“Instead of being a king in a foreign land, be a cobbler in your motherland.” – Old Uighur Proverb
As the Chinese put on perhaps the most charismatic opening ceremonies in the history of the Olympic Games, there was a definite overcompensating quality about the excessive opulence and almost provocative aggressiveness with which the performance was delivered. It was almost as if China were sending a message to the international community, “We are here and we are here to stay.” More importantly, for a moment the celebration of Chinese civilization overshadowed the long-standing Tibetan struggle. In a way, China was also telling its dissidents that they would no longer be allowed use the Olympics to further their own political agenda. Although the Tibetan movement can always rely on the West to adopt the initiative, the Uighur Muslims of China lack this luxury and remain an unknown entity.
In the run-up to the Olympics, Tibetan activists were mauling torchbearers, and “Free Tibet” fever was gripping Western audiences who so willingly embrace the Tibetan cause perhaps due to its commercial Buddhist appeal. Granted, China’s human rights record is deplorable and its treatment of Tibetans is unjustified, but why do we ignore the fact the CIA has been involved in Tibet trying to stir up anti-Chinese sentiment since the 1950’s? Why do we ignore the fact that the mainstream media could easily shift public discourse and proclaim the Dalai Lama a terrorist if his cause was not aligned with American interests? Why do we ignore the fact that Chinese Uighur Muslims have also been victims of a cultural genocide at the hands of Hans Chinese for decades?
Perhaps Bush’s failing “War on Terror” has dented our psyche to such an extent that we have subconsciously accepted that Muslim minorities, whether it’s the Uighurs of China, the Chechen’s of Russia, or the Muslims of the Philippines are aggressors by default. Hence, popular opinion holds that when Tibetans kill Chinese soldiers, they are exercising their right to freedom, and when Uighurs recently attacked Chinese police, it was an act of terror. The flawed “War on Terror” philosophy has allowed states to suppress their Muslim minorities with impunity and without fear of international condemnation.
The Chinese oppression of the Uighurs is noted in an illuminating article from Globe and Mail Beijing Correspondent Geoffrey York:
“Here in the heartland of China's Muslims, mosques are usually pad-locked. In the brief time they are open, worshippers must obey a strict set of rules: no criticism of the authorities, no unregistered guests, no contact with foreign organizations, no visitors under 18, no encouragement of veils and mandatory reporting of people's prayers.- Advertisement -
“Now, the traditional identity of the Muslims is under siege. Their historic streets are being demolished to make room for Chinese shopping malls. Their language and culture are eroding under a tide of newcomers from China's Han majority. Hundreds of mosques still survive, but they are tightly controlled and monitored. Thousands of Muslims have been arrested as suspected terrorists, and hundreds have been executed.
“Beijing's levers of control are everywhere. Uighurs who work as teachers or other public-sector jobs, for example, are prohibited from wearing Islamic beards or veils, carrying the Koran or attending mosques. Female schoolchildren cannot wear the veil. Most Uighurs cannot get passports for foreign travel.
“Government policies are tilted to favour the new arrivals. The best jobs and university opportunities are reserved for those who speak Chinese, leaving the Uighurs largely on the outside. Most university classes are taught in the Chinese language. Even in Kashgar, an overwhelmingly Uighur city, most street signs and shop signs are written in large Chinese characters, while the Uighur signs are smaller or non-existent.
“Medieval streets nearby have been demolished, ancient tombs dug up and moved, and hundreds of Muslims forced to relocate to make room for a 55,000-square-metre shopping plaza with almost 3,000 new shops.”
The Uighurs continue to live as cobblers’, although their motherland apparently sees them as nothing more than separatist nomadic terrorists. Amid the burst of Olympic fire-works and the periodic unfurling of the Tibetan flag, it is important that we as a society do not forget the plight of the Uighur Muslims of China.
Let me be the first to proclaim: “Free Xinjiang!”