Conference: First International Conference on Uyghur Studies: History, Culture, and Society, Washington, D.C.
Between Sept. 25 and 27, 2014, at George Washington University (GWU) in the US capital, the First International Conference on Uyghur Studies: History, Culture, and Society brought together anthropologists, historians, political scientists, development economists, linguists, human rights researchers, and demographers, among others, to share research and opinions on the Uyghur experience.
A series of violent incidents in their homeland have intermittently propelled the Uyghurs into recent international consciousness. The violence has generated a flurry of commentary that jumps between, on the one hand, an inevitable response to repressive government policies, and on the other hand the growth of “Islamic extremism” in the region. This conference was consequently timely, and the presentations suitably dispelled this binary, with a nuanced examination of the contemporary Uyghur condition. Furthermore, participants explored the depth of Uyghur history and culture, showing that the Uyghurs are more than the sum of their current plight.
The Central Asia Program at GWU assembled an unprecedented field of scholars from institutions in the United States, Turkey, Russia, Kazakhstan, the UK, Australia, France, Taiwan, Sweden, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Germany, connecting a diverse range of academic traditions. The absence of scholars from China was raised during the first day; however, it was mentioned that participation of academics from China would have been unlikely. Officially sanctioned involvement may be viewed as an endorsement of Uyghur rights, while unofficial participation could have landed scholars in trouble. While this discussion highlighted the fragility of academic freedom and the sensitivity of conducting Uyghur-related research, it also illustrated how difficult it is to bring together thinkers of kinds when most needed.
Remarks from Rebiya Kadeer, David Kramer of Freedom House, T. Kumar of Amnesty International, Mark Lagon of Georgetown University, Sue GunawardenaVaughn, and Haluk Ahmet Gümüş, a Turkish member of Parliament, opened the conference. The organizers reserved the first day for policy related presentations, including analyses of contemporary and retrospective political developments in China that impact economic, religious and cultural aspects of Uyghur life. To contextualize the academic papers, two roundtable panels offered insights into the policy discussion. The first of these examined the causes of the recent violence in the Uyghur homeland. Panelists stressed the lack of trust the state places in Uyghurs, resulting in the implementation of top-down policies that fuel resentment. The absence of an appropriate civil-state interface and the repression of moderate voices were similarly emphasized to further demonstrate this distance between the Uyghur grassroots and state officials.
The second of the two roundtables took a long-term approach to Uyghur geopolitics, including the Uyghurs’ role as a pivot between Sinic and Turkic civilizations through history. Yunus Koç of Hacettepe University discussed how the Uyghur region has been exploited as a strategic location, particularly during the Qing dynasty and by the Soviet Union, as noted by other panelists. In the light of an increasing economic and security-minded relationship between China and Central Asia, the role of the Uyghur
A SERIES OF VIOLENT INCIDENTS IN THEIR HOMELAND HAVE INTERMITTENTLY PROPELLED THE UYGHURS INTO RECENT INTERNATIONAL CONSCIOUSNESS