THE LEVANT NEWS EXCLUSIVE -- by Dr. Geoffrey Cook*-- The Uyghurs are a non-Han (Sinic) Islamic people who reside in the northwest of China (in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region) next to the (also restive) Tibetans. Within Xinjiang, they are forty-five percent of the population, but they are spread over a continuous portion of the landscape. Accordingly, they are definitely a sub-nationality. They are within the greater Turkic ethnicities, which would have them logically fall among the cultures and the religious plurality in bordering Central Asia. Yet they find themselves as a minority within an East Asian “Empire.”
Internationally they adjoin Pakistan, Russia, India, Mongolia, Afghanistan, and the now independent (former Soviet) Central Asian Republics -- Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan whom they more closely resemble.
The Uyghurs are the second largest groupings of Muslims in China, but, since the Uyghurs are more ethnically cohesive, they form a distinct sub-nationality striving for territorial self-agency. The other groupings have been better integrated with their Han neighbors. Unlike the other Muslims in China proper, they are, as noted, above, a distinct ethnicity upon a distinct territory which is referred to as East Turkestan. The object of the Uyghur rebellion is to make East Turkestan an independent nation.
The Uyghurs are Sunni Muslims (although elements of Sufism and even Shamanism can still be found within their belief systems). Modern Uyghurs, though, consider Islam to be mainstay of their identity. The mainstream follow the Hanafi School of jurisprudence. Which, also, has influence in West Asia (i.e., the Middle East). Therefore, there is an attraction by a number of Uyghurs, because their interpretation of Hanafi theology, for the (Sunni) Levant.
In 1912, Beijing’s primordial Dynastic system was overthrown by a Republic. In 1920, Pan-Turkic Jihadists became a challenge to Beijing’s dominance over the Xinjiang Region. The Uyghurs staged several uprisings against Chinese rule. Twice, in 1933 and, then, in 1944 with some success but ultimately with reversals. In the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries, the underlying struggle has been for independence from the Chinese Center. In recent years, since the establishment of the People’s Republic (1949), the Chinese Jihadists have brought their rebellion to the very Chinese Core itself through acts of terrorism inspired by global jihadi ideology. Their expressions of resistance have rebound with a counter surge of repression by the People’s Army both in their Autonomous Region and against their diaspora throughout the rest of China. The P.R.C. (the People’s Republic of China) has engaged in a "strike hard" campaign against them since 1996 which in turn has harden the Uyghur’s resolve to violently strive for their “East Turkestan.”
Why are we spending so much time in China when this article is about Syria? Succinctly, like the Chechens and several other Muslim groupings who are attempting to achieve nationhood in their own geographic zones, they tend to be attracted to the Caliphate? Why?
The ancient Caliphate, which is a concept of late Antiquity, when the Nation was perceived as conglomerates of people who found themselves bound together by structures of belief. When Islam came into the Mediterranean at the end of Roman Antiquity -- to eventually to supersede it – the concept of the Caliphate was born. When a territory was dominated by any religion it was the Dar (land) of that belief, and was ruled by its laws and its believers had the full rights of citizenship while minority unbelievers were either non-persons or lesser citizens. Dar al-Islam was the Caliphate of that period. This was the prevalent theory during the period of the great Arab Empire, but the modern idea of the Nation emerged in the Eighteenth/ Nineteenth Centuries [C.E.] in Western Europe, and spread into the Middle East through the Colonial European empires.
Unfortunately, when they left the Europeans carved up the Middle East into nation-states. They paid scant attention to the ethnic and religious admixture of those nations which they forced upon them. Whereas a Caliphate looks back in askance at a romanticized past that can never be recovered, it, also, has an appeal for many frustrated with the concept of the current nation-states imposed upon the region: Those countries whose foundation is secular modernity. The Caliphate cannot ultimately prevail politically because, instead of placing various ethnic and religious entities into more balanced political units, it gives less individual and collective self-agency. A mediaeval façade cannot succeed over an image of Post-Modernity, and will ideologically trigger al-Baghdadi’s pseudo-State to implode from within. The mainstream of Islam has gone forward with its contemporary expression logically derived from its primary revelation. Whereas Daesh is a deadly dream backward!
To summarize, not so curiously, a large number of the inhabitants of Xinjiang province of Uyghur ancestry are contesting Han dominance to establish an independent a nation-State through a national liberation separatist armed struggle. They, like the Tibetans, claim they are not part of China while the People’s Republic assert they have been. Hence the Han-Turks are seeking to overthrow Beijing’s’ rule by means of global jihadi ideology. What is the attraction of nationalism with internationalism?
At the same time, the Uyghurs are following the Chechens (and other non-Arabs) to the Middle Eastern battlefields as volunteers for the Takfr army. While Syrians have been fleeing the horrors of War, the Uyghurs are conscripting the abandoned housing of those who have fled. The accommodations are not only for the combatants but their families as well. There are even moderate-sized Syrian cities that look and feel like Chinese Turkestan.
Why have they come a half way across the globe to the MENA (Middle East/ North Africa) Region to fight with the self-described “Islamic State” (IS) or al-Nursa abandoning their long-fought battle for their homeland (East Turkestan)? To quote an eighty year old man: "I was subjected to oppression In Turkestan at the hands of the Chinese [...] for 60 years and, when I saw my son killed alongside the Mujahidin [in China], I resolved to make Hijrah" [to Syria].
