Conference: The Uyghurs are not an ignored people

A series of violent incidents in their homeland have intermittently propelled the Uyghurs into recent international consciousness. April1, 2011 PHOTO: ZAMAN, ALİ ÜNAL

Henryk Szadziewski
01 January 2015

Between Sept. 25 and 27, 2014, at George Washington University (GWU) in the US capital, the First International Conference on Uyghur Studies: History, Culture, and Society brought together anthropologists, historians, political scientists, development economists, linguists, human rights researchers, and demographers, among others, to share research and opinions on the Uyghur experience.

A series of violent incidents in their homeland have intermittently propelled the Uyghurs into recent international consciousness. The violence has generated a flurry of commentary that jumps between, on the one hand, an inevitable response to repressive government policies, and on the other hand the growth of “Islamic extremism” in the region. This conference was consequently timely, and the presentations suitably dispelled this binary, with a nuanced examination of the contemporary Uyghur condition. Furthermore, participants explored the depth of Uyghur history and culture, showing that the Uyghurs are more than the sum of their current plight.

The Central Asia Program at GWU assembled an unprecedented field of scholars from institutions in the United States, Turkey, Russia, Kazakhstan, the UK, Australia, France, Taiwan, Sweden, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Germany, connecting a diverse range of academic traditions. The absence of scholars from China was raised during the first day; however, it was mentioned that participation of academics from China would have been unlikely. Officially sanctioned involvement may be viewed as an endorsement of Uyghur rights, while unofficial participation could have landed scholars in trouble. While this discussion highlighted the fragility of academic freedom and the sensitivity of conducting Uyghur-related research, it also illustrated how difficult it is to bring together thinkers of all kinds when most needed.

Remarks from Rebiya Kadeer, David Kramer of Freedom House, T. Kumar of Amnesty International, Mark Lagon of Georgetown University, Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn, and Haluk Ahmet Gümüş, a Turkish member of Parliament, opened the conference. The organizers reserved the first day for policy related presentations, including analyses of contemporary and retrospective political developments in China that impact economic, religious and cultural aspects of Uyghur life. To contextualize the academic papers, two roundtable panels offered insights into the policy discussion. The first of these examined the causes of the recent violence in the Uyghur homeland. Panelists stressed the lack of trust the state places in Uyghurs, resulting in the implementation of top-down policies that fuel resentment. The absence of an appropriate civil-state interface and the repression of moderate voices were similarly emphasized to further demonstrate this distance between the Uyghur grassroots and state officials.

The second of the two roundtables took a long-term approach to Uyghur geopolitics, including the Uyghurs' role as a pivot between Sinic and Turkic civilizations through history. Yunus Koç of Hacettepe University discussed how the Uyghur region has been exploited as a strategic location, particularly during the Qing dynasty and by the Soviet Union, as noted by other panelists. In the light of an increasing economic and security-minded relationship between China and Central Asia, the role of the Uyghur homeland as pivot between the two has seemingly reappeared.

Questions of tangible and intangible heritage as drivers of Uyghur identity came to the fore in the first panel comprising formal presentations. The papers from Nathan Light and Rachel Harris focused on ownership of socially cohesive practices among Uyghurs. Harris’ paper took a traditional gathering, meshrep, as an example of diminishing ownership of community-centered activities. While the state has popularized the meshrep through televised extravaganzas by professional artists, suppression of grassroots meshrep has limited community agency to reinforce social bonds. Light’s presentation suggested that communal expressions have in part migrated to online forums. However, targeted filtering of content by the state and deleting of websites popular among Uyghurs during the ten-month shutdown of the Internet between 2009 and 2010 put ownership of online expression outside the control of individual Uyghur users. Nevertheless, Sean Roberts’ talk on Uyghur makhallas (neighborhoods) in Kazakhstan, and Michael Dillon’s discussion on the destruction of Kashgar Old City demonstrated that physical spaces have held and will continue to hold a critical role in maintaining Uyghur identity.

Capping the first day of the conference was a session entitled “Xinjiang under Chinese Influence,” covering trends in state ethnic policies and an assessment of recent economic development initiatives. Gardner Bovingdon delivered a critical analysis of the movement to blur ethnic distinctiveness in China, commenting the approach is likely to exacerbate tensions, as it will conversely reinforce attachment to the Uyghur identity. Bovingdon placed this movement in a historical context, stating that ethnic fusion has been a long-term goal of Chinese Communist Party ethnic policies. Chienyu Shih offered a useful explanation of the contending schools of thought on ethnic policy in China that precipitated the contemporary predominance of a “carrots and sticks” stance on assimilative measures. As a result, the system of national autonomies is becoming obsolete. For the time being at least, a sharp distinction can be made between ethnicities on levels of economic development in the Uyghur region. Joanne Smith Finley’s paper on the first Xinjiang Work Forum and the National Partner Assistance Program raised an important question about who the true beneficiaries of development policies are. Smith Finley questions whether the program genuinely addresses economic inequity between the south and north, and contends the initiative consolidates central power in Xinjiang.

