religion or ethnic origin. Some of the main ways in which this can be brought about are as follows:

1. It is obvious that the Uyghur Turks favor peace and security. But peace in the region can only be ensured if the security of our Uyghur brothers is guaranteed. The international community has important responsibilities in that respect. The support of international societies and organizations is essential if it is to be possible for our Uyghur Turk and Chinese brothers are to be able to live in peace. Democratic pressure from these organizations, especially the UN, on the Chinese government, will ensure that the administration follows a line that is more peaceable toward the problems and legitimate demands of our Uyghur brothers and respects their human rights.  When the necessary encouragement and direction is provided, when the international community acts as a guarantor, it will be easier to establish peace in the region.

2. It is natural for China to be keen to protect its national and economic interests. But this cannot be established through oppression and aggression. The path that will make China prosperous and strengthen its economic and social regeneration lies in a conception that respects human rights, is democratic and loving, and that defends freedom of ideas and belief. The only solution that can calm Chinese fears, such as lack of access to energy resources, economic losses, loss of territory or fragmentation is the foundation of the Turkish-Islamic Union. The Turkish-Islamic Union will establish an environment in which borders are lifted, there is freedom of trade and investment and in which all communities have equal access to energy resources. In this way, China will be able to spread its investments over a wide area from Tanzania to Indonesia and sell its good across a wide territory, and Muslims will be able to invest in China on a large scale. China will regenerate rapidly with the establishment of the Turkish-Islamic Union, will be spared from having to use its citizens as a cheap labor force and will enjoy abundance and plenty all over. 

3. Islam is a religion of peace. All forms of violence are sinful in Islam. In the Qur’an, Allah commands Muslims to be forgiving. A Muslim who abides by the Qur’an and follows our Prophet (s) has a duty to be peace-loving, affectionate, loving, compassionate, patient and moderate. The moral values of the Qur’an oblige Muslims to control their anger, to respond to evil with good, to always speak and behave in a pleasant manner, to forgive under even the most difficult circumstances and to behave justly, even if that conflicts with their own interests. The spread of and learning about Islamic moral values is a great benefit for China. If the Chinese government is concerned about the Han Chinese taking in action in terror attacks and wishes to avoid anarchy and violence, then it must encourage the teaching and dissemination of Islamic moral values. In a China inhabited by people who live by the moral values of the Qur’an there will be no need for military occupation and security measures. The unrest and unease will come to a complete stop. The result will be a society made up of individuals who trust and respect one another, treat one another with understanding, are respectful of and loyal to the state and who all live in peace, that spends its money on the wealth of its own citizens instead of military investment, without investing millions of dollars in armaments and employing thousands of security personnel. And the order and equilibrium sought by China will be established naturally.

4. Our Uyghur brothers’ demands for humane conditions, to live freely according to their religion, to be able to worship as they wish, to protect their own culture and maintain their own existence are all justified and human ones. The most effective way of bringing these about is for the Uyghur people to make a cultural leap forward, to improve themselves with an anti-materialist and anti-Darwinist education, to increase their economic strength, and strengthen themselves both materially and spiritually. The Turkic Uyghur people must not forget that they are the most important representatives of Muslims and Islam in China. They must act as models to the Chinese people with their good manners, nobility, modesty, balance and moderation. An Uyghur people who are culturally advanced and materially stronger will clearly have wide opportunities to defend their own rights and also to describe and spread the moral values of Islam. By Allah’s leave, the future of an Uyghur society that loves Allah, protects its own national culture, is anti-Darwinist and anti-materialist, whose members love one another, which perfectly implements Qur’anic moral values and supports peace, love, tolerance and compassion, will be a very bright and excellent one.

The time we are living in is a very holy one, in which Hazrat Mahdi (as) will appear and in which the Prophet Jesus (as) will return to Earth. The time has now come when war and conflict will come to an end, when armament will come to an end, when people will love and embrace one another as brothers, when they will trust one another and when moral virtues will reign. This is the destiny of Allah. That destiny will also manifest itself in China, and this will be a time when Chinese and Uyghurs live together in friendship, when they all attain wealth, and when they build a bright civilization with joy and enthusiasm.

