Islam’s Invisible Frontier: The Muslims of Chinese-Occupied East Turkestan


Tuyuq Mazar Mosque, East Turkestan

By Haroon Moghul

If I were to announce that a Muslim country, slightly smaller than the size of Iran – but still three times the size of France – blessed with bountiful oil reserves, a rich culture and a long attachment to Islam, was suffering brutal torment, one would justly be disturbed. Perhaps all the more so because one might not know which country I refer to. That, indeed, is the greatest tragedy of Chinese-occupied East Turkestan, bounded to the east by China, the south by Tibet, and the west by Pakistan and the newly-independent Central Asian states, emerging from Russian domination.

We hear, perhaps day in and day out, of the treatment accorded indigenous peoples in lands such as Tibet – for a variety of reasons, including the preponderance of celebrity advocates and Muslim and Arab sympathies. Inexcusable, though, is the ignorance over East Turkestan. Because of a century of communist control over Central Asia, a great blanket of ignorance veils this part of the Ummah from many Muslims.

Muslim Central Asia: A Background

The Eurasian steppe is a formidable belt of rolling grassland, almost flat land stretching over five thousand miles, from Manchuria, China, and ending at the fringes of Hungary, another nation newly freed from the communist curtain. From these plains have arisen some of the mightiest warriors of history: the Turkic Huns, who plagued Rome under Attila; the Scythian Iranians, who dominated Caucasia; and the Mongol Hordes (from where we get the word “Urdu”), who nearly overthrew the Islamic world – until they were stopped by the Muslim rulers of Egypt, the Mamluks, fittingly, also horsemen of the Eurasian steppe.

However, though the steppe has birthed Hungarian, Mongol and Iranian (relatives of the Persians in modern-day Iran) peoples, the dominant group of the last millennium and a half has been the Turkic one, who emerged by displacing or conquering the native Iranians – their remnants found today in the only non-Turkic Central Asian state, Tajikistan – whose language is remarkably close to Persian. Nevertheless, considering the great spread of Turkic peoples, and common confusion over their relation to Turks in modern day Turkey, it would do us well to look a little further at these peoples’ history.

Around 522, the Turks appeared on the world stage, establishing an empire that stretched from Mongolia (Turks and Mongols are closely related) to the Black Sea. Out of this empire grew the many tribes of the Turkic people, some moving into Russia, but more towards the Muslim southeast. Indeed, what binds the Turkic people together is not language or culture, but Islam.

To better understand the Turkic role in the universal Islamic civilization, one must divide them into Western and Eastern halves. In the West, Seljuk Turks established dominance over the Middle East around the 10th century. As they pushed into Anatolia, Turkic farmers and merchants followed behind them, spreading Islam wherever they went. One of the small states that was founded by these pioneers was a principality ruled by a khan (leader) named ‘Uthman. The famous traveler Ibn Battuta met ‘Uthman, noting that he was a particularly unique leader – and concluding that great things were in store for ‘Uthman’s children. Little did he know how right he was.

From ‘Uthman’s line rose the Ottoman Empire: in 1453, the Ottomans took Constantinople, making it their capital. The current Turkish flag, featuring the crescent and star design, commemorates this victory: the crescent represents the armies of Islam, while the star represents Constantinople, which is being conquered. At its height, the Ottoman Empire stretched from Algeria to the Caspian Sea, south to Yemen and north to Austria. Their navies fought the French and British in the Atlantic Ocean, and even helped the Indonesians resist Portuguese and Dutch forces as far as the East Indies. The Ottoman dynasty was also the longest-lasting in history, but its decision to fight against America, Britain and Russia in World War I led to its collapse in 1924. The last khalifa, an Ottoman, was exiled to Madina, where he died in the 1940’s.

