A Brief History of the Uighurs

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Uighur dancer performs to music in Siniang, China on January 1, 1943.

The violence that has claimed at least 156 lives in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang this week is rooted in long-standing grievances among China's Uighur minority. The Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighurs were traditionally the dominant ethnic group in the region whose Mandarin name, Xinjiang, means simply "New Frontier" — perhaps a reflection of the fact that the region was only brought under Beijing's control in its entirety during the 19th century rein of the Qing dynasty. And this week they have found themselves in violent confrontation with Han Chinese, who have become a significant majority in the capital, Urumqi, thanks to Beijing's settlement policies.

Despite an official ideology that recognized them as equal citizens of the communist state, Uighurs have always had an uncomfortable relationship with the authorities in Beijing. In 1933, amid the turbulence of China's civil wars, Uighur leaders in the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar declared a short-lived independent Republic of East Turkestan. But Xinjiang was wholly subsumed into the new state forged by China's victorious Communists after 1949, with Beijing steadily tightening its grip on the oil rich territory. Its official designation as an "autonomous region" belies rigid controls from the central government over Xinjiang, and a policy of settling hundreds of thousands of Han Chinese there that has left the Uighurs comprising a little less than half of the region's roughly 20 million people.

The Uighurs have deep roots in the region, descending from the ancient Sogdian traders once observed by Marco Polo. Unlike many of the nomadic tribes of Central Asia, the Uighurs are an urban people whose identity crystallized in the oasis towns of the Silk Road. A walk through the bazaars of old Uighur centers such as Kashgar, Khotan or Yarkhand reveals the physical legacy of a people rooted along the first trans-contintental trade route: an astonishing array of hazel and even blue eyes, with blonde or brown or black hair — typically tucked beneath headscarves or the customary Uighur felt cap.

Its cosmopolitan setting also gave the Uighurs' homeland a rich mix of religious and cultural traditions. Xinjiang is the home to some of China's oldest Buddhist temples and most celebrated monks, while Islam arrived in the tenth century and became dominant in the subsequent centuries. Most Uighurs today practice a brand of Islam that is peaceful and tolerant and mixed with the mystical strains of Sufism. One of their holiest sites is the tomb of an 18th century concubine who, according to legend, naturally exuded an overwhelming and intoxicating musk.

The discovery of dozens of Uighurs at guerrilla camps in Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion of 2001 highlighted the fact that some have, in recent years, been lured by a more fundamentalist form of Islam. Many analysts believe this development has been a reaction to the strict controls imposed by the communist authorities who have restricted religious freedoms: The numbers of Uighurs permitted to make the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca has been limited; Uighur government employees are forbidden from fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan; the political authorities appoint the Imams at every mosque, and often dictate the sermons preached during Friday prayers.

Curbs on religious freedom have been accompanied by cultural restrictions. The Uighur language, written in Arabic script, has been steadily phased out of higher education, having been once deemed by Xinjiang's Communist leader to be unsuitable for China's "scientific development." Uighurs in Xinjiang are often denied the right to travel outside of China, or even within it. Those who do manage to move to China's major cities eke out a desperate living as migrant workers, often viewed with distrust and suspicion by the larger Chinese population. The immediate cause of Sunday's protest in Urumqi appears to have been a mass attack on a community of Uighur laborers in a southern Chinese factory town thousands of miles away from Xinjiang.

Widespread Uighur alienation has prompted some to resort to violence. Following the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., Beijing convinced Washington to list the little-known East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a terrorist organization. Some Uighurs were captured by coalition forces in Afghanistan and sent to Guantánamo, but many have subsequently been released. The specter of Uighur terrorism loomed over Xinjiang after a series of attacks and bombings hit the province during the build-up to last year's Beijing Olympics. The extent of the ETIM's tactical capabilities and its connections to other more prominent terrorist outfits remains unclear. Other exiled Uighur movements are avowedly secular, such as the World Uyghur Congress led by Rebiya Kadeer, accused by Beijing of fomenting the recent riots.

Beijing casts its own role in Xinjiang as that of a benevolent force for progress, citing the economic development spurred by its billions of dollars of investment. To be sure, Urumqi is now a city of skyscrapers, but its population is almost 75% Han Chinese, and the Uighurs claim they're frozen out of jobs — and see themselves as the victims of China's own westward expansion.

China's approach to the region is captured in a recent plan to bulldoze much of Kashgar's historic Old City — an atmospheric, millennia-old warren of mosques and elaborate mud-brick houses — and replace it with a tourist-oriented theme park version, resettling its Uighur population (who were not consulted) in "modern" housing miles away from the city.

But the events in Urumqi seem to suggest that as long as Uighurs feel helpless in the face of what they see as encroachment by an often-hostile culture, the potential remains high for new outbreaks of violence.