The "Al Qaeda Effect" and Why We Don’t Care About the Uighurs

Recently, problems in Tibet have been in the news again, with the riots on the occasion of the 49th anniversary of the “National Uprising” against Chinese rule after which the Dalai Lama fled to India.  Only days before this, there was reportedly an attempt to bomb a China Southern Airlines flight by a Uighur separatist group attempting to get attention for their cause ahead of the Beijing Olympic Games this summer (though this has been questioned by some Uighur groups and human rights groups).  
The difference between the media attention and responses each of these has attracted in the US, is startling.  One of the main things it shows me is that, while Americans seem to have undying sympathy for the Tibetan cause, we either ignore the Uighurs, or malign them as Islamic terrorists, following the Chinese rhetoric designed to undermine their cause, even though the violence against the Uighurs is as at least as bad as that against the Tibetans.  Chinese rhetoric on Tibet largely falls on deaf ears in the US, as does that on their role in the Darfur crisis.  Generally we disbelieve the official proclamations on these issues, and side (morally, at least) with the opposition.  
With the Xinjiang situation, however, things are different.  The newest Chinese claim is that Al Qaeda (along with the Taliban) has infiltrated the region and is behind the separatist movements there (hey, why not throw in Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson, and Lex Luthor while you’re at it?).  This, of course, is about as plausible as the weak 2003 claims of the Bush administration that Al Qaeda was in bed with Saddam Hussein, and perhaps (unfortunately) it will be as successful.  Al Qaeda, of course, has become the global Bogeyman which is easily trotted out to undermine the legitimacy of certain Islamic regimes and movements who have tenuous, if any, links to the shadowy organization.  It has become all too easy to completely dehumanize and disengage with any state or other entity by pasting them with the “Al Qaeda” title.  
As we saw with Iraq, making claims of Al Qaeda connection with a certain entity is generally given as justification for using force against the entity.  The Chinese have certainly noticed this, and they’re jumping on board now, too.  Regardless of what the United States and other influential countries think, of course, the Chinese government will probably continue their violations of human rights in the Xinjiang region as well as in Tibet and elsewhere.  China’s essential role in the global economy will ensure that other countries will continue to avoid putting much pressure on China for these violations, but it seems that now China has come up with a way to avoid having any attention payed to their rights violations in the Xinjiang region, by attempting to work the magic of the “Al Qaeda Effect” on the Uighurs.  

3 responses to “The "Al Qaeda Effect" and Why We Don’t Care About the Uighurs

  1. You mean Lex Luthor _isn’t_ hiding out along the Nepal/Tibetan border?

    Seriously, though, I think here it’s not so much the Al Qaeda effect (though I agree it is being used for certain for just the reasons you point out), but more due to a simpler reason: Americans typically don’t care about things that don’t affect them personally. Press coverage maps on perfectly to what people want and care about. People can get fired up about Afganistan or Iraq because they think it circles back on their own interests.

    “Freedom” is of course thrown around as the chest-thumping reason for being engaged here and there in places where our interests are affected, but let’s face it, freedom-loving ain’t what it’s really about, now is it?

  2. I think you’re right that we typically don’t care about things that don’t effect us personally, but we do seem to care a little bit about the Tibetan situation (based on the news coverage and celebrity cause-mongering it gets), whereas most of us don’t even know about the Uighur situation. This difference might be in part based on the Buddhist/Islamic difference. There are a number of activists in the US supporting the Tibetans based on attachment to Buddhism or the Dalai Lama, but the Muslim community in the US tends to keep its head down (justifiably, with all the anti-Muslim prejudice here), and the rest seem to think that they’re all Osama Bin Laden. The Chinese claims about Al Qaeda and the Taliban being involved certainly don’t help.

  3. I agree. Clearly the PRC — like the Israeli government a few years back — has learned to adapt the US’s way of framing military action as in some way related to a war on terrorism. It insulates the govt. from world condemnation. Who would denounce a govt. for fighting terrorism in a “post 9/11 world”?

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