As for the Eastern Turks: they have had a similarly splendid history, though much of it remains unfamiliar – perhaps because they formed many ethnic groups, such as the Kazak, Uzbek, Uighur (East Turkestani) and Volga Bulgar (Tatar). The idea of ethnic nationalities, as developed in Europe and the Americas, never existed in so rigid a form in the Muslim world until colonization. Thereafter, tolerance and acceptance of diversity were replaced with totalitarianism, authoritarianism, and a desire for uniformity.

The Eastern Turks

In the 1300’s, the Eastern Turks, as well as members of the Muslim Mongol Golden Horde, ruled over Moscow and its environs. In the Volga River valley, the Tatar established a sultanate called Volga Bulgaria, with its capital at Kazan. At its peak, Volga Bulgaria was a prosperous, powerful land, famed for Islamic erudition. In fact, when Muslim Spain fell to invading Christian forces, many Andalusian scholars and scientists arrived in Volga Bulgaria, where they were eagerly welcomed. Up until the early 1900’s, Kazan was a major center for Muslim scholarship and reform.

To the south, a warrior named Uzbek was the khan of another Turkic tribe. He converted to Islam (his people, converting en masse after him, named themselves Uzbek in his honor) and established a powerful dynasty in Central Asia, known for fostering many Islamic disciplines. Al-Biruni, the great geologist, linguist and sociologist of India, was from Central Asia; and Ulugh Beg, the highly regarded astronomer, was also Turkic. Following after Uzbek Khan came another of this tribe, named Shayban, who established a second dynasty to the south, in the early 16th century. At one time, the Uzbek (close relatives of the Uighur) and the Ottomans contemplated building canals between the Black and Caspian Sea, to connect their empires. This, however, was never realized.

Divisions in the ranks made the Turkic Muslim lands a tempting target for a resurgent Russia. In 1552, Volga Bulgaria was stormed by Russian forces. The Kazak, who only converted to Islam in the 1700’s, were next. By the 1800’s, all the Muslim steppe people, excluding the Ottomans (who were never colonized), were under foreign rule. The situation took a turn for the worse in the 1920’s, as much of Muslim Central Asia found itself not under a distant Czar in Moscow, but under the powerful thumb of an aggressive Communist Party, bent on the destruction of Islam. East Turkestan was at his time under Chinese rule, separated by the powers of the day from their ethnic and religious kin, and in 1949, East Turkestan suffered China’s similar switch to Communism. The Soviet Union quickly collapsed in on itself, leading to independence for much of Central Asia. The Uighur of East Turkestan, however, remain under occupation – and are perhaps forgotten because of this.

The Uighur of East Turkestan

In 751, the Muslims and the Chinese met on the battlefield for the first time, at Talas River. Local Tibetan and Uighur tribes, which were at the time Buddhist, allied themselves with the Muslims – the resulting victory allowed the Uighur peaceful relations and expansion in eastern Central Asia. In 934, the Uighur leader, Satuk Boghra Khan, accepted Islam. Many fellow Uighur followed, though conversion was not forced. The Uighur ruled an independent kingdom, mixing Muslim and Buddhist populations, that stood until 1759, when the Manchu Chinese invaded and destroyed it. A fate similar to Tibet in the south, a Buddhist region with an important Muslim minority also brought under unfortunate foreign domination.

In 1864, the Uighur revolted against foreign rule, with some help from the distant Muslim Ottomans. Although they won, their independence was short-lived. The Chinese returned with more force in 1884, conquering the land yet again – this time renaming it “Xinjiang”: the New Dominion, the name by which the region is commonly referred to today. The Uighur, however, refused to bow. One of their many revolts succeeded in 1945, leading to the independent Republic of East Turkestan. At this time, there were few other independent Muslim nations excepting Afghanistan and Turkey.

But once more, independence did not last. The people of East Turkestan were invaded in 1949 by a new China, a communist one. This was to prove a more destructive occupying regime than any previous, principally because communism has been, since its inception, uncomfortable with Islam because of its potential for creating an alternative social system and for inspiring spirited resistance, as it did with the Central Asian Basmachi fighters who held out against Russian communism for over a decade.

