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The Uighur (Simplified: 伟哥尔; Traditional: 偉哥爾; Hanyu pinyin: Wèi gē èr) (pronounced wē-gu̇r) ethnic group is a Turkic ethnic group originally from East Turkestan, currently under Chinese occupation. They number around 8.4 million people in addition to expatriates. The Uighurs practice Islam.


The designation "Uighur" originally referred to a Turkic steppe, nomadic shamanistic, Manichaean society during the Uighur Empire (AD 744-840). This term was later attributed to the sedentary oasis-dwelling Buddhist, Manichaean, and Nestorian Christian people during the formation of city-states throughout East Turkistan. Finally, it pointed to an elite Turkic Buddhist population inhabiting Turpan.

Some aspects of the Sino-Central Asian historical relationship endure to this day: transnationalization (owing to the cultural and commercial rise of the Silk Road and political unification under the Mongols), Islamicization (affecting economic changes in both China and Central Asia), and the ethnicization of local identities (owing to the successive policies of imperial Russia, the Soviet Union, and Communist China).

Historically, the identities of the indigenous peoples located in the Hi Valley and the Tarim, Turpan, and Dzungarian Basins have been fluid. Depending on whom these people were interacting with, they stressed various aspects of their character. For example, the Min Kao Han, while ethnically Uighur, are culturally and linguistically Chinese. Consequently, they are shunned by the traditional Uighur community and discriminated against by the Chinese.

The self-identity of these communities was in direct opposition to an Islamic character, and after the conversion of Turpan to Islam, in the fifteenth century, the name "Uighur" was abandoned in general use.

The Turkic-speaking Uighurs of Turkestan have created a rich culture and literature. The modernizing cultural reform movements of jadidism found ardent supporters in Turkestan, and the move toward national independence was reflected in new literature. Some of the Uighur writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were educated in Turkey and Egypt, and between 1899 and 1920 new printing houses opened and many books on a variety of subjects were produced. After 1980, historical themes became popular for their capability of strengthening national pride and consciousness. In spite of political oppression and assimilation policies, the Uighur Turks have kept and developed their culture, traditions, and existence.[1]

The term "Uighur" was revived by the Soviets in the 1920s. At the 1921 Tashkent conference the term "Uighur" was not used as an ethnic designation but as an umbrella term for various peoples with family roots in Eastern Turkestan. It was not until several years later that the term took its place beside other ethnonyms in the Soviet Union, provoking debate and opposition in the Soviet Uighur press. In the late 20th century; nationalists portray their 21st century identity community as the legatee of the Uighur heritage.

2009 massacres

In July 2009 large scale rioting erupted as Uighurs fought Chinese riot police in major cities in China's western Xinjiang province. Over 150 people are dead. Chinese officials blamed Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur businesswoman who was jailed for years in China before being released into exile in the US where she now heads the World Uighur Congress, for "masterminding" the unrest.[2] Exiled Uighurs blame Chinese repression. Uighurs are angry at political, cultural and religious persecution as well as the growing presence in the region of Han Chinese - China's main ethnic group. Han now predominate in the cities, and Uighurs in the countryside. This is the first major violent unrest in China in two decades.

Unrest in Ürümqi, Xinjiang has led to the disappearance of 10,000 Uighurs in one night by Chinese authorities. Exiled dissident Rebiya Kadeer and the World Uighur Congress urge the international community to provide support for those missing. "Where have they gone? If they are dead, where are they now?" Also, they are blaming the United States government for keeping silent on the issue.[3]

Current tensions in China

Around 2000 Chinese authorities started to move the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region away from the 1990s policy of accelerated integration by the center, to a phase of consolidation of the advances already made. The intertwined dimensions of state building and nation building embedded in the campaign to "Open Up the West" respond to the long-term strategic goal of placating the threat of ethno-nationalist unrest. This "staged development" of Xinjiang reflects in essence a classic process of peripheral territorial integration by the central state. Yet, the dynamics of penetration and resistance between the center and what still remains an indigenous periphery can be expected to generate at the same time both increased sinicization and increased ethnonational unrest.

In the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region huge state investments, as well as the development of large oil and cotton industries, have led to economic growth and a standard of living that ranks among the highest of China's western provinces and regions. Despite this, nationalist groups among the region's inhabitants show great discontent with the Chinese administration. Separatism, terrorism, human rights violations, and ruthless exploitation of the region's resources have been as important a part of Xinjiang's recent history as economic development and the improved standard of living. In the midst of this situation, Xinjiang's Bingtuan, a group of state-run, formerly military, farming units, plays an important role as a regional development agent and as a Chinese controlling body.

The elderly generation of Uighurs grew up during the chaotic, unstable years of the warlord period. Most are grateful for recent improvements in standards of living and do not want to "rock the boat." Middle-aged Uighurs suffered persecution during the Cultural Revolution and fear a return of Maoist ideology. Furthermore, they have homes and families to protect. The younger generation, however, has grown up amid the relative freedom of post-1980 conciliatory minority policy. They have witnessed the 1989 prodemocracy movement in China, the collapse of Eastern Europe and the USSR, and the burgeoning of Islamic fundamentalist movements worldwide. These events have provided inspiration for Uighur youth who are ever more militant in their aspirations to independence. Unlike their elders, they have both less to fear and less to lose.[4]


After several stages of migration, about 500,000 Uighurs have moved throughout Asia, Western Europe, North America, Australia, and Turkey. Their numbers of expatriates correspond to about 7% of the Uighur population of Xinjiang. They use the internet extensively (using western languages) to form a sort of worldide cyber-community. They present their own view of history to demonstrate that the Uighurs have been a unified people with a sense of community and allegiance to a native land for countless generations.[5]

Nationalists refer to their homeland as East Turkestan. 22 of the captives in Guantanamo were alleged to have been associated with the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM).[6]

In Kazakhstan

Many live in eastern Kazakhstan's Ili River valley. They are divided into two groups based on the time period of their immigration to Kazakhstan. Beginning in the 1880s the older group, called the Yärkik', or locals, fled to Kazakhstan to escape China's Qing dynasty. The second group moved to the USSR in the 1950s and 1960s and is known as the Khitailiq, or "those from China." A number of Khitailiq entered in 1962, when the USSR opened its borders at the Khorgos Pass to allow minorities from China to cross into Soviet territory. Initially, there were strong cultural differences between the two groups, but over time the differences decreased, although the Khitailiq had more ties to Uighurs in China than did the Yärkik'.


