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The Uighur ethnic group is a Turkic ethnic group originally from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China. The Uighurs practice Islam.


The designation "Uighur" originally referred to a Turkic steppe, nomadic shamanistic, Manichaean society during the Uighur Empire (AD 744-840). This term was later attributed to the sedentary oasis-dwelling Buddhist, Manichaean, and Nestorian Christian people during the formation of city-states throughout East Turkestan. Finally, it pointed to an elite Turkic Buddhist population inhabiting Turpan.

Some aspects of the Sino-Central Asian historical relationship endure to this day: transnationalization (owing to the cultural and commercial rise of the Silk Road and political unification under the Mongols), Islamicization (affecting economic changes in both China and Central Asia), and the ethnicization of local identities (owing to the successive policies of imperial Russia, the Soviet Union, and Communist China).

Historically, the identities of the indigenous peoples located in the Hi Valley and the Tarim, Turpan, and Dzungarian Basins have been fluid. Depending on whom these people were interacting with, they stressed various aspects of their character. For example, the Min Kao Han, while ethnically Uighur, are culturally and linguistically Chinese. Consequently, they are shunned by the traditional Uighur community and discriminated against by the Chinese.

The self-identity of these communities was in direct opposition to an Islamic character, and after the conversion of Turpan to Islam, in the fifteenth century, the name "Uighur" was abandoned in general use.

The Turkic-speaking Uighurs of Turkestan have created a rich culture and literature. The modernizing cultural reform movements of jadidism found ardent supporters in Turkestan, and the move toward national independence was reflected in new literature. Some of the Uighur writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were educated in Turkey and Egypt, and between 1899 and 1920 new printing houses opened and many books on a variety of subjects were produced. After 1980, historical themes became popular for their capability of strengthening national pride and consciousness. In spite of political oppression and assimilation policies, the Uighur Turks have kept and developed their culture, traditions, and existence.[1]

The term "Uighur" was revived by the Soviets in the 1920s. At the 1921 Tashkent conference the term "Uighur" was not used as an ethnic designation but as an umbrella term for various peoples with family roots in Eastern Turkestan. It was not until several years later that the term took its place beside other ethnonyms in the Soviet Union, provoking debate and opposition in the Soviet Uighur press. In the late 20th century; nationalists portray their 21st century identity community as the legatee of the Uighur heritage.

In Kazakhstan

Many live in eastern Kazakhstan's Ili River valley. They are divided into two groups based on the time period of their immigration to Kazakhstan. Beginning in the 1880s the older group, called the Yärkik', or locals, fled to Kazakhstan to escape China's Qing dynasty. The second group moved to the USSR in the 1950s and 1960s and is known as the Khitailiq, or "those from China." A number of Khitailiq entered in 1962, when the USSR opened its borders at the Khorgos Pass to allow minorities from China to cross into Soviet territory. Initially, there were strong cultural differences between the two groups, but over time the differences decreased, although the Khitailiq had more ties to Uighurs in China than did the Yärkik'.

Current tensions in China

Around 2000 Chinese authorities started to move the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region away from the 1990s policy of accelerated integration by the center, to a phase of consolidation of the advances already made. The intertwined dimensions of state building and nation building embedded in the campaign to "Open Up the West" respond to the long-term strategic goal of placating the threat of ethno-nationalist unrest. This "staged development" of Xinjiang reflects in essence a classic process of peripheral territorial integration by the central state. Yet, the dynamics of penetration and resistance between the center and what still remains an indigenous periphery can be expected to generate at the same time both increased sinicization and increased ethnonational unrest.

In the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region huge state investments, as well as the development of large oil and cotton industries, have led to economic growth and a standard of living that ranks among the highest of China's western provinces and regions. Despite this, nationalist groups among the region's inhabitants show great discontent with the Chinese administration. Separatism, terrorism, human rights violations, and ruthless exploitation of the region's resources have been as important a part of Xinjiang's recent history as economic development and the improved standard of living. In the midst of this situation, Xinjiang's Bingtuan, a group of state-run, formerly military, farming units, plays an important role as a regional development agent and as a Chinese controlling body.

The elderly generation of Uighurs grew up during the chaotic, unstable years of the warlord period. Most are grateful for recent improvements in standards of living and do not want to "rock the boat." Middle-aged Uighurs suffered persecution during the Cultural Revolution and fear a return of Maoist ideology. Furthermore, they have homes and families to protect. The younger generation, however, has grown up amid the relative freedom of post-1980 conciliatory minority policy. They have witnessed the 1989 prodemocracy movement in China, the collapse of Eastern Europe and the USSR, and the burgeoning of Islamic fundamentalist movements worldwide. These events have provided inspiration for Uighur youth who are ever more militant in their aspirations to independence. Unlike their elders, they have both less to fear and less to lose.[2]


After several stages of migration, about 500,000 Uighurs have moved throughout Asia, Western Europe, North America, Australia, and Turkey. Their numbers of expatriates correspond to about 7% of the Uighur population of Xinjiang. They use the internet extensively (using western languages) to form a sort of worldide cyber-community. They present their own view of history to demonstrate that the Uighurs have been a unified people with a sense of community and allegiance to a native land for countless generations.[3]

Nationalists refer to their homeland as East Turkestan. 22 of the captives in Guantanamo were alleged to have been associated with the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM).[4]


  1. Kasgarli (1993)
  2. Based on fieldwork in 1995-96. See Joanne Smith, "Four Generations of Uyghurs: the Shift Towards Ethno-political Ideologies among Xinjiang's Youth." Inner Asia (2000) 2(2): 195-224. Issn: 1464-8172 .
  3. See Petersen (2006)
  4. Chinese Detainees Are Men Without a Country: 15 Muslims, Cleared of Terrorism Charges, Remain at Guantanamo With Nowhere to Go, The Washington Post, August 24, 2005