East Turkestan’s Strategic Importance

Before going on to highlight the gross human rights violations committed in East Turkestan (again, what China calls Xinjiang, or alternatively Sinkiang), one must understand why China is so aggressive in its policies towards the region. Firstly, East Turkestan is simply enormous; it is 1/6th of the land area of China. As if this was not enough, the occupied nation borders five newly-independent Central Asian countries. Should East Turkestan become independent, it is conceivable that it may, in the long-term, unite with, or create some form of economic bloc, with its kin countries to the west. This would form a territory quite nearly the size of China itself. This is especially dangerous to the strategic interests of not only China, but Russia and other powers, because each of these Central Asian nations, including East Turkestan, is blessed (one might say, from a historically Islamic perspective, cursed) with vast reserves of oil and gas, a common cultural background and an Islamic faith, however currently weak. For these reasons, China cannot afford to let go of East Turkestan. It would mean the end of its energy independence and the possibility, however distant, of the creation of a check to its expansion into Asia. In the same manner as Western nations practice divide and conquer with the Middle East, so too Russia and China with Islamic Central Asia.

The one thing China does have is a huge population, in comparison to a sparsely settled East Turkestan. In order to control East Turkestan’s territory, China has decided to pursue a two-pronged policy. On the one hand, it will do whatever it can to sap Uighur strength, weakening their identity and culture. Significantly, this means an assault on Muslim values. On the other hand, China is importing huge settler populations, to create “facts on the ground” that cannot be reversed. By virtue of China’s enormous demographic advantage, hundreds of thousands of Chinese can annually be entered into the territory, changing a Muslim region into what will soon be – unless something stops them – a Chinese one. Then, the region’s oil and resources will be in “local” hands. Essentially, this is the same policy Israel has tried to us in the West Bank and Gaza, but Israel has too few people to successfully attain its goals.

Chinese Human Rights Violations in East Turkestan

In light of September 11th, things have only become more difficult. America has cooperated with China, in the “War on Terrorism,” by freezing the assets of Uighur resistance movements, most of whom have nothing to do with terrorism. Further, with the world’s attention drawn to Iraq and previously to Afghanistan, China has been freer to do what it wants without a spotlight, however feeble its shine. Prior to 9/11, the Uighur were already suffering an occupation that was perhaps among the worst, if not the worst, in the Ummah. Now, as difficult as it seems to imagine, things are surely worse. I have listed below only several of China’s most severe violations of human rights and dignity, to give the reader a taste of the darkness blanketing East Turkestan.

• As of 1996, the Chinese government has detonated forty-four nuclear devices in East Turkestan, using the country as an experiment in permanent radioactive pollution. In other words, it is a policy of rendering huge regions of an occupied territory uninhabitable. The result has been a sickeningly high incidence of cancer among Uighur; Uighur children also have a disturbing occurrence of debilitating birth defects.

• As mentioned, China imports ethnic Chinese settlers to drown out the local population. In 1949, when it lost its independence, East Turkestan was 93% Muslim; today, it is only 50% Muslim. To ensure their plan succeeds beyond settlement colonialism (a la Israel), the Chinese government forces a number of Muslim families to practice abortions.

• As part of their drive to destroy Uighur culture, the Chinese have attempted to switch Uighur to the Latin script. However, the Uighur have refused, sticking to their Arabic-based script, thus making them the only Turkic people still using this alphabet. As a result of such resistance, Uighur are denied access to education, such that their illiteracy rate is now a disastrous seventy percent. Considering the high number of Chinese settlers, competition for jobs is ever more fierce by the year, and Uighur, who are already heavily discriminated against and unlikely to get any jobs, have even less chance with their diminished technical and literary skills.

• Uighur can be jailed for refusing to eat during daylight hours in Ramadan, part of an orchestrated campaign to oust from the Uighur their identity and values. This policy was instituted only a few years ago – and few Muslim countries paid any attention.

