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Who Are the Uyghurs Really?

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Asia Life

Who Are the Uyghurs Really?

After growing up in post-9/11 America, living among Uyghurs changed my perception of Muslims.

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.

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.

After our research had concluded, my professor left Xinjiang. Instead of traveling around China for a while – my original plan – I decided to stay put in Urumqi. Angelina offered me her couch until I could move into a cheap hostel. It was in her living room, sitting on low cushions and chomping down on pizza-crust shaped Uyghur naan, that Angelina told me about her passport – or rather, her lack of a passport.

Angelina explained that over the past year, Chinese police had been arresting Uyghurs and confiscating their passports. Their crime? Possessing a college education and being popular in the local community. She told me that her father, a local university professor, had been interrogated over alleged ties to a “separatist movement” in the local Uyghur community and briefly jailed. After that, police confiscated the passports of every member of her family. Her dreams of traveling around the world had been dashed.

One day, Angelina asked me if I’d like to attend a Uyghur wedding. A close friend of hers was to be married, and word of Angelina’s American visitor had apparently spread around the community. I bought a cheap suit and obliged – but had mixed feelings about how I would be perceived.

Upon arrival, I was seated at a table full of local Uyghur men ranging in age from their 20s to 50s. Some of them were professors at the local university, capable of basic English conversation. I was surprised when they began pouring shots of Baiju – the potent Chinese grain alcohol – and offering toasts. Angelina stopped by my table to pass on some advice – leave the glass full or they will keep filling it to the brim. If they insist that I take more shots than I can handle, pretend to drink it, then spit it out into a water glass and they won’t know the difference.

Even more surprisingly was when an openly gay relative of the bride took to the floor for an interpretive dance. “These are the Muslims that China is so scared of?” I thought to myself.

I ended my time in Urumqi with a visit to Angelina’s tiny village on the outskirts of the city. The simple, one-story stone homes made a long row, with each home butting against the one next to it. I shook Angelina’s father’s hand – he was short and unimposing with a big moustache and an even bigger smile. Her mother cooked mutton stew in a dirt-floored kitchen. I felt safe and cared-for.

It wasn’t until I returned to Philadelphia that I realized what a profound impact my short few months in Xinjiang had on me. At the time, Philadelphia led the national murder rate. I had been safer with the Uyghurs, surrounded by mosques and men who stopped five times a day to pray. It was a profound realization for someone who grew up during the height of Muslim fear in post-9/11 America.

The recent suicide attack on Tiananmen Square has me worried.

A report from the BBC said that the security threat level in Urumqi has been raised to level one – the highest possible – despite the attack taking place on the other side of the country. A waitress said that local Han Chinese were given whistles by local police, instructed to sound an alert if they see “anyone suspicious with a big beard or burka.”

The Global Times, widely regarded as a CCP mouthpiece, also reported that all three “violent terrorists” were Uyghur.

“Their cruelty in aiming their jeep at innocent lives will never be forgiven,” the newspaper reported. “People from Xinjiang, especially the Uyghurs, will be the biggest victims.”

Even if these three bad apples were, in fact, Uyghurs – a thinly veiled threat of genocide is unacceptable in a civilized world. But if growing up in the shadow of 9/11 taught me anything, it is that civilization is a very thin veneer.