China has a large Muslim minority – its Uighur population numbers some 10-20 million. The area they live in they call East Turkistan or Xinjiang. It’s three times the size of France.
East Turkistan lies in northwestern China and borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Mongolia, Pakistan, India and Tibet.
In 1933, in a rebellion against the central Chinese government East Turkistan declared independence. Eleven years later, equipped with an army of 40,000 soldiers and supported by Russia, they began fighting for their lands against China – even reaching 10 miles from what they called their capital Urumqi. Stalin told them to stop because of the bigger diplomatic picture and forced the Uighur to negotiate with the Chinese.
The five Uighur leaders traveled across China to Peking and subsequently to Kazakhstan. Meanwhile the Chinese media reported the five had died in a plane crash. Subsequently, the East Turkistan culture minister signed an agreement to create an autonomous region within China for the Uighur. This was seen by Muslims living in China as treachery.
Since 1955 the area has enjoyed autonomous status but many argue it has never had any form of independence from Beijing. They say the army, police, language and so on are all Chinese.
Meet Ahmatjan Osman. He is the president of the “East Turkistan Government in Exile.” He resides in Toronto, Canada and spoke with Clarion Project’s Ran Meir:
CP: Who are you?
AO: I was born in Urumqi. I studied Uighur literature. In 1982, China opened its doors to other states and they sent some Muslims to study in Arab countries. I was one of them. I was meant to go to Baghdad but because of the Iran-Iraq war I found myself in Damascus. There I studied Arabic literature and after a couple of years I began writing Arabic poetry. I married a Syrian Alawite woman.
In 1984 I traveled secretly to Istanbul where I met a group who were seeking Uighur independence. I also met Uighurs in Saudi Arabia. When I returned to China they found out about these meetings and suddenly I couldn’t get a job. Even when my own university wanted to hire me the security establishment prevented it.
Rebiya Kadeer, the Uighur businesswoman and senior figure in the World Uyghur Congress, said she would hire me. I became her commercial manager for a year.
I then opened a company – Ming Oy, The Thousand Houses – that restored ancient houses that predated Islam.
CP: What happened at that point?
AO: The Chinese government piled on the pressure and eventually I was arrested for two months. I fled the country in 1994 for Syria.
CP: How would you describe the Chinese treatment of Uighur people?
AO: The Chinese are conquerors. Our soil is oil rich. 70 percent of Chinese oil is Uighur oil. China wants the land and the raw materials. They don’t need the people so they try to seize the land and break the people. They seek legal reasons to kill them.
In the Fifties, they would separate between the Chinese and Uighur. They would arrest and kill Uighur “nationalists.”
In the Sixties, they used communism. They said “The lands belong to everyone so your land belongs to the state.”
In the Seventies, the Chinese accused us of pan-Islamism and pan-Turkism. This was yet another excuse to oppress and arrest.
In the Eighties, the Chinese accused us of being separatists. They would arrest at every opportunity – demonstrations and so on.
And the Nineties saw the emergence of political Islam, with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Everything the Uighur did was considered terror. China established a new anti-terrorism law and used the police and army to oppress us. Every small thing was considered terror.
Today China says it’s fighting Islamic terror rather than anything nationalistic. If you are under 18 you are not allowed to enter a mosque. If you are a civil servant you can’t enter a mosque. They encourage Chinese families to move into our region. 70 years ago there were 300,000 Chinese, today they are 50% of the population.
CP: Can you practice Islam fully?
AO: There are lots of restrictions. If a woman wears a hijab they will forcibly remove it. If a man grows a beard they will shave it. Over the last two years it’s been forbidden to fast on Ramadan.
China appoints imams who tell the people things like – the Prophet did hijrah when he traveled from Mecca to Medina and now you need to do the same. When you sense trouble you should migrate. China fears the Uighur might bear arms in the name of religion and so wants to kick them out.
CP: Is there a connection between the Uighur and ISIS?
AO: We have some extreme elements who went to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS but they don’t represent us. The Chinese government turns a blind eye when the Uighur leave the country. From 2010 to 2015 more than 30,000 left because of persecution and pressure from the so-called imams. They ended up in Turkey and Syria. When the international community fights ISIS and they kill Uighurs, that keeps China happy. China can also say when it flights the Uighur it fights international terror.
CP: How are you organized?
AO: There are three main organizations, the one I head, Rebiya Kadeer’s World Uyghur Congress and The East Turkistan Education and Solidarity Association. We seek independence, the WUC fights for human rights and the ETESA seeks religious rights. The Chinese designated ETESA a terror group because China says they want to create a caliphate.
CP: Do Muslims elsewhere help you?
AO: Muslim states don’t help us because they don’t want to damage their relations with Beijing.
CP: What other problems are you contending with today?
AO: The international community doesn’t really help us. China presents us as terrorists and hide the truth by saying this is an internal, ethnic issue.
China impedes our national aspirations, culture, language and social makeup. For 15 years we’ve had to teach in two languages. Our girls are encouraged to marriage Chinese boys with benefits.
In the rest of China, the authorities clamp down on drug use. Here in every family there’s a child who uses drugs. We believe this is a deliberate policy.
We have the highest rate of AIDS in the world because the government won’t deal with this issue.
All the leading Uighur artists and thinkers have been replaced by Chinese. You have to know Chinese to get a good job.
CP: Where would you like to see change?
AO: Not one country in the world recognizes us. We understand the difficulties surrounding this but at least there should be unofficial ties. Canada allows us to work here, and we’re grateful for that. We are also active in Japan and would like to open a more formal office there.