The Chinese report on the Uighurs issued in late July claimed that the Turkic Uighur people “endured slavery” at the hands of “the Turks.” It is true that beginning in the mid-18th century there was a flourishing slave trade, within the Ottoman Empire, and there were certainly Uighurs, as well as many other peoples, who supplied slaves to the Ottoman slave markets. And it appears that only the Turks — that is, the Ottomans — enslaved the Uighurs. History thus bears out the Chinese claim that the Uighur people “endured slavery’” at the hands of “the Turks.”
The Chinese report also claims that “Conversion to Islam was not a voluntary choice made by the common people, but a result of religious wars and imposition by the ruling class.” As for “imposition by the ruling class,” when Tughlugh Timur Khan in the mid-14th century converted to Islam, many of his subjects followed suit. The principle of “cuius regio, eius religio” — “the ruler’s religion becomes that of his realm”– as the Chinese maintain, applied to the Uighurs as to other peoples. The claim that conversion to Islam was also the result of religious wars — rather than the work of peaceful missionaries — is hardly surprising. War was the main way that the Arab tribes had spread their faith from the mid-seventh century on, and war — violent Jihad — remained the chief means of spreading the faith that came to dominate that vast expanse of territory from Islamic Spain through North Africa, the Middle East, Hindustan, and then to far western China.
The Chinese have certainly terribly mistreated the Uighurs. But that does not mean that their claims about the original islamization of the Uighurs are untrue. Uighurs were of many other faiths before they accepted Islam, not an indigenous faith but a foreign import. Islam was a late-comer to the area, and Uighurs became Muslims in one of two ways: either through being conquered by Islamic peoples in “‘religious wars,” after which they would be forcibly converted, or by having their rulers –such as Tughlugh Timur Khan in the mid-14 century — convert to Islam, which in turn led many of his subjects to follow suit and peacefully accept the new faith (“imposition by the ruling class”). Some Uighurs were, like many other peoples, enslaved by the Ottomans (“the Turks”)’but here the Chinese claim is too sweeping, implying that all the Uighurs were treated thus (“Uighurs were enslaved by the Turks”).
The Uighurs may speak a Turkic language, but they are not a purely Turkic people. They are Sino-Turkic, distinct from either the Turks and the Chinese. Simply look at their photographs and you can see just how Chinese are many of their facial features, and how unlike the Turks in Turkey they look. They are a genetic blend, but it is the Chinese element that is more pronounced.
When the Chinese claim that Islam was “not the sole belief system of the Uighur people” they are absolutely correct. The Uighurs were Tengiists, Manichaeans, Buddhists and Nestorian Christians long before they accepted Islam.
Were the Chinese wrong? They claimed that the Uighurs are not a ‘Turkic” people. True, they are a Sino-Turkic people. They claimed that Islam spread among the Uighurs through religious wars or the “imposition by the ruling class.” True; wars of religious conquest spread Islam throughout central Asia as they had in so many other places; sometimes a ruler’s conversion would lead to the conversion of his subjects; that was what was meant by the “imposition by the ruling class.” Islam was “not indigenous to the area” but was brought by Muslim warriors, just as the Chinese claim. Islam was “not the sole belief system of the Uighur people”; long before Islam arrived the Uighurs were of many different faiths– Tengists, Manichaeans, Buddhists, and Nestorian Chistians.
The Chinese often mislead, but when they happen to be telling the truth, or telling part of the truth, as they do about the Uighurs and Islam, why not recognize that, rather than consign them permanently to the outer darkness, without examining the accuracy of what they are saying? And if they properly identify how Islam spread — through wars, or a ruler’s whim — surely that is useful knowledge. Condemn the Chinese all you want for their methods of ‘re-education” but don’t dismiss those of their remarks about the Uighurs, the Turks, and Islam that just happen to be true.
The Truth Must be Told
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