by Greg Palast
Or Kyrgyzstan. Or Turkmenistan. But as your kids will be fighting there among the oil pipes, you should kiss Ted Rall’s crazy ass for going there first – and getting it all down in a book of dead-on cartoons and reportage, Silk Road to Ruin.
Rall almost didn’t make it back. The Taliban who was supposed to execute Rall spoke English – the gunman picked it up as an NYU grad student. As happens when two guys from New York get together, they talked about New York women. Rall told his executioner that you could learn a lot about women by looking at their legs. The Talib said he looks at their eyes. “Not like you got much choice,” Ted opined, noting the draped figures nearby.
This was, by definition, gallows humor. Lucky for Ted, the fanatic shooter needed a couple of chuckles. We all do. And Ted gives us plenty to laugh at in his journey through a horrific wonderland run by a gaggle of lunatic, blood-guzzling dictators (in other words, allies in our War on Terror) where locals play hockey with goat heads.
Silk Road even includes the recipe of Uzbekistan’s President, Islam Karimov, for boiling dissidents alive. (I suggest you skip page 160 where Rall includes a photo of a boiled father of four.)
Instead of a bullet through Rall’s head, the Taliban gave him a “safe-conduct” pass. But Rall’s conduct was anything but safe. When, recently, Bill Clinton flew to Kazakhstan to cuddle up to the dictator Nursultan Nazarbeyev, he was ferried in on private jet of a high-roller locking in a creepy deal for Kazakh uranium. Rall, apparently, missed the jet.
Instead, Rall caroms through the ‘Stans by bus, barfing and bribing and joking his way past sex-starved, over-armed fanatics and avaricious body guards. He’s too whacked by dehydration and diarrhea to worry about the stark-raving danger of such a journey in war-time (it’s always war time in the ‘Stans) to tell us the story you won’t find in the captions of Bill shaking hands with a despot du jour.
Ultimately, what Rall’s story is about is what everything’s all about: oil. The ‘Stans are drenched in it, floating on it, or in the way of it. Thus, the book’s sub-title, “Is Central Asia the New Middle East?”
Rall’s answer is, “Yes, but more dangerous.” Hey, thanks for that.
Ted Rall and his mighty crayon will be teaming with Greg Palast for a series of reports on Election 2008. If you’d like to support this brave new venture in investigative cartooning, make a tax-deductible donation of $75 or more to the Palast Investigative Fund. We’ll send you a hardbound copy of Silk signed by Rall. Or pick it up through Amazon.com
Greg Palast, Willie Nelson, Jackson Browne and Danny Glover will be appearing next Wednesday, February 20 in New York City with Amy Goodman at fund-raiser for Democracy Now! Get your tickets here.
Selling Out the Uyghurs, or, Why even More of them Hate Us
Ted Rall’s Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East
A four-day ride on the westbound express train from Beijing takes you to China’s Wild West. Xinjiang Province, hundreds of miles beyond an eroded earthen mound that was once the Great Wall, lies southwest of Mongolia, east of Afghanistan and north of the Tibetan plateau. Full of dusty deserts, soaring mountains and eight million Muslims, Xinjiang is—like so many geopolitically sensitive places—the middle of nowhere but in between a lot. (Early 20th century British explorer Aurel Stein noted the region’s “desolate wilderness, bearing everywhere the impress of death.”) Today Chinese-occupied Central Asia is a case study in how American foreign policy turns pro-American Muslims into deadly enemies.
“From the pre-modern era until the mid-18th century, Xinjiang was either ruled from afar by Central Asian empires or not ruled at all,” Joshua Kurlantzick writes in Foreign Affairs. During the 1950s Mao’s Communist Party worked to consolidate its power by centralizing Chinese culture and politics in Beijing. That meant suppressing cultures and religions out of step with the majority ethnic Han Chinese, such as the Tibetans and Mongols. The jackboot came down hardest on Xinjiang, where in 1955 more than ninety percent of the population were Turkic Muslims—mostly Uyghurs along with smaller portions of such Central Asian tribes as Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tajiks and Tatars. The Uyghurs, whose rich pre-Muslim Buddhist culture gave their language (which can be written in Arabic and Roman script) to Genghis Khan’s Mongol Empire, were viewed by China’s new government as a threat to national cohesion. They may have had a point. After all, they had revolted against precommunist China forty-two times in two hundred years.
