The United States sent 22 Uyghurs to Guantanamo bay in 2002. They joined over 700 detainees who were living outside the Geneva Convention. U.S. intelligence claimed that the Chinese citizen was armed in Afghanistan. U.S. military offered $5,000 per head to capture them on flyers distributed among Pakistani bounty hunters. In the days before the American invasion began, their camp was attacked in Afghanistan. 18 of them spent several months hiding out in Tora Bora in an attempt to get back to China. Their mountain guides persuaded them to go to a mosque after they crossed the Pakistani border. They were then turned over to U.S. forces, who flew them to Gitmo.
Years passed. In the mid 2000s, a series tribunals concluded that none the men detained were enemy combatants. The United States law does not allow for any criminal charges to be brought against anyone. They had never heard of Al Qaeda before their detention. According to one detainee, the Chinese are the only enemy of the prisoner. This was reported by a tribunal in 2004. “They tortured and murdered us all: young and old, men and women of all ages, as well as little and unborn children,” he said.
Evidently, something was wrong. However, the possibility of detaining the prisoners in the U.S. seemed impossible to political and military leaders. The men could also not be transported to China where they would be forced to disappear in an unlit prison. Although the precise figure remains a secret, China executes many more prisoners each year than the entire world.
The American habeas corpus paradox was finally solved by small countries. Five of these men were accepted by Albania in 2006. In 2009, four more—the youngest of whom, at 30, had been in prison since he was 23—found asylum in Bermuda. The Uyghurs that remained in prison were finally allowed to resettle temporarily on Palau’s small island nation. However, one Uyghur was denied asylum because of a serious mental condition he developed at Guantanamo. After more than 10 years in prison, three of the remaining detainees were finally released by Slovakia in 2013.
Critics at the time saw Guantanamo’s Uyghur detainees odyssey as an accusation of America’s war on terror. In light of recent developments, this odyssey reads now like a fairy tale of Uyghur lives under Ariel. Global war on terror—an early chapter in the story of an ethnic minority willfully misconstrued by powerful nation-states, their threat to imperial expansion obscenely exaggerated.
These stories cover post-9/11 cross-border police operations as well as innovative ways to create fugitive population for testing. It is no longer an American obsession. The opportunistic cover of governments looking to subdue non-state aggressors has turned into “terrorism” around the globe. This includes ethnic nationalists and pirates in Russia as well as environmentalists and Kurdish rebels in Turkey. It is rare to find a government that doesn’t have some aspect of the war against terror. This includes its ideologies about good and bad, as well as the permissions granted to states to control and monitor citizens.
China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is a frontier region whose Uyghur minority is probably the most closely monitored and controlled in the world. This is where the evolution is the strongest. What happened to 22 people from China that were unaware of Al Qaeda, had committed no crime against the U.S., and weren’t considered terrorists by any country? What happened to the ethnicity these men had in common? How was it possible that they were criminalized in China, a region with 12 million Uyghur residents, under totalitarian control and force sterilizations?
War on the UyghursSean Roberts starts the difficult task of examining these mysteries and others of the initial two decades of the global fight against terror. By doing this, Roberts shows how America’s efforts to establish an international consensus in counterterrorism initiatives had wide-reaching effects on other sides of the globe, changing relations between the Chinese state, and long-oppressed Uyghur community. He also shows how, during that same period—apart from any Western influence—the Chinese government became increasingly brazen in its oppression of Muslim and Turkic minorities, steadily curtailing freedoms of movement, assembly, and speech in Xinjiang long before the moment in 2016 when it began secretly interning hundreds of thousands of people in extrajudicial “Transformation Through Education” centers.
The director of the International Development Studies program at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, Roberts is also an anthropologist who began visiting the Uyghur homeland—many residents prefer the name East Turkestan over Xinjiang, a Qing-era colonial term that means “New Frontier”—in 1990. This book provides a comprehensive overview of modern politics in the region, based on extensive research and fieldwork over decades. War on the Uyghurs It is concise and clear, yet the writing does not feel stiff. There are some references to Agamben. homo sacer Roberts analysis, unlike Foucault and Foucaults biopolitics is not theory-driven. His history, though, is clearly informed both by his understanding of authoritarian governments and high-tech surveillance systems of the last century.
It’s tempting to see Xinjiang in the same way as a large and arid Guantanamo bay, roughly equal in size as Alaska but as populous and diverse as Texas. Donald Rumsfeld also had a “world-class” operation, but it was much larger and more domestic. It is an over-extended state within a state, where minorities are guilty of crimes before they go to trial and the law is being reengineered for the purpose of fighting the pervasive and unbounded terrorist threat. According to Darren Byler, another scholar of the region, China’s counterterrorism campaign in Xinjiang “rests on the assumption that most Uyghurs and significant numbers of Kazakhs are terrorists, separatists, and extremists-in-waiting.” Guantanamo bay’s goal is to contain, but Xinjiang’s “state of exception” is meant to heal a diseased populace. In government statements that date back to 2014, China’s People’s War on Terror began, this philosophy is clearly stated. Hotan City reported in 2015 that any person whose thoughts have been “deeply affected” by “religious extremeism must undergo “military style management.”
