Ethnic media and politics
First Monday

Ethnic media and politics: The case of the use of the Internet by Uyghur diaspora by Kilic Kanat


Abstract

The role of the active production and consumption of various forms of media on the ethnic groups and diasporas has long been debated among scholars from different disciplines. Currently the use of the Internet has become the focal point of these studies. In recent years, the Uyghur diaspora has been increasingly using the Internet and cyberspace in order to reach their goals of "being the voice of the repressed people of their homeland," disseminating information and increasing communication among themselves. In this paper I will try to discuss the influence of this netizenship of the Uyghur diaspora on Uyghur politics and identity.

Contents

Introduction
The Internet and Uyghur diaspora
The role of the Internet for Uyghur diaspora
Conclusion

 


 

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Introduction

Since the 1990s, different disciplines of the social sciences have witnessed an increasing number of studies and discussions on the Internet and politics. Some of these studies have examined the use of the Internet by ethnic groups, migrants and minorities and their political and social impacts. As a result of this, today there is an emerging subfield of Internet studies dealing with minority and diaspora use of the Internet. Although we have witnessed an increasing amount of papers on these topics, from scholars, including Dru Gladney [1], Shayam Tekwani [2] and Piet Bakker [3], the field is still understudied and under–theorized. In this paper, I will state some of the findings of my study on the role of the Internet for Uyghur migrants living in the West. How influential is the Internet on the politics and identity of the Uyghur diaspora in the West? This paper seeks an answer to that question.

Although ethnic diaspora and communities have always formed networks for communication and trade with their homeland and among themselves, the interaction seems to have never been so intense. With the advent of mass communication technologies, interaction among members of different ethnic groups from around the world has increased markedly. The spread of the Internet has accelerated this pace and caused the emergence of new networks of ethnic groups. Compared to other forms of communication, the Internet has become quite an appropriate communications medium [4]. For many, it is relatively inexpensive, fast, and accessible.

 

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The Internet and Uyghur diaspora

Since the mid 1990s, the Internet has become the most widespread communications vehicle for Uyghur migrant groups living in different parts of the world. Different Uyghur organizations and individuals have created Web sites in order to generate interest in the Uyghur question and to seek support for their struggle for freedom and independence. The majority of these Web sites have been created by Uyghurs who live in the West. The language of these sites is mainly English or occasionally Uyghur with Latin scripts. The target population for these sites remains limited to Uyghurs abroad and other interested parties in the West, due to the censorship and other restrictions on the use of the Internet in China.

There are commonalities to Web sites of Uyghur organizations, such as the flag of Eastern Turkistan, a short history, human rights violations in the region and links to the other Uyghur organizations. Since Uyghur folk music has been an influential way of communication among Uyghurs, many sites also include links to download Uyghur music and even movies. Many of these sites are devoted to recent developments on the Uyghur question and press releases related to Uyghurs. Some sites, such as www.uyghuramerican.org and www.meshrep.com, have discussion fora and message boards. Listservs and e–mail groups are also important parts of cross–border contact among Uyghurs internationally. There is some circulation of newspaper and journal articles published in different countries, sometimes with Uyghur translations. Uighur–l is the major e–list, commonly consists of Uyghur organizations and political activists around the world.

There are several sites which necessitate particular attention. Firstly, Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur Service’s site (www.rfa.org) provides opportunities to download programs that are broadcasted to the Uyghur Autonomous Region. Uyghurs in different parts of the world have a chance to listen news and other programs in their own language. It is also the most frequently updated and most professionally designed site. It is in Uyghur, with traditional Arabic script.

The site of the Eastern Turkistan Information Center (www.uygur.org) is also popular with Uyghur migrants. Since it represents the first attempt by Uyghurs to express themselves in virtual world, it is extremely important for the Uyghur nationalist movement. It provides information about Eastern Turkistan in different languages, including Chinese, German, English and Turkish. The Center was established by Abdujelil Karakash in Munich in the mid–1990s, and since then it increased its source of information by means of voluntary correspondents from different parts of the world. Especially in the late 1990s, the Center was the sole source about conflicts in the region. Because of these activities, China declared the Eastern Turkistan Information Center as a terrorist organization and its founder Abdujelil Karakash as one of the ten most wanted terrorists in December 2003.

Two more sophisticated and professional sites for Uyghur migrants include the Uyghur American Association’s (UAA) site (www.uyghuramerican.org), and the site of meshrep, a cultural gathering of Uyghur men living in the United States (www.meshrep.com). For many Uyghurs, these two are the most active sites in terms of communication and discussion. The fora on these sites have hosted heated debates among Uyghurs and Uyghur organizations from different parts of the world. Additionally, the daily updated Uyghur news section of these sites provides current information about the Uyghur Autonomous region and the activities of UAA and other Uyghur organizations. Other important information and advocacy sites of Uyghur Diaspora are also affiliated with Uyghur American Association. These are Uyghur Information Agency www.uyghurinfo.com and Uyghur Human Rights Project www.uhrp.org.

The users of these sites are mainly Uyghur nationalists and political activists. Virtual Uyghur world is mostly male–dominated and administered. It is also composed of overwhelmingly well–educated Uyghurs. The majority are in college or college–educated. Most of them are articulate in a second language other than their native languages. Apart from students, Uyghurs who visit these sites belong to the middle– or higher–income level in their host societies. These Web users may not represent an accurate sample of the Uyghur community or Uyghur migrants at large, but they constitute a very representative sample of the Uyghur political activists and nationalists all around the world.