Thirteen members of the East Turkistan Independence Movement (ETIM) were captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan and imprisoned in the U.S. military installation of Cuba, referred to as Gitmo. After the Bush administration had conceded on September 30 that the Uighurs could not be considered enemy combatants,[7] a federal judge ordered the release of these prisoners in October 7, 2008.[8] In his oral ruling, the judge noted the government's admission that the Uighurs "were not waging war on the United States, have never waged war on the United States, were not training to wage war on the United States, and to date, I believe the Government has conceded that these people are not a security risk or a danger to the United States." [9]

  • “The Obama administration is preparing to free into the United States Chinese Muslims being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the first release of any of the detainees into this country, according to current and former U.S. officials.” – Chicago Tribune
  • “Officials have not said where in the United States they (Uighurs) might live. But many Uighur immigrants from China live in Washington's Virginia suburbs, and advocates have urged that the detainees be resettled near people who speak their language and are familiar with their customs.” – Los Angeles Times

After the ruling, the question became where they would be released, as they feared retaliation by the Chinese government, and a US Appeals Court ruling determined that the judiciary had no authority to release the prisoners onto American soil.

Four inmates have been transferred to Bermuda. The rest will likely be relocated to the island of Palau.[10]


  • Becquelin, Nicolas. "Staged Development in Xinjiang." China Quarterly (2004) (178): 358-378. Issn: 0305-7410
  • Forbes, Andrew D.W. Warlords and Muslims in Chinese Central Asia: A Political History of Republican Sinkiang, 1911-1949 Cambridge University Press: 1986
  • Gladney, Dru C. "The Chinese program of development and control, 1978-2001", in Xinjiang: China's Muslim Borderland, ed. S. Frederick Starr, M.E. Sharpe, 2004, pp. 101–119.
  • Gladney, Dru C. "The Ethnogenesis of the Uighur." Central Asian Survey 1990 9(1): 1-28. ISSN: 0263-4937
  • Gladney, Dru C. Muslim Chinese: Ethnic Nationalism in the People's Republic, (Harvard University Press, 1991)
  • Hierman, Brent. "The Pacification of Xinjiang: Uighur Protest and the Chinese State, 1988-2002." Problems of Post-Communism, May/Jun2007, Vol. 54 Issue 3, pp 48–62, in EBSCO
  • Hyer, Eric. "China's Policy Towards Uighur Nationalism." Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs (2006) 26(1): 75-86. Issn: 1360-2004 Fulltext: Ebsco
  • Kasgarli, Sultan Mahmut. "The Formation of Modern Uighur Literature and Current Developments." Central Asian Survey 1993 12(4): 577-583. Issn: 0263-4937
  • Kung, Lap-Yan. "National identity and ethno-religious identity: A critical inquiry into Chinese religious policy, with reference to the Uighurs in Xinjiang." Religion, State & Society,' Dec 2006, Vol. 34 Issue 4, pp 375–391, in EBSCO
  • Mackerras, Coli. The Uighur Empire According to the T'ang dynastic Histories: A Study in Sino-Uighur Relations, 744—840, Australian National University Press, 1972
  • Millward, James A. and Peter Purdue, "Political and cultural history of the Xinjiang region through the late nineteenth century", in Xinjiang: China's Muslim Borderland, ed. S. Frederick Starr, M.E. Sharpe, (2004), pp. 27–62
  • Petersen, Kristian. "Usurping the Nation: Cyber-leadership in the Uighur Nationalist Movement." Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs (2006) 26(1): 63-73. Issn: 1360-2004 Fulltext: Ebsco
  • Rudelson, Justin J. "Uighur historiography and Uighur ethnic nationalism", in Ethnicity, Minorities, and Cultural Encounters, ed. Ingvar Svanberg, Uppsala, MN: Centre for Multiethnic Research, Uppsala University, 1991, pp. 63–82
  • Sinor, Denis. "The Uighurs", in The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, ed. Denis Sinor, Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp. 335–342


  1. Kasgarli (1993)
  2. See Wrik Eckholm, "China Points to Another Leader in Exile," New York Times July 6, 2009
  3. 10,000 Uighur disappear in China, U.S. silent Spero News, July 29, 2009
  4. Based on fieldwork in 1995-96. See Joanne Smith, "Four Generations of Uyghurs: the Shift Towards Ethno-political Ideologies among Xinjiang's Youth." Inner Asia (2000) 2(2): 195-224. Issn: 1464-8172 .
  5. See Petersen (2006)
  6. Chinese Detainees Are Men Without a Country: 15 Muslims, Cleared of Terrorism Charges, Remain at Guantanamo With Nowhere to Go, The Washington Post, August 24 2005
  7. http://www.scotusblog.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2008/10/urbina-transcript-10-7-08.pdf p. 10
  8. http://www.scotusblog.com/wp/federal-judge-orders-uighurs-in-us-by-friday/
  9. http://www.scotusblog.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2008/10/urbina-transcript-10-7-08.pdf p. 14
  10. http://www.nationalpost.com/news/story.html?id=1683165

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