New Research on Central Asia Places Uyghurs in Regional Context
China’s influence in Central Asia is having serious consequences for the region’s Uyghur communities, says Jana Brandt of the World Uyghur Congress in comments to the CQ Press’s Global Researcher. In a report assessing the opportunities for democracy to take root in Central Asia the report’s author, Brian Beary, notes that the future remains very mixed for Central Asia and its people.
Below are extracts from an article published by the CQ Press’ Global Researcher:
Since emerging from the Soviet Union's orbit 20 years ago, the five enigmatic nations of Central Asia — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — increasingly are popping up on geo-political radar screens. Given the proximity of the "Stans" to Afghanistan, where NATO continues to wage war on Al Qaeda and the Taliban, Western powers are ardently wooing Central Asia's leaders in an effort to maintain military bases in the region. There are also rich resources at stake. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan's abundant oil and gas reserves have made them magnets for foreign investors, especially from energy-starved China, as well as from Europe and the United States. Central Asia also faces a daunting array of domestic challenges, from bloody inter-ethnic clashes and Islamist terrorist attacks to criminal gangs that traffic in drugs and human beings. Meanwhile, some experts wonder if Central Asia, with its repressive, dictatorial leaders and weak but deeply corrupted governments, will soon see its own version of an "Arab Spring" — a popular uprising that will sweep away its aging regimes.
China uses its economic weight to persuade Central Asian governments to repress the Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim minority living mostly in western China, according to Jana Brandt, a German who works as a project coordinator for the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress. China has accused Central Asia-based Uyghurs of plotting against the Chinese state and then pressured the governments to extradite them back to China, she says.
After three months in Uzbekistan, Brandt, of the World Uyghur Congress, says, “you really feel the oppression. You see policemen every 300 meters — in the market, at the theater, in the subway. During a five-hour car journey from the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border, we passed 16 different checkpoints where they registered us.” In addition, she says, “religion is almost forbidden. There are very few mosques. You do not hear imams calling people to prayer, because they are not allowed. It feels strange in an overwhelmingly Muslim country.”
Neighboring China is also afraid rising Islamic extremism could stir up more political dissent among its Uyghur minority, who share the same religion and have the same ethnic roots as Central Asians. And the International Crisis Group has reported that the “disappearance of basic services” provided by the government during the Soviet era “will provide Islamic radicals, already a serious force in many Central Asian states, with further ammunition against regional leaders and openings to establish influential support networks.”
But others say the Islamist threat is overstated. “This idea of the Fergana Valley being a boiling pot of religious fervor is not reflected by events on the ground,” says [Noah] Tucker. “Yes, there are some Islamists and militants, but there is very little popular support for Islamism.”
Instead, he says, there is “a religious revival, especially in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. This is natural given how religion was repressed by the Soviets. Some people are choosing to explore this religious revival. Others — such as the urban intelligentsia who were Russified in the Soviet era — are not.”
Uyghur advocate Brandt agrees. “The people in these countries practice a moderate form of religion. Their governments exaggerate the extent of Islamism as an excuse to crack down on religion — just like China says the Uyghurs are a threat to their national security.”
“It is crucial not to confuse a return to faith with Islamism and terrorism,” says Marlene Laruelle, a research professor of international affairs at George Washington University in Washington. “The international community must not accept Central Asian authorities’ attempts to blame ‘religious extremists’ for all of the region’s problems and the instability affecting the countries.”
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