Repression of the Uyghurs has been primarily motivated by the Chinese government’s simple desire to maintain control of its most remote border region. Their concern became more urgent after Xinjiang joined the rest of Central Asia as a major player in the energy sweepstakes, first as a transit conduit for a new pipeline carrying oil east from Kazakhstan to the Pacific Ocean and then as a major source of new oil reserves in its own right. “Xinjiang is going to become China’s largest oil and gas production base with its oil and gas output predicted to reach sixty million tons by 2010 and one hundred million tons by 2020, according to Ismail Tiliwaldi, chairman of People’s Government of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,” the state-controlled China Daily reported in March 2006. Oil company geologists believe the Santanghu Basin holds one billion tons of oil.
The current anti-Uyghur campaign follows decades of similar abuses. “Thousands of mosques were shuttered, imams were jailed, Uyghurs who wore heads-carves or other Muslim clothing were arrested, and during the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese Communist Party purposely defiled mosques with pigs,” wrote Kurlantzick. “Many Muslim leaders were simply shot. The Uyghur language was purged from school curricula, and thousands of Uyghur writers were arrested for ‘advocating separatism’ – which often meant nothing more than writing in Uyghur.”
Demographic manipulation at the hands of Chinese central planners has proven even more devastating to the Uyghur people. The Chinese imposed forced birth control on Uyghurs while shipping three hundred thousand Han settlers west every year where there had been only the same number to start. By 1997, there were more than six million Chinese “settlers” in Xinjiang. The Uyghurs had become a minority in their own homeland. But Xinjiang was far from pacified when I visited the provincial capital of Ürümqi that summer.
A few months earlier, on the eve of Ramadan, the police had arrested thirty imams in Ghulja. As about six hundred angry young Muslim men marched toward local government offices in order to demand their release, police broke up their demonstration with electrical clubs and tear gas. More Uyghurs returned the next day. Overwhelmed police opened fire, killing one hundred sixty-seven people and arresting five thousand. Then the Chinese unveiled a new tactic that would soon become a frequent occurrence: they drove around the bazaar district with seven Uyghurs in the back of a truck, executing them one by one. Nine outraged bystanders were also shot to death.
You couldn’t miss the tension in the hot stinking air of the most landlocked city on earth. Uyghur separatists affiliated with the East Turkestan Independence Movement and other groups had set off bombs all across China, including three buses blown up in Ürümqi a few months earlier. The Chinese dispatched hundreds of suspected Uyghur dissidents to reeducation camps. Scores of others were put on trial and summarily shot. Good jobs in government and private business are reserved exclusively for Han Chinese, adding sky-high unemployment to the ravages of cultural apartheid. Han policemen manning roadblocks surrounding the old Muslim quarter tried to discourage me from entering the quarantined zone. “There’s nothing of interest there,” a cop told me. I insisted. When I arrived at the square in front of a dilapidated mosque, Uyghur men wearing white skullcaps glared menacingly at Han colonists zooming by in shiny new Volvos. Fortunately, they brightened up when they learned that I was American.
“We love the United States!” one man told me. “They will come help us kick out China.” The largest Uyghur independence group, the ETIM, seeks the recreation of the free Republic of East Turkestan declared by earlier Uyghur rebels. The Home of East Turkestan Youth, known as “Xinjiang’s Hamas,” has two thousand members.
“I listen to Radio Free Asia,” added an older guy knowingly. Radio Free Asia aired broadcasts in the Uyghur language. “America is coming to give us our freedom, we know that, but when exactly?”
How could I tell these people that most Americans had never heard of Uyghurs, East Turkestan, or Xinjiang? That the cavalry wasn’t coming? Given their status as non-entities, even being on the foreign policy backburner (like the Kurds) would be an improvement.
