Who Are the Uyghurs Really?
Image Credit: Flickr (Todenhoff)

Who Are the Uyghurs Really?


I was sitting in my high school history classroom on September 11, 2001. Although not in the city proper, I was living in New York at the time, and my father was working just across the Hudson River in New Jersey. I remember vividly the knock on the door that led our teacher to stop her lecture, step into the hallway for a moment, and return – a shade paler – to turn on the television set.  We watched live as the second plane hit, and we were sent home just in time to watch the towers collapse from the comfort of our living room couches.

A few years later, as the United States waged dual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I graduated. Thanks to frequent news reports showing our bearded, scarf-wearing “enemies,” popular country music songs that bordered on outright racism, and the still-fresh scars left from that fateful day, I came of age during the peak of America’s Muslim fear.

In 2006, while an undergraduate at La Salle University, I had the opportunity to meet a panel of Chinese journalists who were discussing an HIV/AIDS boom in the country’s “Wild West” – Xinjiang Province. Unlike the African model of sexual transmission, the problem in China was mostly attributed to intravenous drug use – with a University of Pennsylvania researcher finding that nearly one in three injecting drug users in the city of Urumqi were already infected. Complicating this discovery was the fact that the disease was mostly isolated to an indigenous population called the Uyghurs – a group that, until then, I had never heard of.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

My research brought me to Rebiya Kadeer, a Uyghur rights activist in exile and a Nobel Prize nominee. She helped to shed light on the plight of her people – a group of Turkic-descended Muslims who have been pushed to the fringes of Chinese society. Since the late 1980s, the majority Han Chinese have flocked to Xinjiang for economic opportunities, covering the Uyghur’s ancestral lands with skyscrapers, factories, and mega-farms.

Though religiously moderate, the fact that Uyghurs practice Islam made them easy targets in a post 9/11 world. Beijing cracked down, with most of the world unaware of who the Uyghurs were until 2009 – when a peaceful student protest against the beating of Uyghur factory workers who were falsely accused of rape turned into a bloodbath.

After winning a research grant from my university, I traveled to China in the summer of 2007 with my retired HIV/AIDS reporter-turned-journalism-professor. We were intent on learning more about the Uyghurs, the apparent HIV/AIDS epidemic, and what role the Han Chinese and their government had in all of it. While I was able to put together a solid piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer – I never had an opportunity to tell the whole story.

After initial groundwork in Beijing, we boarded a “hard sleeper” train for a 48-hour trek across the Gobi desert. We arrived in Urumqi hungry and with stiff necks. Our fixer, Angelina (not her real name, but a nickname that we gave her because of a resemblance to Angelina Jolie), was waiting at the train station. In skinny jeans, a T-shirt, and Converse Chuck Taylors – and with no head-covering of any kind – didn’t strike me as a Uyghur, or as a Muslim, for that matter. She looked like anyone who might have sat next to me in a lecture hall back at La Salle.

Angelina’s faith became more apparent at dinner. She passed on alcoholic beverages and stuck to eating mutton and vegetables. She was fully tri-lingual in Uyghur (which resembles Arabic), Mandarin, and English – but was also studying several other languages in order to attract more foreign clients. We were nearly the same age, and we became quick friends over the course of our research and interviews.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief