McLEAN, Va. – For centuries, hospitality to weary travelers has been part of the Uighur culture. The Uighur land in what is now the far western province of China carried merchants traversing the famed Silk Road.
So in many ways it was only natural for Elshat Hassan, 46, of McLean, to open his home to the most weary of his countrymen. He plans to host one of 17 Uighurs who have been detained by the U.S. for nearly seven years at Guantanamo Bay.
“They will be free, finally,” Hassan said of the detainees, describing plans to prepare a traditional meal for Uighur guests: polo, a pilaf consisting of rice, lamb, carrots and onions.
The tiny Uighur (WEE-gur) community in the Washington, D.C. area has been largely anonymous, but is suddenly in the spotlight: A federal judge this week brushed aside White House objections and ordered the 17 Uighurs to be freed inside the United States.
Under the judge’s order, the detainees will live in the D.C. area with Uighur-Americans who have agreed to take them in. The detainees were to have arrived on Friday, but the judge’s ruling has been put on hold while an appeals court reviews the ruling.
Nury Turkel, a past president of the Uyghur American Association, frequently gets blank stares from Americans when he identifies himself as a Uighur-American. But he has a ready answer.
“We’re just like Tibet,” Turkel, 38, says. “Just like the Tibetans, Uighurs face discrimination … and brutal oppression under Chinese rule.”
With no Dalai Lama to promote their cause, the Uighurs’ bid for autonomy and cultural survival in their Central Asian homeland north of Tibet has largely been anonymous.
Turkel guessed that perhaps only 1,000 or so Uighurs live in the United States, with the largest concentration in the Washington area. Most have come as refugees or to seek higher education, and he said Uighurs have one of the highest approval rates in the U.S. for asylum applications.
The Uighurs are Turkic ethnically and linguistically. They are Muslims, generally regarded as moderate in their beliefs. Human rights groups say the Chinese government has been brutal in its suppression of Uighur culture and religion.
The Chinese government says the Uighur detainees are part of a dangerous international Islamic terrorist group called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and has demanded the detainees’ extradition.
The Bush administration concedes that the Uighurs never intended to fight the United States, but insists the detainees are still a danger because they trained with radical Islamic militants in Afghanistan.
The detainees’ supporters in the Uighur-American community say Uighurs are staunchly pro-American.
Hassan said that despite the unfair treatment the detainees have received, the fact that the United States is refusing Chinese demands for extradition will go a long way toward damping anti-American sentiments that may have festered among the detainees during their detention.
“If they go to China, their destiny is death,” Hassan said. “They have suffered for seven years in Guantanamo, and it’s unfair. … But compared with death, they’re still alive.”
In Beijing on Thursday, the Foreign Ministry insisted the detainees would be treated lawfully if extradited.
“Some people may worry whether these people could be tortured in China, I believe this is biased. China is a country under the rule of law, and forbids torture by any Chinese authorities, be they judiciary or public security,” said ministry spokesman Qin Gang.
A U.S. university professor who has studied the Uighurs and traveled frequently to China’s Xinjiang province, or East Turkistan as it’s called by Uighurs, said the comparisons of the political situations in Tibet and Xinjiang are generally valid.
The professor, who requested anonymity because he fears speaking on the record about the Uighurs could prompt Chinese authorities to bar him from traveling there, said the Uighurs’ struggles with Beijing have largely been nationalistic and secular, rather than part of a broad international Islamic terror group like al-Qaida.
In his travels in China, the professor said Xinjiang stands out as sort of a boom town, with rapid new construction to accommodate a growing population and an increasing middle class.
He said that both Uighurs and ethnic Han Chinese who are rapidly moving into the region appear to be benefiting from the boom, but Uighurs say they are disadvantaged.
The influx of ethnic Han combined with Chinese suppression of Uighur religion and language is destroying the culture, Uighurs say. And Uighurs are barred from the best jobs and economic opportunities.
“The Chinese government does everything it can to dilute the Uighur culture,” Turkel said.
Hassan said he does not anticipate neighbors reacting fearfully to the presence of a Guantanamo detainee. When his co-workers at Booz Allen Hamilton learned of his plans to sponsor a detainee, several extended dinner invitations when the time comes.