09 July 2009

The mess in Xinjiang

It's profoundly saddening to see what's going on on the streets of Ürümqi these days. The more violent representatives of both communities, the Uyghurs and the Han, are following their baser instincts: blood for blood, suffering for suffering. It's pointless to engage in a game of "Who started it?" While it's true that the riots in Ürümqi appear to have been started by Uyghurs, it's also true that they are responding, however inapporpirately, to decades of subjugation, cultural denigration and religious oppression, including having the state dictate who can enter mosques and who cannot.

As Orhan Pamuk notes in his 2001 article entitled "The Anger of the Damned", an ordinary Muslim in a third-world country who may "momentarily" support acts of violence against innocent Others is driven not by "Islam or this idiocy people call the war between East and West, nor... by poverty". Rather, he is driven by "the impotence born of a constant humiliation, of a failure to make oneself understood, to have one's voice heard".

That, I have no doubt, is what drove the young Muslim Uyghur rioters in Xinjiang. The Han counter-riots, while understable, are all the more deplorable: after all, it is the Han who rule the Chinese state, and it is they who have colonised Xinjiang and continue to do so, not the other way around. It was quite revealing to see a Chinese journalist on BBC World saying that "some of them [the Uyghurs] cannot even speak proper Mandarin Chinese", and that the government sent in Han settlers to "counterbalance" the Uyghurs in their own homeland.

Every empire crumbles sooner or later. The Chinese one has held on thus far, but is it not in China's interest to transform itself into a voluntary community of ethnicities, rather than continuing to be (to use Lenin's term for the Russian Empire) a prison of nations?

[This post was written in Istanbul.]

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