• There has even been an attempt at creating a Communist Islam: China demands that Uighur mosques display pictures of Communist leaders, while Imams must speak favorably of atheist Communism in their sermons!

• However, the Communization of Islam has certainly failed to some degree, as evinced by China’s attempt to simply destroy Islam outright: More than 29,000 mosques have been shut down or destroyed; some are even converted into pig farms.

• Imams are regularly persecuted, often for no reason other than their attachment to religion. Some are forced to clean sewers, stables and pig farms.

• Young men are often kidnapped by the government, never to be seen again. This is especially the case with young men who show an interest in their religion and/or culture. China makes the pitiful excuse that these young men are terrorists. In fact, they are youth who are sick and tired of suffering the indignities of a brutal occupation and thus are a potential threat to despotism and dictatorship.

• And finally, as a result of Chinese occupation, at least 300,000 Uighur have died (out of a population that today equals only ten million, this is a frighteningly high percentage).

What Can Be Done: Three Proposals

So what is to be done? Below, I have three proposals, of varying intensity, as suggestions for handling this conflict in a reasonable and legitimate manner.

Firstly, we need education as an Ummah, so that we and our future generations are aware of the many branches of the Muslim Nation, the better to increase awareness and call attention to injustices. For Islamic schools and mosques, this could mean organizing teach-ins, lectures, special programs, and so on, to familiarize ourselves with the Uighur and their plight (please see the resources at the end of this article).

Secondly, there are more ambitious options for the many promising Muslims interested in academia and linguistics. They may want to consider taking courses in this region of the world, or even specializing in Eurasian studies. In the coming decades, as the petrochemical wealth of this region becomes more significant, demand will skyrocket for specialists, thinkers, writers and the like, much as high demand has been established for the Muslim Middle East. Options are also available to Muslims with an interest in languages: One may wish to consider learning Uighur or other Central Asian languages. Indiana University, with a website link below, has an excellent summer program for Uighur, with large federal grants and scholarships also available.

Consider the effect of only a handful of committed Muslims learning such a language. The Uighur have been, for quite some time, prevented from learning Arabic. Thus much of their religion is out of reach. Armed with the knowledge of local languages, specialists can translate important books and resources; furthermore, easy-to-access websites could be created, offering essential Islamic resources and news which would be gradually disseminated. As poor as the Uighur are, the Chinese cannot stop the benefits of the Internet and mass media from reaching their controlled state. There should also be translations of the Qur’an, books on prayer, etiquette, manners and virtues, etc. Such action on our part would also prevent the influence of extremist groups, which capitalize on people’s deficient knowledge of Islam, peddling erroneous and dangerous beliefs (some groups are even fronts for missionaries; in Albania, after the fall of Communism, some fringe Christian groups sold Bibles labeled “The Holy Qur’an”).

Thirdly, we can take an overtly political role. If the goal of Operation Iraqi Freedom was Iraq’s freedom, then why does East Turkestan not even receive a mention in speeches and policy direction, let alone the kind of ridiculous attention lopped onto Iraq in the run-up to the (ultimately unjustifiable) war? One should never underestimate the power of political pressure. This also means we must involve the American community at large, moving outside the boundaries of our religious groups and organizations, so as to create the largest possible effect. There is a great potential for alliance with those who trumpet the similarly just cause of Tibet, a vast groundswell of support for action. Thus the oppressed are always wronged, and always seeking allies in a proactive and appropriate fight to change their situation.

For now, however, East Turkestan struggles almost entirely on its own. It is our responsibility not to leave them as such. Our efforts, resources and prayers must make an invisible people visible again.

Haroon Moghul is the author of My First Police State, available through most major bookseller websites, such as Barnes and Noble, Borders and He writes for a variety of newspapers, Islamic media and journals, and invites your commentary, criticism and curiosity. Email him at

Resources for more information:

Maps, news, history and more: Uighur American Association

Learning Uighur:Indiana University Language Program

Information on East Turkestan in Arabic and English:


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