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CHINA: Uighur Uprising

July 9, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Riot in Urumqi: At least three people were killed and more than 20 injured after an ethnic minority clashed with police in China’s far north-western province of Xinjiang. The disturbances come after a year of rising tensions between the dominant Han Chinese authorities and the Uighur ethnic minority. The clashes in Urumqi on Sunday night between police and a 3,000-strong crowd from the Uighur Muslim ethnic minority left burned-out cars and buses and several smashed shop-fronts. — Peter Foster in Beijing

Travellers in today’s China are often surprised to discover that the country has a sizeable Muslim population. According to the Chinese government, there are more than 20 million Muslims who live in all parts of the country. Others say the number may even be higher. Many Chinese towns have mosques. The call to prayer can be heard on Fridays from Beijing to Yunnan in the south, and especially in the oases of arid Xinjiang in the far northwest. But there are subtle differences among the communities that follow Islam in China — cultural, linguistic and nationalist nuances that formed over centuries of an often-troubled history. Muslims have lived in the Middle Kingdom from just after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD. – Backgrounder, CBC News

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Clampdown in Xinjiang

August 7, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

Courtesy AFP

2008-08-05T041909Z_01_NIR01_RTRMDNP_3_OLYMPICS-XINJIANG

Members of the security forces walk pass local Uighurs as they patrol a steer, near the area where a bomb attack took place the day before, in Kashgar, Xinjiang province, August 5, 2008. China’s tense Xinjiang region announced sweeping security checks of transport on Tuesday after assailants used a truck to mount a deadly attack on police days before the Beijing Olympic Games open. 

REUTERS/Nir Elias (CHINA)

KASHGAR, China (AFP) — Chinese authorities moved Tuesday to keep a lid on further information about a bloody assault on police in Kashgar with a truck, explosives and machetes.

At the hotel directly across from the site of Monday’s raid, which killed 16 policemen, guests were told in the morning that the Internet had been shut off across the city, on police orders.

Police entered an AFP photographer’s hotel room and forced him to delete photos he had taken of the scene. Plainclothes police followed journalists as they moved around the city.

“We can’t talk about that. You must understand if we talk about it, the police will come and arrest us,” said a shopkeeper in Kashgar, a remote city in northwest China’s Xinjiang region, who declined to be named.

Nevertheless some independent information emerged outside of the uniform coverage in China’s state-run press, which was all based on reports from the official Xinhua news agency.

Foreign witnesses described a “sickening” scene that unfolded as two assailants drove a truck at a group of policemen who were out jogging, then attacked the officers with small explosives and machetes.

“My wife almost threw up and had to lie down afterward,” said Wlodzislaw Duch, a Polish tourist who watched the assault from his hotel room directly across the street from the scene.

The Xinhua news agency said the two, aged 28 and 33, were arrested immediately, and identified the men as members of the Muslim ethnic Uighur group, a Turkic-speaking people that have long chafed at Chinese rule of Xinjiang.

The state-controlled China Daily, the government’s main outlet to foreign audiences, said the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), listed by the UN as a terrorist organisation, was “likely” responsible.

“There is little doubt that the ETIM is behind the attack,” said Li Wei, an anti-terrorism expert at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, according to the paper.

The attack showed the ETIM is now “into advanced planning” since “it has rarely used cars or trucks in an attack before,” Li was quoted as saying.

China has repeatedly warned the ETIM was planning to stage attacks on the Beijing Olympics, which starts on Friday.

However Chinese authorities have not gone on the record to blame the ETIM for Monday’s attack, allowing only unofficial “experts” to be be used in the state-run press.

Beijing Olympic organisers said they did not know yet if there was a direct connection to the showpiece sporting event, but insisted the Games would not be threatened.

“There is always the risk to the security of the Bejing Olympics,” Sun Weide, a spokesman for the Beijing Olympic organising committee, told reporters.

“That is why we have drafted hundreds of security plans, and now we are prepared to deal with these kind of security threats. We can guarantee a safe and peaceful Olympic Games.”

Xinjiang, a vast area that borders Central Asia, has about 8.3 million Uighurs , and many are unhappy with what they say has been decades of repressive Communist Chinese rule.

Two short-lived East Turkestan republics emerged in Xinjiang in the 1930s and 1940s, at a time when central government control in China was weakened by civil war and Japanese invasion.

The exiled leader of China’s Uighur Muslims condemned the reported killings.

“We condemn all acts of violence,” Rebiya Kadeer said in Washington, where she has been living in exile since 2005 after spending six years in a Beijing prison.

"The Uighur people do not support acts that engender bloodshed.”

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