East Turkestan, also called Xinjiang, Sinkiang or Uyguristan, lies north of Tibet and north-east of Afghanistan. It is a land of emeralds, oil and gold in the middle of Asia. It has huge deserts where the Chinese try out their death machines. The Silk Road used to pass through it, when Kashgar was its main city.
Most people born there are Turks – Uighurs, in fact (sounds like “Weegurs”). They are distant cousins of the people in Turkey, close cousins to those in nearby Uzbekistan. Like most Turks, they are Sunni Muslims.
The Chinese have ruled East Turkestan since the late 1800s, calling it Xinjiang (Sinkiang on the old maps). The Chinese know it is not their country, which is why they have been sending their own people there to live so that it will no longer be a Turkish place. It is now about half Chinese, half Turk.
It was not always so. East Turkestan was once the centre of an empire, a place of great poets and great buildings. The Uighurs even ruled Mongolia. They defeated the Chinese in 751 and were free of Chinese rule for a thousand years (though they were ruled by the Mongols in the 1200s, but then so was everyone else in that part of the world). The Chinese sent them silk and the hand of princesses in marriage to keep the peace. Some say acupuncture started there.
East Turkestan started to fall under Chinese power in the 1700s. It came under direct Chinese rule in the late 1800s. When China was torn apart by civil war in the early 1900s, East Turkestan was independent for a time in the 1930s and again in the 1940s. In 1949 the communists won the civil war and the Chinese firmly took over again.
There has been violence directed against Chinese rule, especially in 1954, 1997 and now in 2008. The Chinese call it Islamic terrorism and blame foreigners like Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. But given the nature of the violence, it seems to be homegrown with little money behind it. Its aim seems to be freedom from Chinese rule, not jihad or holy war.
Turkestan is the old name for the region in Central Asia where the Turks live. In addition to East Turkestan there is West Turkestan, which the Russians once ruled: the present-day countries of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan (but not Tajikistan or Afghanistan, which are Persian, not Turk).
Religion: Islam came there in 934. Before that the Uighurs were mainly Buddhists, though there were many who followed Nestorian Christianity and Manichaeism. Some Uighurs to the east are still Buddhist to this day.
Islam as practised there does not seem be strict or extreme: many of the young Muslims drink and dress just like the Chinese. Most Muslim women do cover their hair, but not their faces. There has been no clear proof of any suicide bombings. No one is allowed to visit Mecca on his own: the Chinese government is afraid of Islam (and any religion it cannot control).
– Abagond, 2008.