by Rasmus Christian Elling.
The Muslim Uyghurs of China are, in many ways, losers. Not just because they are a suppressed and persecuted minority suffering from economic and political marginalization, and not just because most of them live in poverty while their ancestral home is being colonized by Chinese settlers exploiting the region’s natural resources. They have also lost in the battle for headlines. It took a bloodbath before the Uyghurs finally caught some attention.
With its outrage over Chinese oppression in Tibet, Western media has for years engaged in a full-scale ‘war of sympathy’ on behalf of the Tibetans. Journalists, authors, artists and movie stars have used every occasion to highlight the plight of Buddhists in Tibet; the Uyghurs, however, being Muslim, have received none of this attention. Now, with over a hundred dead and thousands arrested, Western media have finally open its eyes to China’s other backyard. And still, there has been no clear expression of support for the Uyghurs by Western leaders who are too cautious not to harm their relations with the rising economic giant in the East.
Calling on the Muslim World
But how about the Muslim world? In the recent unrest in Xinjiang, at least one observer has noted what might be a conscious use of Islamic symbolism by protesting women to open eyes in the Muslim world. On The New Dominion, ‘OpkeHessip’ wrote about this picture:
“This is an image that will appeal powerfully to the Muslim world. This picture tells a story of brave boys who righteously stood up, as young men do, and who were punished by non-Muslim occupiers. The image is a mother, the keeper of tradition, the one who educates religious and ethnic values and traditions into her children, looking out for those children, missing them, coming to find them when they have lost their way. Here, she chides and scolds the men who have taken her son away, and, in their stillness, they seem to fear her.”
He also noted that
“Even if the participants were not necessarily religious, they would still identify as Muslims, making the headscarf a very visible symbol of unity, as well as difference from Han Chinese.”
“…if someone politically savvy planned this action, then they may have actually called on female participants to wear headscarves. The image of a crowd of apparently traditional Muslims facing down what looks like a faceless army of Chinese can draw on over a billion sympathizers.”
The story behind the picture has indeed become front page material on the websites of Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya, Ash-Sharq al-Awsat, Al-Quds, Hürriyet, Milliyet, Sabah, Today’s Zaman, Yeni Safak etc. etc. On Pakistan Daily, one headline read ‘China to further ties with Pakistan’ and next to it, ‘Muslim Unrest in China’. Some of them carry extremely gory pictures of dead people. Xinjiang is clearly important stuff in the Muslim world. But not in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The issue of Iranian media responses to the Xinjiang unrest carries some interesting points.
From Pan-Islamic Solidarity to Tactical Realism
One of the main messages of the 1978-9 movement led by Ayatollah Khomeini was that the revolution was not just an Iranian revolution, but a Koranic uprising. The Islamic Revolution belongs to all Muslims, the vanguard claimed; indeed, the revolution belonged to all mostaz‘afin: all the Third World masses who had been downtrodden by Imperialist powers. Khomeini blasted US, the Soviet Union and Apartheid South Africa. Iranian solidarity was to be extended to the whole non-aligned world; oppressed Muslims everywhere would receive Tehran’s support. When the revolutionary fervor settled, another picture emerged.
It is no secret that when clerics and their Islamist allies turned into statesmen, they quickly became realists, concerned primarily with the national interests of a clearly defined nation-state, and not the utopian visions of a global, boderless Ummah. In the long run, they even became pragmatists, calculating tactical decisions in their foreign policy that only rarely were based on considerations for the plight of Muslim brethren in other countries.
The Islamic Republic did not help the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982 when they were massacred in Hama by the secular Ba‘thist regime of Syria; the Islamic Republic sided with the Christian Armenians against the Shiite Muslim Azerbaijanis in the fight over Nagorno-Karabagh; the Islamic Republic did not help the Chechens when they were under full-scale Russian attack; and the Islamic Republic even prevented an agitated crowd of Basiji Students from leaving for Palestine when the Israeli war machine was pounding the West Bank into smithereens half a year ago.
And now it seems that the Islamic Republic will not stand up for their Muslim brethren in Xinjiang. This is far from surprising: Iran is extremely dependent on Beijing for investments and support in the UN Security Council, and careful not to damage this crucial relationship.
Silence – and opportunities
This is also why there is so little attention to the topic in state-run and state-affiliated Iranian media. In today’s Kayhân, the Supreme Leader’s mouthpiece, there is a small piece tucked away in the International section that mentions anti-government unrest in Xinjiang. The article does not even mention that Uyghurs are Muslims.
There was no mention of Xinjiang on the front page of the state news agency IRNA’s website this morning. On the Foreign News page, a new Iranian refinery deal with China was categorized as ‘Important News’, followed by two pieces on Hillary Clinton’s response to the Xinjiang unrest and Hu Jintao’s return from the G8 Summit. References were made to ‘ethnic violence’ and to Rebiya Kadeer as a ‘local leader’ – but the Uyghurs were not mentioned let alone their Muslim identity.
On the front page of the state-run Irân daily, a headline proclaimed “China, Iran’s Biggest Trade Partner in Asia”. No mention of Xinjiang. The front page of the state-affiliated Mehr news told of ‘The opportunity for Iran and China to cooperate on gas for the next 100 years’. No mention of Xinjiang.
And so on.