By the time of my 1999 trip to the Silk Road city of Kashgar in southern Xinjiang, what Western media call “a low level insurgency” had heated up. The Chinese had demolished all but a few blocks of the ancient old city in order to put up prefab apartment buildings. But the Uyghurs weren’t taking it lying down. ETIM separatists, some of whom had trained at jihadi camps in Afghanistan, were blowing up a Chinese government office every few days. “Goodbye, Interior Ministry!” gloated my server at a sidewalk noodle joint after the sound of an explosion ricocheted down the boulevard. “We are fighting hard against China to show you Americans we are serious. The U.S. stands for freedom.”
Then came 9/11. The Bush Administration, seeking to avert a Chinese veto of its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in the U.N. security council, drafted China into its “war on terrorism” by granting it a free pass to beat up its Tibetans and Uyghurs. Citing the fact that ETIM members had received arms and training from the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan (but only to fight China), China convinced the U.S. State Department and the United Nations to declare the group a “terrorist organization” affiliated with al Qaeda. “This is an important step toward greater co-operation in Central Asia against common terrorist threats and the instability and horror that they sow,” a State Department spokesman said, conflating the tactic of terrorism with the 9/11 attackers. In “Xinjiang: China’s Muslim Borderland,” Graham Fuller and Jonathan Lippman write that this “U.S. declaration [was] catastrophic” for the Uyghurs. The United States had given Beijing “carte blanche to designate all Uyghur nationalist…movements as ‘terrorist.’ ” Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch added: “The worldwide campaign against terrorism has givenBeijing the perfect excuse to crack down harder than ever in Xinjiang. Other Chinese enjoy a growing freedom to worship, but the Uyghurs, like the Tibetans, find
that their religion is being used as a tool of control.”
Twenty-three Uyghurs have since joined the ranks of the “terrorists” incarcerated at Guantánanamo concentration camp. Two Uyghur men, twenty-nine and thirty-one, faced a U.S. military tribunal on November 19, 2005, charged only with membership in ETIM and attending a Taliban training camp for anti-Chinese fighters. Even though a man named Mahmut initially pled guilty to avoid being sent back to China—“If I am sent back to China, they will torture me really bad,” he told the tribunal, “they will use dogs…they will pull out my nails”—the three were cleared of enemy combatant status. The U.S. refused their application for political asylum. After a lengthy delay, Albania finally agreed to accept the former detainees. Military insiders say most of the Uyghurs will eventually be released, but not to China—our ally in the “war on terrorism”—because they would probably be tortured and/or executed.
Chinese officials have ordered Uyghur university students to spend more time studying ideological correctness and to report any classmates they notice observing the fast at Ramadan. “We have an agreement with the Chinese government that I am responsible for preventing students from fasting during Ramadan,” a representative of the Kashgari religious affairs committee openly admitted in 2004. The same man, speaking to Radio Free Asia, is charged with ensuring Xinjiang’s twelve-month-a-year nightlife: “I am responsible for making sure that the restaurants stay open as normal [during Ramadan]. I have to write a report every day for the officials higher up about the situation and also I have two people on duty at night to pass on information and report to higher up.” Some officials even pressure employers to take their workers out to lunches during Ramadan. Cultural genocide is a strange business.
The crackdown swept up the editor of the Kashgar Literature Journal for publishing an original short story “Wild Pigeon,” the author of which is already serving a ten-year-prison sentence for writing what the authorities saw as a thinly-veiled allegory criticizing harsh Chinese rule in Xinjiang. The editor, Korash Huseyin, will likely receive a harsher sentence if convicted. As if persecuting Uyghur activists within China isn’t enough, the government also demands cooperation from neighboring states. Both the Kyrgyz and Kazakh governments, violating the international principle of “non refoulement,” have arrested and extradited Uyghur men wanted for political offenses.
Martial law remains in full force in Xinjiang. The post-9/11 crackdown began with hundreds of arrests and the executions of nine “religious extremists and terrorists.” One of the dead, convicted of “contributing to disturbance by nationalist splittism forces,” had been overheard joking that he hoped America would come to Xinjiang to free the Uyghurs from Chinese rule.