The War on Terror, the Olympics, and the Global Economy: Has the International Community Abandoned the Uyghurs?
Uyghur Prisoner being Brought to Execution in China
At the end of June, in the first case concerning a Guantanamo detainee tried by an American civilian court, A District of Columbia Court of Appeals found that the evidence accusing Parhat Huzaifa, a Uyghur prisoner, of involvement in terrorism was virtually non-existent. In its decision, the court even compared the evidence to a Lewis Carroll nonsense poem, The Hunting of the Snark, which declares “I have said it thrice: What I tell you three times is true.” Indeed, the state’s evidence against Parhat appeared to amount to nothing more than circular arguments not unlike those more poetically written by Carroll. As the panel of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit hearing the case noted, the evidence used to detain this prisoner “comes perilously close to suggesting that whatever the government says must be treated as true.”
This court case is illustrative of the more general information that has been circulating since September 11th about the alleged existence of a Uyghur organized terrorism network. While the Chinese government has suggested that they have foiled numerous terrorism plots masterminded by Uyghurs, there have been very few incidents of violence in Xinjiang which could be clearly characterized as terrorism in the last twenty years. Most violent incidents involving Uyghurs in the past have surrounded social problems and have involved local citizens, much like the Tibetan protests earlier this year that turned violent. Other alleged cases of Uyghur-led terrorism outside China in Central Asia have also been dubious and appear to be related more to organized crime than to any political issues. In fact, with the exception of some still unexplained explosions in Urumchi in 1992 (long before September 11th), it is difficult to find incidents in the region that could even be thought to be the work of Uyghur terrorists.
While I have written about this before, I reiterate it here because despite the lack of evidence, the Uyghurs in China continue to be viewed at least passively by the international community as harboring an organized terrorist network, which may actually not exist. Since the Uyghurs remain mostly inconsequential to geopolitics (partly because they have not used terrorism and, thus garner little news attention), this “dirty little secret” of the Global War on Terror (GWOT) tends to go unnoticed, but it is outrageous, inhumane, and demands our attention.
As the present administration in Washington is gradually getting ready to leave, this is an issue that needs to be investigated. What information was used to justify the classification of the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement as a terrorist organization? Was it merely Chinese intelligence, which in this case would likely be politically tainted? Like the non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, I am concerned that the evidence of the existence of a substantial and well organized group of Uyghur terrorists is terribly flawed, and scores of Uyghurs have suffered as a result. Perhaps it is time that calls began for a review of the alleged intelligence by an independent committee to verify that this decision was based on security concerns and not on the political imperative to win the Chinese state over to GWOT.
At present, reliable information from Xinjiang is difficult to access. The Chinese state has made a concerted effort to prevent free access to the region by journalists and scholars, and it has even sought to instill self-censorship in foreign scholarship about the Uyghurs and Xinjiang by blacklisting some scholars who publish manuscripts with views not consistent with China’s party line. This has also helped to ensure that scholars who might be concerned about the plight of the Uyghurs remain silent regarding current events.
The tragic results of these policies on both the part of the U.S. Government and the Chinese state have been evident over the past two years as the Chinese government, mostly without critism, claims to have foiled several planned terrorist attacks planned by Uyghurs to disrupt this summer’s Olympics. First, in January 2007, the Chinese state claimed to have destroyed an alleged Uyghur terrorist training camp in the Pamir region of southern Xinjiang. In March of this year, again the Chinese authorities claimed to have arrested several Uyghur terrorists in Urumchi, including one allegedly on a plane with flammable liquid. And, finally, this past week, Chinese authorities claimed once again to have uncovered a Uyghur terrorist cell in Urumchi, killing five of the fifteen young Uyghurs gathered in a local apartment. While the authorities claimed to have shot in self-defense because the alleged Uyghur terrorists had knives, the actual details of the event remain murky. Almost simultaneously, the Chinese government executed two Uyghurs and sentenced to prison fifteen more for belonging to a terrorist group in the southern Xinjiang city of Kashgar. According to reports, 10,000 Uyghurs were made to witness the public execution.
While I would not claim to say unequivocally that none of the Uyghurs killed or arrested in these incidents were terrorists, we also have no hard evidence that they were. Yet, the international community tends to avoid questioning the Chinese authorities’ actions or demand evidence of their appropriateness when it comes to the Uyghurs. Furthermore, there is even little international outrage at China’s skillful shielding of the Uyghurs and Xinjiang from the eyes of international scholars and journalists. In short, China’s cooperation in GWOT, the international obsession with the Olympics, and most countries’ imperative to maintain strong economic relations with China seem to have led to an abandonment of the Uyghurs by the world. Just as the threat of being blacklisted keeps foreign scholars controlled by the Chinese state, China’s growing importance in the world is encouraging world powers to ignore the repression of Uyghurs in China. In the meantime, the Uyghurs inside China have been increasingly isolated, and the Chinese state is showing itself adept at marginalizing the Uyghurs within their own homeland. All that can be said is that the international community should be ashamed of itself. And, the final result may be more than shame as inevitably these marginalized Muslims in China’s northwest will understand that the international community beyond the borders of China is also implicated in their repression. Then, perhaps, we will finally get the Uyghur terrorist organization we have been imagining to exist.