Roberts asserts that this “state of exception” is encouraging cultural genocide. In addition to the system of extrajudicial detention that has incarcerated hundreds of thousands of people—possibly more than a million—in camps, more than 300,000 residents have also received formal prison sentences in the last three years, an order of magnitude more than in previous periods. A whole generation of Uyghur artists, academics and businesspeople have disappeared into prisons. These include poets and comedians from around the world, anthropologists and economists. There are numerous credible stories of forced sterilization and sexual violence among Xinjiang’s minority populations. Children are regularly taken from their parents and put in state orphanages, where the minority culture and language are stigmatized. More than one million Communist Party members have been temporarily placed with Uyghur or Kazakh families to perform home searches, give lectures on Islam’s dangers, and sleep in the same bed as their “brothers and sisters.” Birth rates in minorities have fallen while at the same time, Researchers and activists are worried that this will lead to the disappearance of Uyghurs in their homeland.
A comprehensive last chapter will be added to the book, which covers events from 2017 and beyond. War on the Uyghurs is less about the contemporary threat of cultural genocide than it is about the years of buildup that preceded it. This book is a historical preface to stories about Xinjiang, which journalists often focus their attention on. A prologue like this is particularly valuable for readers looking to understand the region beyond just what is being reported. It may be contained in a single word, such as “restive.”
Roberts spent six years as the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism, and the question of what counts as “terrorism”—who gets to define it and how—animates the book more than any other. Roberts considers terrorism the intentional targeting of civilians. Although Xinjiang saw a lot of violence in the past decades that was called “terrorism”, only a few incidents could be considered terrorism under Roberts’ definition. Contrary to popular belief, the Uyghur Jihadists pose a threat of terrorist acts and have been nonexistent since 2013.
Although it is true that a few Uyghurs have tried to gain political autonomy in their home country, they also founded the two Republics East Turkestan. These Republics were established in years prior to China’s Communist revolution. Roberts reveals that the Chinese government used deceptive framing and official secrecy in numerous cases to inflate Uyghur separatism to justify Xinjiang’s increasingly ruthless policy. “Often,” he wrote, what was described as a ‘terrorist assault’ by authorities was in fact armed self-defense of police and security personnel, who sought to aggressively capture Uyghurs that they saw as being ‘disloyal. This is often only determined by their religiosity.
An alleged string of terrorist attacks against security forces in 2011 has been widely reported. The Chinese government described the attack as sponsored terrorism from overseas and even criticised Pakistan for supporting Uyghur terrorists. However, the details become more complicated when you examine them. These attacks seem to be inspired by Uyghur women banning the wearing of dark clothing and veiling. Of the 18 confirmed dead, 14 were the alleged attackers themselves, and—unusually for an attack of this scale—no group ever claimed responsibility. According to an Uyghur witness, the attackers were 14 of those confirmed dead. The Wall Street Journal that “they say the people came from Pakistan; they say they were international terrorists, but that’s not true; they were local people angry with the government and with the Han Chinese.”
Roberts has described dozens more similar incidents. Roberts cites dozens of similar cases. He also cites a 2011 terrorist attack that saw police shoot a group Uyghur men trying to flee the country. A 2012 raid on an illegal religious gathering that was in fact a regular prayer group that the police broke up before killing four. The growing violence in Uyghur land seems far from organized insurgency. In fact, it appears that constant intrusions of security forces into Uyghur private and public spaces may have been the result. One case saw officers performing a household search lifting a woman’s veil, prompting violent responses from the men. This led to 16 Uyghurs being killed, six of them women.
This is not an accidental labelling of these incidents as terrorist acts. A new group of “terrorism experts” from abroad began working in Europe and the United States to assess terrorist organizations. This “expert” took Chinese officials at their word on the danger posed Uyghur separatism, while disregarding regional experts who, for the most part, considered any such risk to be remote. Roberts singles out one notorious target of government anxieties—the East Turkestan Independence Movement, or ETIM—for special scrutiny. The group to which 22 Uyghur men were detained at Guantanamo is also alleged to belong.
