In this article, we will explore the region of East Turkistan, which boasts fertile lands and holds great strategic significance due to its historical ties as the cradle of the Ancient Turkic Civilization. Additionally, it is the second-largest Turkic homeland in terms of population, following Turkey. Join us as we delve into the various facets of this remarkable region.
A Brief Historical Overview
East Turkistan, located in the central part of Central Asia, is one of the oldest settlements of the Turkic people. The region was initially ruled by the Hun State, which made efforts to unify the Turkic tribes starting from around 300 BC. Eventually, the Uighur Turks settled in East Turkistan in the year 840.
Until the year 1750, various Turkic states held power in the region. However, in 1750, China began its occupation, which lasted until 1862. During this period, there were approximately 42 uprisings in East Turkistan. The leader of the time, Yakup Bey, received significant support from Sultan Abdulhamid II against the Chinese occupation. In May 1878, China occupied the entire East Turkistan region, and in November 1884, it was directly attached to the empire as the 19th province, Xinjiang, or “New Territory.” Following a protracted struggle for independence, victory was achieved against the Chinese in 1931, leading to the establishment of the East Turkistan Islamic Republic in November 1933.
On February 6, 1934, the invading Chinese army annihilated the East Turkistan Islamic Republic’s army and dismantled the newly formed Republic. In November 1944, the East Turkistan Republic was re-established but was once again dismantled in October 1949, when the Chinese People’s Liberation Army entered the region. Since then, East Turkistan has been under Chinese occupation, with its people persistently resisting.
Since the Chinese occupation in 1949, East Turkistan has been under the political and economic control of the People’s Republic of China. China has divided its control into ten separate regions based on the distribution of ethnic groups, with East Turkistan (Uighur) Autonomous Region being one of them. However, the legal rights of self-governance that belong to the people of East Turkistan are consistently violated by the Chinese authorities. The region is governed by a governor appointed by the Chinese Communist Party, and all ethnic representatives in autonomous administrative bodies have their political, economic, and military decision-making and oversight powers controlled by the governor and, consequently, the Beijing government.
Additionally, aside from Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, there are seven other entities in East Turkistan that have similar rights, including Xinjiang Military Area Command, Xinjiang Military Production and Construction Corps, Xinjiang Communist Party, Xinjiang People’s Congress Standing Committee, Discipline Inspection Committee, Political Consultative Conference, and Xinjiang State Defense Forces General Command.
The capital city of East Turkistan is Urumqi. Other historical Turkic cities in East Turkistan include Kashgar, Aksu, Hoten, Sayram, Turfan, Kumul (Hami), Yarkent, and Gulca.
It’s important to note that East Turkistan has historically been a crossroads of various religions, civilizations, and trade caravans due to its geographical location, serving as a bridge between the East and the West.
Today, East Turkistan is a region where various religions coexist. While Islam is the predominant religion, Lamaism, Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, and Shamanism also maintain a presence, to some extent. However, due to the policies implemented by the Chinese communist regime over the years, the spread of Islam has become increasingly difficult. Especially for individuals under the age of 18, attending mosques for religious education and learning about their faith, as well as receiving education in religious and positive sciences, is nearly impossible. Furthermore, the appointment of mosque imams, madrasa teachers, and instructors in other educational institutions is carried out by the Chinese government. Despite this, necessary education is provided in secret, underground locations. However, the Chinese government’s practice of assigning a Chinese person to each household has made it nearly impossible even for these clandestine education efforts to continue.
Population and Language
It is worth mentioning that Chinese official statistics significantly underreport the population of East Turkistan. According to estimates by East Turkistanis themselves, the population is actually well over 40 million, with Muslim Turks comprising 30 million of that number.
The Uighurs of East Turkistan, particularly after the establishment of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in 1955, officially started using the ethnic name “Uighur” and the New Uighur language. In addition to New Uighur, there are five other Turkic languages spoken in East Turkistan, including Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Tatar, and Tuvan. Among the Turkic-speaking population, New Uighur serves as the common communication language.
East Turkistan is a region of great political, economic, and military importance. It possesses strategic raw materials such as oil, tungsten (a vital mineral in the defense industry), gold, silver, platinum, coal, and uranium, along with numerous underground and surface resources. Of all the regions in China, East Turkistan is the most strategically significant in terms of China’s petroleum and natural gas reserves, hosting the majority of China’s petroleum reserves.
However, all of these resources are under the complete control of the Chinese regime. Despite the wealth of resources, the Uighur Turks living in East Turkistan continue to live below the poverty line, are deprived of their freedom, and subjected to inhumane treatment, including oppression and torture. In essence, they are subjected to a silent genocide.
For many years, China pursued a policy of isolation and kept the Turkic people of East Turkistan uneducated, believing that this would make it easier to control the region. However, this policy resulted in the preservation of Turkic traditions, customs, culture, and identity. In recent years, China has shifted from isolation to assimilation, promoting Chinese-language education and closing some Turkic-language schools while opening Chinese-language schools in their place. Many publications in the Uighur language have also been destroyed.
Furthermore, the official narrative regarding the history, culture, and ethnic heritage of East Turkistan has been strictly controlled, with prohibitions on educational institutions establishing direct relationships with foreign institutions. Those who defy these rules face severe punishments. Graduates of schools that offer education in the Uighur language are categorically denied employment. In contrast, those educated in Chinese culture are appointed to significant positions, despite being of Turkic origin. These policies are part of China’s regular practices.
The rich history of East Turkistan naturally influences its culinary culture. Despite the ongoing persecution, the people of East Turkistan have managed to maintain their culture. East Turkistan cuisine includes Tokaç (a type of bread baked in a tandoor), Kövşek (yeast bread), Kömeç (bread baked in ash), Katlıma (Katmer), the famous Laghman dish, and various types of bread, along with carrots, raisins, meat, rice with sauces, fragrant kebabs, honey, a variety of jams, fruit syrups, and the Kazak Turks’ traditional beverage called kımız.
- Famous scholars and scientists like Imam Bukhari, Al-Tirmidhi, Avicenna, Al-Biruni, Al-Farabi, Al-Khwarizmi, Ulugh Beg, and Serahsi were all born in this region.
- In a report published by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in August 2018, it was reported that an estimated one million Uighurs of East Turkistan, although the exact number is unknown, are being forcibly held in political camps reminiscent of detention centers. However, local sources suggest that this number may exceed four million.
- In line with its policy of assimilation, since 2017, approximately 400 illegal detention camps have been built throughout East Turkistan.
- The Chinese government has also banned women wearing headscarves or burkas, and men with long beards, from using public transportation in Xinjiang (East Turkistan).