It is estimated by Peking that there are 300 of its citizens in Syria, and the Chinese Uyghurs have been traveling there to join Daesh, and then return back home to take part in conspires against Chinese rule in Xinjiang and elsewhere in the Cathay, fueling unrest and violence. This terrorist activity has prompted a serious crackdown on terrorism and extremism over all of the People’s Republic. Of course, China's crackdown has had the effect to go extreme. Thus, increasingly assertive policies like these have had the opposite result.
As a young Uyghur boy in Syria was quoted: "The Chinese kuffar know that we are preparing in the land of the Khalifah, and we will come to you and raise this flag in Turkestan [the home of the Uyghurs]”
They, like the Chechens, and so many others (including ISIL’s Western “warriors”) plan to go back with their battle-hardened honed skills to “liberate” their own people from an alien oppressor. They are learning Salafi battle ideology and methodology. The Uyghurs and other similar demographics are not existentially dedicated to a Takfr internationalism that would take them back to an archetypical vision (the facts are correct but they have been made larger than life) of the prophetical epoch. The Uyghurs, Chechens et al., while escaping the authorities in their natal countries, are, also, fighting their -- ultimately -- nationalist battles on Syrian soil.
Whereas not many of the Syrian refugees now fleeing to Europe or elsewhere in the Middle East will return, most of the Uyghur immigrants will become fatalities on the battlefield or will revert to the conflict at home which is ultimately the one they care about.
It was reported this past autumn that at least three Uyghurs were executed for desertion by ISIS. Those that do succeed the perilous journey, and get to East Asia face the gallows, and several have been dealt severely so under Communist law.
To avoid terrorist attacks within their own borders, the coalitions have decided to confront them preemptively in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. Interestingly enough, that is one of the central endorsing points that the American and Russian and European Union and now Chinese coalitions make to their electorates for intervention in Syria and Iraq; i.e., as an attack to protect their own homelands from the spread of combat to their cities – especially by their own citizens trained by Daesh.
Further, last month Chinese warships had docked at the Syrian port of Tarus. This is most unusual for the Chinese Navy, which has only recently developed “deep water” capabilities, to wander so far from home. As Zhang Chunxian, Communist Party secretary of Xinjiang was recently quoted. "The organization [Daesh] has a huge international influence and Xinjiang can't keep aloof from it, and we have already been affected. We have also found that some who fought returned to Xinjiang to participate in terrorist plots."
(One wonders whether the recent U.S.-China confrontation in the South China Sea could have anything to do with rattling swords over whose imperial purview the Middle East belongs.)
Further, as reported in an official government sponsored publication, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, stated “…China is willing to work with the international community to combat terrorist forces, including the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, and safeguard global peace security and stability.”
It has become clear how this regional War has triggered the participation of a significant number of participants through their individual perceptions of self-interest. This has been shown to mainly to be an assessment of an existential threat to their various populations. To the Chinese, this is the Uyghurs. If the Uyghurs can be overcome in the Levant, Xinjiang as a new East Turkestan will be crushed.
Of course, the War with so many clashing interests makes the overthrow of IS a dangerous endeavor. The rout of the “Islamic” State,” may instigate the disastrous apocalyptic universal collapse that DASH ideology and Christian Zionism (prevalent in the United States) predict. The lack of co-ordination of nuclear armed states – including China – could trigger a disastrous worldwide conflagration. To avoid this extreme management and communication between the coalitions is demanded.
The Uyghurs have come to Syria to avoid the admittedly unfair repression against Turkic China that over the years has encouraged a major reactive rebellion out of the purview of world opinion. By a relatively successful counter-insurgency, the insurgents have been driven into the arms of the most violent movement of the Twenty-first Century. What the Uyghurs are fighting to establish in Syria is not so much the Caliphate as an East Turkestan.
Thus, to protect the larger China, their military is establishing a presence near Syria. This is an example of action which is followed by reaction. (Uyghur insurgency followed by a Han counter-insurgency.) Since the insurgency has moved to the Middle East to protect their national interests so the P.R.C. counter-insurgent has followed them.
The majority of the international and regional actors (both within DASH and the Coalitions) have conflicting interests. The Coalitions -- beyond protecting their own citizens from terrorism, are creating a dangerous situation, as emphasized above, that has to be carefully overseen; not only for the Imperial and hegemonic powers but by the Middle Eastern counter-insurgents themselves.
*Dr. Geoffrey Cook, Ph.D is Non-Resident Scholar at Beirut Center For Middle East Studies. He is a historian, writer and artist. His primary academic interest is the British period in India. He has an advanced degree in South Asian studies, and was a student of the late George F. Dales at Berkeley, who introduced him to the ancient Indus. He also studied with art historians Joanna Williams and Guitty Azarpay; this section began as a paper for Prof. Azarpay at the University of California, Berkeley.Geoffrey Cook’s academic publications have appeared in From Sumer to Meluhha,Indo-British Review, International Journal of Indian Studies, International Journal of Hindu Studies, Hindu-Christian Studies Bulletin et al. He also has published several books of creative writing and translations.