Roberts believes that ETIM was “phantom terror group”. ETIM, a name commonly associated with the group, did indeed release videos in 2000 showing 12 men shooting guns and rifles. Roberts does not believe the group was even real. ETIM or its members have not been found to be involved in any confirmed acts of military militancy within China, or elsewhere. ETIM never claimed any responsibility for violence. It is still virtually unknown in China among Uyghurs, and has “very little to no impact” within the Uyghur homeland.
ETIM was still declared terrorist by both the U.S.A. and U.N. in 2002. In just two years, its leader had died and all its members were dispersed. The Chinese state media denounced this phantom threat, claiming it was the “blackhand” responsible for almost every act of violence in Xinjiang over the past two years.
Roberts shows with unprecedented detail how ETIM was perceived by the international intelligence community as a nonentity and transformed into a highly-funded terrorist conspiracy. Roberts suggests that ETIM’s claims were initially rejected by the U.S. as being politically motivated. However, the U.S. reversed these conclusions to get China’s support at the U.N. Security Council, weeks before it pleaded for its case against the invasion.
Even as late December 2001 was approaching, the U.S. State Department had refused to recognize China’s designation of Uyghur Uyghur disobedience as a terrorist threat. At the time, a U.S. representative recommended that Northwestern China’s legitimate social and economic problems be addressed “politically” rather than through counterterrorism. Mid-2002 saw a shift in the narrative. At that time, China was not interested in any U.S. preemptive strikes in Middle East. ETIM was a serious threat to Chinese stability, and the West’s “experts” did not need any further encouragement.
These experts suggested that ETIM had been underwritten by Al Qaeda. This could have been what led to their downfall. Roberts does not find any convincing evidence that the link was genuine. In fact, Roberts finds no convincing evidence that the connection was real. The organization has clearly denounced 9/11. It also seems to reject any connections to Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Roberts wrote that ETIM is an organization, but Roberts seems to exaggerate its existence. “I would argue the information available about [leader Häsän] Mäkhsum’s group suggests that it was not an organization at all, but a failed attempt to create a militant movement.”
The Uyghurs who ended up in Guantanamo Bay had indeed “trained” in an ETIM camp—in addition to morning jogs, there was one Kalashnikov, which they took turns shooting—but they did not appear to understand themselves as belonging to a particular militant group. After fleeing Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan, most had moved to Afghanistan in search of a safer place to call home. The definition of a “terrorist”, however, in the context of the global war against terror, means that you are a person with no valid political grievances.
State-conjured separatism threats led to more harsh policies in Xinjiang as the war against terror escalated. Roberts argues that this environment created a “self-fulfilling prophecy” where state tactics made spontaneous acts of rage and violence—eventually including genuine acts of terrorism, such as a coordinated knife attack in Kunming in 2014—all but inevitable, retroactively justifying the policies that caused the violence in the first place. Like the European colonialism insurgent subjects, the Uyghur issue can best be understood as a state force that is unable to control itself and seeking a subject on which it can exert its influence.
The rare supply of Uyghur languages sources makes it a unique resource. War on the Uyghurs pairs well with Eurasian Crossroads, James Millward’s amazing Lange durée The history of Xinjiang. Millward stated that he believes colonialism provides a good lens to view Xinjiang’s history since the end of Qing era. Roberts, who focuses on the past, doesn’t hesitate to refer to Xin-jiang using settler-colonial terms. He is in agreement with several mainstream Central Asia scholars such as Byler, Justin Jacobs and Dibyesh. These scholars, while acknowledging differences in Xinjiang from classical European colonialism cases, have often highlighted resource extraction and Chinese state dominance of local politics. They also highlighted the deliberate destruction, displacement or assimilation indigenous peoples.
Some Chinese Communist Party mouthpieces have defended policies in Xinjiang by arguing that the United States—a powerful and belligerent critic of China’s domestic policies—has behaved with as much cruelty and force toward its own native populations. Roberts recalls being sent a defense message by the US, stating that China was justified in its policies because they had done it to Native Americans. Their situation is made so difficult by the many similarities that exist between Uyghurs, native and indigenous peoples. The global norms are shifting in favor of the recognition and self-determination rights of indigenous peoples. China might not recognise the existence of indigenous persons within its territory, but the U.N. was supported by the Chinese state in 2007. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. The United States, initially against the declaration, reversed that decision later.
This is part of a wider awareness of the fact that the devastation of a culture or its way of living cannot be justified, regardless of whether it’s for modernization or development, or as in the case with Xinjiang, securitization. Roberts’ central argument is that the eradication of Uyghur life is facilitated less by any Chinese notion of manifest destiny than by the ideology of the war on terror and the infinite pliancy of a counterterrorism effort that justifies any policy and terrorwashes any law—including those once used to “civilize” the natives.
The War on the Uyghurs by China: China’s Internal campaign Against a Muslim Minority. Sean R. Roberts. Princeton University Press. 295 pages. $29.95