Day two opened with a session that offered insights into the Uyghur-Han Chinese interface through demographics, language and architecture. Among a number of trends, Stanley Toops, underlined the growing number of Han migrants to the region -- which shows no sign of abating—by applying a comparative analysis between the 2000 and 2010 censuses. In a physical expression of the increasing number of Han Chinese migrants, French scholar Jean-Paul Loubes argued the reconstruction of Kashgar Old City was a form of sinicization through architectural forms and city planning reminiscent of eastern China. He called the demolition of Kashgar Old City, “an exceptional example of destruction in peacetime,” that took place against the backdrop of “general indifference of western observers.”

Arienne Dwyer and Giulia Cabras gave insightful papers documenting the linguistic responses by Uyghurs to the increased contact between Han and Uyghur. Cabras presented results from field research into the expediency of code switching between Uyghur and Mandarin, and Dwyer contended that Uyghur in the diaspora was undergoing an ideological process of language purification through a conscious purge of Mandarin loan words. Dwyer’s research focused on overseas broadcaster Radio Free Asia, whose Uyghur service is largely populated by diaspora Uyghurs. Given the expansion of communities outside China and Central Asia, research on extra-regional Uyghurs may constitute a future direction for Uyghur Studies.

Uyghur diasporas in Central Asia were surveyed in the following session. Khamit Khamraev and Ablet Kamalov concentrated on Kazakhstan while Guzel Maitdinova analyzed Tajikistan. Ablet put the figure of Uyghurs in Kazakhstan at over 224,000 and talked about the evolving relationship between diasporic Uyghurs in Kazakhstan and “the homeland of East Turkestan (Xinjiang).” Ablet proposed the existence of a dual loyalty among disaporic Uyghurs, bridging a new transnational identification with the “Uyghur nation” and their host country. Khamraev charted an interesting arc of organizational transformation among the diaspora that has seen a shift from cultural and political work to solely cultural activities, via pressure applied through wider cross-border cooperation under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Scholars from Russia and Central Asia examined a broad span of Uyghur history up to the Soviet era in the final two sessions of the second day. Yuliy Drobyshev, Aleksandr Kadyrbaev, Liudmila Chvyr and Dinara Dubrovskaia, scholars from the Institute for Oriental Studies at the Academy of Science in Moscow, described research on eras spanning the Uyghur khanate (8th to 9th centuries) to the 19th century Qing dynasty. Drobyshev’s presentation explained the comparatively peaceful relations between the Uyghur khanate and Tang China, suggesting the possible westward orientation of the Uyghurs and the lucrative side effects of a weak but centralized China as possible reasons. The final session predominately focused on the Soviet era. Valerii Barmin and Sabine Trebinjac took as their departure point the activities of the Komintern in the Uyghur region. Trebinjac, using research of documents at the Archives of the Komintern covering the years 1925-1935, described Soviet plans to annex the Uyghur region. One of the strategies to achieve this aim was the education of Uyghur students at the Communist University of the Eastern Workers in Moscow. Broader issues related to Soviet annexation were at the center of Barmin’s paper. Barmin argued that intervention in the Uyghur region in the 1920s, with its associated risks and costs, would not provide any benefits above maintaining the then-existing political and economic status quo -- in the opinion of this author, a strategy that has been employed in the post-Soviet era.

On the last day of the conference two sessions provided an overview of oral and written traditions, as well as Uyghur religiosity. Dmitri Vasiliev presented a captivating glimpse into archaeological work completed on the Uyghur khanate fortress of Por-Bajin in Tuva -- which, according to Vasiliev, was one of many in the area during the time of the Kyrgyz-Uyghur wars -- and surrounding Turkic runic inscriptions.

While Risalat Karimova delivered a well-illustrated presentation of Uyghur religious architecture spanning the 14th to 19th centuries, Rian Thum focused on less imposing expressions of Uyghur religious belief. Thum’s research examined popular practices of, and writing on, Islam among Uyghurs in order to shape an interpretation of “Uyghur Islam” that veers from assumptions about Uyghur religious belief stemming from generalized categorizations such as “Sunni” or “Sufi.” Through popular texts, Thum adds Uyghur Islam has a distinct canon of sacred texts that informs religious understanding and Uyghur identity.

To offer a cohesive “main idea” prevailing throughout this conference, based on the content of nearly forty presentations, seems to fundamentally contradict the variety of scholarship on offer. It also simplifies the rich historical, cultural and social experience of the Uyghur people, whose traditional distinctiveness is under pressure through government policies. However, many of the presentations underscore the fact that the Uyghur experience is far from over; it may just assume forms that either depart or borrow from the past. The processes of this change are perhaps symbolized in the remnants of Kashgar Old City, where new and old coexist. Kashgar Old City is not a snapshot of the Uyghur past for tourist development companies to comb over, but is the physical environment for a vibrant people to respond to present challenges and future concerns, through the filter of accrued experiences.

The First International Conference on Uyghur Studies showed that, contrary to popular belief, the Uyghurs are not an ignored people. With more nuanced research underway by successive generations of scholars in institutions with a global reach, it is an exciting time to be in Uyghur Studies. Access to the Uyghur region to conduct fieldwork remains one of the looming impediments. However, as the organizers stated in their conference rationale, “Hopefully, it will serve as a basis for future transnational collaboration on the history, culture, and society of Uyghurs throughout the world.”

Contact the reviewer:

HENRYK SZADZIEWSKI, Senior researcher, Uyghur Human Rights Project