The many similarities between the ongoing clampdown on Uyghur protesters in China and the repression of anti-Ahmadinejad protesters in Iran has not been lost on Iranian ‘reformists’, however. Masume Ebtekar – former US embassy hostage-taker, former vice president and a prominent ‘reformist’ – has seized the opportunity and stated:
“For years, the Islamic Republic would react whenever and wherever Muslims and downtrodden masses were oppressed and subjugated. But in recent years, we see that this ideal has been modified in relation to the Eastern Bloc.”
She argues that state-run media has failed to understand and portray this as a Muslim protest movement, and she compares the lack of official condemnation to the Iranian government’s silence vis-à-vis massacres on Shiites in Kashmir and Muslims in Chechnya. However, the most interesting point, is that she describes the government clampdown exactly like the clampdown Iranian opposition were subject to during the recent post-election unrest.
Indeed, there are many superficial similarities: Chinese authorities have brought in paramilitary forces to quell the protests; mobile phone network has been shut down and access to weblogs and social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook has been restricted; state-run media portray the demonstrators as rioters and hoodlums; and the government claims that the unrest has been masterminded and directed from abroad. Finally, Ebtekar sarcastically concludes, with reference to the Iranian government’s accusation against the opposition:
“I’m not sure if these similarities means that we are talking about suppression of a velvet revolution or not!?”
Twitter-users in Iran have also noted the similarities. One Twitter wrote:
“It is interesting to note that Russia and China – two intimate friends of the Iranian regime – are killing Muslims and the Iranian regime says nothing”
“Friends, I am proud that our Green Wave and its valuable victories has also reached China …!”
And a journalist added:
“Ahmadinejad: Palestinians are not the only Muslims! If you’re a man, voice your protest against China! … China massacred its Muslims, Ahmadinejad kept his mouth shut…”
The Iranian China Model: More East than West?
What remains of the ‘reformist’ press in Iran has picked up the story, which figures on the front page of Âftâb-e Yazd today. On the ‘reformist’ website Âyande News, there is a long article with many pictures and film clips from Urumqi. The title of the piece is ‘Attacking Zionists, Smiling at Communists!’:
“The ruling Communist party’s Chinese model of mischievousness and provocation has finally caused the people of Xinjiang – one of the country’s Muslim-inhabited regions – to lose their patience, and in the aftermath of a peaceful demonstration, a bloodbath occurred.”
The ‘Chinese model’ is clearly supposed to be seen in the light of a similar ‘Iranian model’. The article explains in detail how 20 million Uyghurs suffer from anti-Islamic policies and economic, political and cultural discrimination at the hands of the Chinese government. With what appear as occasional hyperbole and sensationalist claims, the article portrays the recent unrest as something close to genocide. Like in the Ebtekar blog entry, the article enumerates all the government measures. It also states that the Chinese government cracked down on the Tiananmen Square unrest in 1989 with the excuse that the demonstrators were manipulated by the US. The Iranian state has leveled the exact same accusations against protestors in Iran recently.
The article concludes, again in a sardonic tone:
“It remains to be seen how the diplomatic machinery and other justice-and-freedom-seeking organs [in Iran] – who wear mourning shrouds when there are minor events in Gaza – will retain a pragmatic silence vis-à-vis the horrendous killing of Muslims in the province of Xinjiang; or whether they will apply the famous prophetic saying, and answer the call of freedom from the Muslims of that region with diplomatic support?!”
Apart from being Muslims, the Uyghurs are also ethnic Turks – indeed, the radical ethno-nationalist Uyghur groups call their homeland ‘East Turkistan’. In Iran, somewhere around 25-30% of the population is also of Turkic origin, or rather, speak a Turkic language, generally alongside Persian. In recent years, Iran has witnessed a wave of ethnic mobilization and unrest, even among the Azeris, who are considered the most assimilated or integrated ethnic group.
Iran’s Azeris have taken notice of events in Xinjiang. Bizim Tabriz carries a gruesome video allegedly showing Han Chinese men killing three Uyghurs. The website also reports on Turkey’s nationalist parties’ reaction to the events. On Âzâd Tabriz News, a writer states that ‘the Islamic Republic goes hand in hand with those who murder Muslims in East Turkistan, Chechnya and Karabagh.‘ He laments that none of the major Shiite clerics responded with fatwas against Armenians killing Azeris during the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict, and he calls on Iranians to ask their spiritual guides now for a ruling on the Islamic Republic’s relationship with Muslim-killing countries such as China.
The radical Pan-Turkist groups are also paying full attention to the plight of their Turkic brethren. Milli Harekat has displayed gruesome pictures and are describing the latest events as part of a broader scheme to eliminate Uyghurs completely. Pan-Turkist groups have also sent condolences to their Turkic brethren in the Uyghur World Congress.
An interesting facet is the way that not just radical groups, but also ‘reformist’ politicians can turn this into another point of opposition against the Ahmadinejad government. Indeed, when Ahmadinejad went to Russia during the recent unrest, Karubi evoked the centuries-old image of ‘The Russian Foe’ and stated that Russia has always interfered in Iran’s domestic affairs. This is an interesting twist to the blame game: normally, it is Ahmadinejad who accuses the ‘reformists’ of being lackeys of the West; now, the reformists can blame Ahmadinejad of being a lackey of both North and East.
Iran’s professed ‘Neither West nor East’ ideology is again questioned and the latent pan-Islamic ideals vs. national interests discussion can once again be (ab)used in factional rivalries.
It will be interesting to see if the Iranian opposition will capitalize further on the ‘Oppressed Muslims in China and Russia’ discourse. It is, however, most likely that the Uyghurs will again be forgotten – not just by CNN and BBC, but also by their brethren in the Muslim world.