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Uighurs – precariously caught between two powers

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan – The community of Uighurs in Rawalpindi’s China Market is small and close-knit.

About 50 families have emigrated here from China’s Xinjiang Province over the past 30 years, focusing on cross-border trade and driving the transformation of Gordon College Road from a sleepy hamlet into a thriving commercial district now known as the China Market.

“We celebrate holidays, weddings, and funerals together,” said one Uighur businessman originally from Khotan, a city in China’s Xinjiang Province, and who would only give his first name, Muhammed.

Adrienne Mong, NBC News

Shops in the China Market are mostly run by Uighurs from China's Xinjiang Province.

But they don’t share everything.

“We don’t talk openly about our politics or our beliefs,” said another Uighur businessman and community leader who also wanted to remain anonymous. “We’re always suspicious of Chinese spies.”

Persecuted at home
The Uighurs are one of China’s 56 officially recognized ethnic minorities, but in recent years they’ve also become one of the most restive.

A Turkic-speaking people with an Islamic faith, the Uighurs live mostly in Xinjiang, but their presence has been overwhelmed by a steady influx of ethnic Han Chinese. Before the Communist Party took over China in 1949, the Han comprised only five percent of Xinjiang’s population; they are now closer to 40 percent, with the Uighurs totaling nine million out of the 20 million or so residents.

The Han dominance in Xinjiang has fueled tensions between the two groups. In addition to commanding the government bureaucracy and local economy, the Han also dictate religious and cultural norms. Uighurs wanting to succeed – particularly in government – must learn Mandarin and forsake Islam.

In the last decade, the practice of their religion has been severely curtailed. The call to prayer on loudspeakers is banned – as are madrassas (religious schools). The number of Uighurs permitted to travel to Mecca to perform the Haj is also strictly limited.

Beijing argues these restrictions are necessary for maintaining “social harmony” and eradicating a terrorist movement it claims is designed to achieve a separate Uighur state.

The Uighurs we met in Rawalpindi, for the most part, said they had left Xinijang because they wanted more freedom.

“We decided to settle here in the 1990s,” said Muhammed. “It was better to stay here in Pakistan than in China, because there was no religious freedom in China.”

Adrienne Mong, NBC News

Haji Abdul Hamid, a 76-year-old Khotan native, has spent the last 18 years of his life in Rawalpindi.

Yet even as the Pakistanis have welcomed the Uighurs, this small community puts Islamabad in a delicate predicament vis-à-vis its giant neighbor.

The rise of Islamic militancy inside Pakistan has alarmed China, which suspects Uighur separatists from Xinjiang are hiding in Pakistani tribal areas. In fact, it’s believed that during the 1980s many Uighur militants were enrolled in madrassas in the South Asian nation and fought in the Soviet-Afghan War, and then again in 2001 when the current war began in Afghanistan.

These suspicions over the years have prompted Beijing to shut down the Karakorum Highway periodically, owing to concerns that the road has contributed to “the spread of Islamic ideology into Xinjiang and the movement of radical Uighur militants,” according to Ziad Haider, who has researched the highway’s impact on Islamic awareness among the Uighurs.

And harassed abroad…
Out of respect for its close friendship with Beijing, Islamabad has also taken action. The Uighurs in Rawalpindi said they are regularly brought in for questioning by Pakistani authorities. (Fear of harassment is the reason many traders did not want to be identified by name for this article.)

“They are worried that we are against the Chinese,” said the Uighur businessman and community leader whose family moved to Pakistan from Xinjiang in the 1980s and who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He cited an example from three months ago when one trader was detained by local authorities for 15 days of interrogation.

Another described the rough treatment his elderly parents endured when they were crossing the border from Pakistan into China. “They were interrogated on suspicion of terrorism,” he practically shouted as he remembered the scene. “My father, 85 years old! My mother, 75 years old! Terrorists? It’s ridiculous.”

Suspected Uighur separatists have been not only been arrested but also killed in Pakistan. Earlier this year in May, Pakistan’s Interior Minister announced that his forces had killed a leader of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which Beijing has branded a terrorist group responsible for fomenting ethnic unrest in Xinjiang.

“The [Uighur] community here has to respect our rules, our laws, and also the fact that we have an excellent relationship with China. So we don’t want this community to create any problems for that relationship,” said Riaz Khokar, a former foreign secretary of Pakistan who nevertheless denies the Uighurs in his country are targeted in any way.

Adrienne Mong, NBC News

Abdul Rahman's parents are Uighurs from Khotan, but he was born in Pakistan.

‘China is our most important relationship’
The value of the alliance between Beijing and Islamabad lies in each side’s view of the other as a key bulwark against a common adversary: India. In addition to low-level skirmishes and long-running simmering tensions, Pakistan has fought three wars with India over the issue of Kashmir. China and India fought their own border war in 1962 and are regularly pitted as geopolitical and economic rivals jockeying for pole position in the region.

“China is our most important relationship,” said Khokar, who also served as Pakistan’s ambassador to China. “We attach the highest importance to it.”

Economic relations certainly attest to that importance. During Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari’s visit to Beijing in July, Chinese Commerce Minister Chen Deming said trade between the two countries could more than double from the current figure of $7 billion to $15 billion by 2015.

Much of the trade comes from large-scale infrastructure projects in Pakistan, ranging from highways to mining to power plants. Last weekend, officials here announced they were preparing to award a contract to build a $2.2 billion hydropower project in Azad Kashmir to a Chinese subsidiary of the Three Gorges Corporation – without subjecting the company to the normal bidding process.

And then on Monday, it was reported that China was going to build a fifth nuclear reactor plant in Pakistan, fuelling worries in the U.S. and elsewhere that nuclear material could end up in the possession of Islamic extremists suspected along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

We can ‘live the life we want’
Given the significance of Pakistan-China relations, the Uighurs on Gordon College Road tread carefully in their adopted home.

In 1998, one Uighur trader attempted to politically organize his fellow men in Rawalpindi but met with little success. The would-be activist then disappeared, recalled the community leader. “We believe he was a Chinese plant who was trying to root out people who were anti-China.”

Their caution stepped up a notch last year after July riots in the Xinjiang provincial capital of Urumqi; Uighur businessmen were especially wary about traveling back to China. (Cross-border trade serves as not only their main source of income, but also the main source of information. The community closely monitors developments in Xinjiang, relying mostly on word of mouth and occasionally through the Internet.)

Those who would speak on record were circumspect about their public views.

Although his parents hail from Khotan, Abdul Rahman was born in Pakistan 40 years ago. He travels frequently to Xinjiang to buy textiles for his shop, the Khotan Silk House. “If I would have been born in China, I’m sure my life and opportunities would have been equally good,” he said.

Haji Abdul Hamid is grateful for the opportunities he’s had in Pakistan. “I worked as a civil servant in agriculture [in Xinjiang],” the slender 76-year-old told me in heavily-accented Mandarin as we sat beneath a setting sun off Gordon College Road. “After 40 years, I retired and went into business for myself.”

His business was cement. Hamid exported it from China to Pakistan, over the Karakorum Highway. Eighteen years ago, he moved to Rawalpindi to enjoy the fruits of his success.

But for many, “Life here is good” for a different reason. “We can practice Islam the way we want, live the life we want,” said Muhammed.