OCA #21  SPRING 2016  WWW.OCAMAGAZINE.COM Text by Rustam Qobil,journalist, BBC Central Asian service

It was March, and a whole neighbourhood on the outskirts of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s biggest city and former capital, was once again preparing for the spring festival of New Year. Men were handling outdoor tasks while women were chopping carrots for pilaf, the main dish of their Zoroastrian New Year celebration – Nowruz.

The men and women I came to meet with were Uighurs – one of the biggest Turkic-speaking people of Central Asia. Here, in Kazakhstan, they are a minority.

It was a vibrant scene. Women in brightly coloured clothes and small headscarves, worn across most of the Muslim regions of the former Soviet Union, singing traditional songs while chopping the carrots. The older women playing folk instruments, the kashgar rubab and the dutar. The dutar is a two stringed lute and the kashgar rubab traces its origins to the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar in Xinjiang, China.

Xinjiang is home to at least 11 million Uighurs – a Turkic, Muslim people. It is a vast region of China about the size of Western Europe, culturally and linguistically close to Central Asian nations. The events of the 19th and 20th centuries led to the wider region’s division between China and Russia. As a result, Xinjiang came under full Chinese rule, becoming part of modern China – the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
Twice in the last century there were attempts to establish an independent Uighur state in parts of Xinjiang but they were crushed by the Chinese. In the mid-20th century tens of thousands of Uighurs fled China, crossing the borders into the then Soviet Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. There are now about 350,000 ethnic Uighurs in this region, the majority of them living in Kazakhstan.

Their language and traditions make Uighurs similar to all Central Asians – but they are closest to Uzbeks in their dialect, culture, food and general lifestyle.

“Until recently, the biggest Uighur community was in Uzbekistan,” – says Kakharman Khozhamberdy, an activist I met in a Uighur neighbourhood of Almaty. “But due to this closeness they have assimilated into the Uzbek society.”

In Kazakhstan they may feel close to their historical homeland, but the 250,000- strong Uighur community fears losing their culture and traditions. And even though Nowruz is widely celebrated across Central Asia, today Uighurs are trying to make their festival a little different.

“Everyone celebrates Nowruz. Kazakhs cook gojee and Uzbeks make sumalak. So we Uighurs prepare pilaf – this makes us a little different from them,” says Halima, a dutar player and actress. “We are trying to keep our traditions alive, speak our language and teach our children to respect our culture, but it is very difficult.” She says all her children speak Uighur but the grandchildren prefer speaking Kazakh and Russian.

In recent years Central Asian Uighurs have made a point of displaying their culture to the younger generation during Novruz: women wear their colourful national outfits and hats with golden embroidery. The stalls are piled high with all kinds of Uighur food and musicians play Uighur melodies.

Rooted in Zoroastrianism, ancient Nowruz somehow survived in the region throughout the centuries of Islamic worship, coexisting alongside a strong Muslim identity. In fact, Uighurs “tried” many other religions before becoming Muslim, also including Shamanism, Buddhism and Christianity. Since they became Muslim, Uighurs have been known for a history of practicing a moderate form of Islam.

Uighur dances and songs are of mixed-gender – there is no separation between men and women when Uighurs perform their folk dances and songs. Something non-existent in this predominantly Muslim region, physical contact during the dances – holding hands, putting an arm around a female partner – is part of tradition.
As many Uighurs made modern Central Asia their home, many have lived with a dream of having an independent homeland in Xinjiang. This is an aspiration China fears greatly.

In the early 1990s, when the republics of Central Asia gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Uighurs both in Xinjiang and in the wider region were inspired, too. They started organising themselves into political groups, talking about Uighur independence and reviving their cultural traditions. However, independence is rejected, not only in China, but also by other Central Asian states.

China’s economic and political presence is expanding in the neighbouring post-Soviet Central Asia. All the nations here are now members of the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation which promotes Beijing’s political ambitions as well its economic interests.
The Chinese have invested billions of dollars into the Kazakh oil industry. They have built new pipelines to import gas from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The region’s two smallest and poorest countries, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, rely on Chinese investment, goods and services, too. New railways and roads are already bringing this region even closer to China.

Just as for all Central Asians, this is a good opportunity for the Uighurs, too. “We built a big house in Almaty after starting our small business selling Chinese-made industrial and surgical gloves,” says Jahan, a local Uighur woman.

She and her husband travel to China to buy the gloves. With the recent construction boom in Kazakhstan, trade is flourishing. “Everything we have earned so far is due to new trade relations with China, and our family is grateful for this,” says Jahan. “We travelled to China, saw their beautiful cities, and people there are very hospitable and welcoming.”
She doesn’t want to talk about politics. Right now many Uighurs on both sides are enjoying new business opportunities. But most of all – the Uighurs outside China are happy to be able to visit their long lost relatives in their historical homeland of Xinjiang.

“Thousands of Uighurs fled China in the 1950s and almost all of them had relatives left back in Xinjiang,” says Shaymardan Nurumov, an Uighur representative in the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan, the country’s national political body. “Parents were separated from their children, siblings couldn’t even write to each other let alone talk on the phone or meet face to face,” Mr Nurumov says in his office in central Almaty.

“Now Uighurs on both sides of the border have re-established their family ties: we visit each other when there is a wedding or a funeral. People are doing business, interacting with each other. This was not possible until recently.”

But not all Uighurs are happy that what they regard as their homeland is part of China. Violent attacks committed by radicalised Uighurs across China over the last few years have killed hundreds of people. Some say that these attacks are used as an excuse for the Chinese to crack down on Uighur nationalism.

“We haven’t been to Xinjiang and don’t know what these people went through. Maybe their family members were killed and the anger made them violent,” says Sadriddin Ayupov. The young imam whom I met in his mosque in Almaty’s Uighur quarter is dressed in modern clothes and an embroidered Uighur hat. “So these people forgot that Islam is all about patience and peace,” he adds. “They have clearly got the religion by the wrong end.”
Imam Sadriddin is worried that Kazakhstan’s Uighur youth may be radicalised. He is using his mosque to deter them from that path. “We have just finished this volleyball pitch and are now building a basketball pitch,” he told me as he showed me around his mosque which looks more like a sports centre. “With these facilities we can attract young people to our mosque and keep an eye on them so they don’t get distracted from the right path.”

A majority of Uighurs in Xinjiang as well as in Central Asia have a secular lifestyle. But in the age of the internet and global jihadist ideas, Sadriddin Ayupov finds it challenging to make young people listen to moderate clerics rather than the firebrand preachers on the net.

“It is tricky to be an imam,” admits Imam Sadriddin. “We need to deliver the true meaning of religion. But as we preach moderate vision, some brainwashed young people don’t think this is genuine Islam.”

For the Uighurs in Kazakhstan, it is very important to have relations and open borders with their homeland in Xinjiang. In fact, China, too, wants these Uighur people to act as a bridge with its Central Asian neighbours. However, the main question for China as well as Central Asian governments is: Will these trade and cultural relations lead to a new Uighur political and religious activism on either side?

In the meantime, many Uighurs simply don’t want to talk about it.