By Tijen Horoz
As we entered Western China it began to dawn on me that we were no longer in China at all. This was East Turkistan, home of the Uyghurs, a Turkic people who have inhabited this terrain since 840 CE. I knew all of this before I joined a three month, ‘back to roots’, tour of the Silk Road, (I am half Turkish), but nothing could prepare me for just how openly Turkish and Muslim Uyghur China (otherwise known as Xinjiang Province) meet. In fact, it could easily be mistaken for central or Eastern Turkey. The people look distinctly Turkish, Turkish music blares out onto the streets from homes and shops and the shelves of Uygur supermarkets are stocked with many Turkish brands. Sweet and sour pork, stir fried vegetables and noodles make way for lamb kebabs (halal of course), spiced naan bread and pilaf (just like my grandmother makes). The women wear brightly coloured headscarves and the men sport beautifully embroidered ‘Central Asian style’ skull caps.
I was there during Ramadan and the entire population was observing the fast. Each night at Iftar there was a joyous celebration as families and friends gathered at homes and restaurants to break their fast together and the mosques would fill with people, not just for the Jumah Namaz (Friday prayers), but every day, five times a day . It was obvious to anyone that these people were completely different in ethnic, religious and cultural terms to the Chinese; and yet the Chinese government is intent on homogenising Xinjiang and transforming it into just another province of the People’s Republic of China. In the Uyghur Capital of Kashgar I could see that the authorities had already set to work, as traditional Uygur homes were being destroyed to make way for soulless, grey apartment blocks, the Uyghur language was banned in schools and Chinese people from other parts of the country were being given financial incentives by the government to move into Western China.
We were entering Xinjiang only weeks after the Urumqi riots, where Uyghur people took to the streets in protest at the Chinese government’s treatment of them. Violence between Han Chinese civilians and police and Uyghur rioters soon erupted. In total, Chinese officials reported that, 197 people died, but Uyghur groups claim the death toll is a lot higher. Because of the riots as soon as we entered Western China, phones and internet stopped working. We were effectively isolated from the outside world. In fact, I had to wait until I had crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan to contact my family. There were rumours everywhere of many Uyghurs that had gone ‘missing’ and had still not been found. Armed police patrolled the streets and one of the most surreal experiences for me was watching a military drill taking place right next to a children’s playground.
As a Briton I found the sense of oppression I felt in Western China particularly suffocating. I could not imagine the British government banning our internet, blocking communication with the outside world and disregarding such fundamental rights as freedom of speech. I experienced, just as I had in the Tibetan monastery town of Xiahe, although for entirely different reasons, that people were afraid to talk. One Uyghur girl could tell me only that life was hard for them and the most rebellious thing that I ever heard an Uyghur individual say to me was ‘Yasasin Turkiye’, (meaning, ‘Long live Turkey’).
It made me think about how much we in Britain take our freedom for granted. Could we, as British Muslims imagine the government closing all our mosques, sending armed soldiers to walk amongst us, watching our every move or blocking our access to telephones and internet? Cultural and religious freedom is something that we, here in the UK expect. It is something protected by our laws and upheld by our government. Yet in other parts of the world there are people who do not enjoy these freedoms, people who are not free to worship as they please, not free to practise their own culture and traditions, people who are persecuted because of their ethnicity or their beliefs. The multicultural nature of Britain is something that is celebrated by most of us. A survey from 2005 claims that in London alone, over three hundred languages are spoken. Yes there sometimes arises tensions between different communities, but generally people’s cultural and religious differences are respected.
However, in the last decade we have witnessed a worrying rise in Islamic extremism and subsequently an increase in racial and religious tensions. It is extremely worrying that figures like Anjem Choudary, spokesman for Islam4uk are claiming to represent all Muslims and are using their cultural and religious rights as British citizens to sow discord amongst different communities. Equally alarming is the rise in support for parties like the BNP who would seek to eradicate such rights completely. So where do we go from here? I’m not sure, but I think a good starting point would be to remind ourselves of those who are not as fortunate as us and to embrace our British identity because that is what allows us to embrace our Muslim identity. We must use our cultural and religious freedoms to encourage communication and understanding between ourselves and the wider community and also between each other in order to eradicate the ignorance that fuels both racism and extremism. I’m not saying it will be easy, but it would be an insult to people like the Uyghurs, who do not even have a choice in the matter, not to try.
Tijen Zahide Horoz graduated from King’s College London in 2009 with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Language. She was born in London, where she continues to reside and work, to an Irish mother and Turkish Cypriot father. Tijen has a keen interest in the Near and Middle East, an area she will be pursuing academically in her postgraduate studies.
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