 

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The role of the Internet for Uyghur diaspora

Earlier I mentioned that the Internet has become a very common vehicle for communication among different members of Uyghur diaspora. I will now examine some of the functions and influences on the Internet usage. One of the important functions of the Internet for Uyghurs is to provide them a venue to promote Uyghur culture. A common feature of Uyghur sites is their attempt to promote Uyghur culture and history. Almost in each and every site, designed either by a nationalist organization or by an individual, one can see the endeavor to present Uyghur culture or Uyghur history to visitors.

There are some commonalities in these sites. First of all, in almost each and every Uyghur site, one can find a presentation of Uyghur symbols. Usually it is the blue flag of the 1944 Eastern Turkistan Republic or the national emblem. In some sites, there may be other less political symbols of "Uyghurness," such as the portraits of Uyghur national icons, like Mahmud Kashgari or a picture of a historical monument, like Idgah Mosque in Kashgar. Secondly, it is very common for these sites to feature a map of the region. In most of the sites this region is labeled with its historic name — Eastern Turkistan. Finally, the history of the region and the Uyghur people is available on almost all of these sites. For many, the establishment of the Eastern Turkistan Republic constitutes a turning point in history. More recent sites also dedicate considerable space to the pre–Islamic Uyghur Empire.

Another major contribution of the Internet to the Uyghur nationalist movement is its advantage to connect different Uyghur organizations and activists from different parts of the world. Because of the dispersed migration pattern of Uyghur groups, Uyghur migrants have settled in different countries. For long years these groups had little information about the lives and facilities of other Uyghurs. At an organizational level, there were rare interactions by means of annual congresses. With the spread of the Internet, it has become the major tool for communication among Uyghur political activists around the world. Under the umbrella of Web sites, Uyghur nationalists have constructed comprehensive networks for sharing information and to initiate collective actions concomitantly with other Uyghur groups. These networks have been particularly important for inter–organizational communication and the establishment of a central authority among diverse Uyghur nationalist organizations. Listservs among the leaders of these organizations provide cohesion for particular viewpoints relative to the Uyghur cause. Various Uyghur organizations today express their grievances and criticisms about Chinese policies in the region much more consistently and coherently. In addition, protests and commemorations are taking place simultaneously in different countries. As a result of this, these campaigns have become widely heard and supported in Uyghur communities.

Inter–organizational networking provides a fertile ground for improvements in explaining the Uyghur cause and for the maturation of the Uyghur nationalist struggle outside the Uyghur Autonomous Region. Intra–organizational communication is also providing cohesion within each participating organization, helping all members understand activities of the organization and informing them about facilities. Particularly important is the www.meshrep.com Web site.

The virtual world is transnational, uniting different Uyghur groups from different parts of the world together. It helps to reinvigorate the Uyghur identity among these migrant groups. The idea of homeland and the feeling of the belonging to a specific territory link Uyghurs to each other. Today, this linkage between Uyghurs also plays an increasingly important role in the construction of a "diasporic Uyghur identity." This new identity is much more Uyghur than "East Turkistani." Although the name of the territory is hardly contested, Uyghur migrants identify themselves as Uyghurs rather than Eastern Turkistanis in virtual space. Virtual Uyghurs have no interest in linking themselves with any other country or community in the world. It is a much more independent Uyghur identity and history. Islam has a place in their identification as Uyghurs, but being Muslim never exceeds being Uyghur in Web sites. There are only a few references to Muslimism in the region but in these rare instances Uyghurs usually aim to emphasize the secular character of Islamic understanding in the region and differentiate their organizations from radical groups. Actually, there is an emphasis on the pre–Islamic Uyghur empires in the virtual world. In fact, the virtual Uyghur identity is a secular, nationalist and western–oriented.

The usage of the Internet is not only helpful for organizational reasons. Uyghur Web sites, particularly forums and chat rooms, bring forth many different ideas and views on the Uyghur question. Many Uyghurs have long avoided to express their views about the resolution of ethnic conflict in the region. This caution was largely because of possible threats by Chinese security forces to their relatives in the homeland. They kept silent and refrained from contributing intellectually to the Uyghur cause. Through the Internet and by joining discussions with nicknames, many ideas and opinions have been expressed and discussed by the Uyghur community. Overall, this polyphony of Uyghur migrants has contributed to the intellectual and political improvement of Uyghur organizations and their struggle. The wide spectrum of views expressed has also led to tolerance and respect for different opinions on the Uyghur question and has led to the development of democratic ideals among Uyghurs — at least virtually. Uyghur movements and organizations have become much more mature thanks to these discussions and constructive criticism.

 

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Conclusion

The role of ethnic media is steadily growing in importance around the world. The use of the Internet by diasporic groups has attracted the attention of scholars from a variety of disciplines in the social sciences. Although it is still very much understudied, the use of the Internet by Uyghur migrant groups is providing new insights into understanding the relationship between ethnic migrant groups and the Internet.

The use of the Internet undoubtedly enhances the capacities of Uyghur political activists. As noted earlier, the Internet helps Uyghurs in Western countries to promote their culture, music, history and homeland. It also enhances organizational power and interconnectedness of Uyghur migrants groups living in different countries. As a result, the Internet boosts inter–organizational and intra–organizational solidarity among different groups. In addition, the Internet plays an important role in the creation of a new Uyghur identity and fostering of nationalist ideas among Uyghur migrant groups.

This study is only an introduction to the study of ethnic media in general and Uyghur groups in particular. There is a clear need for better quantitative data on access and use of digital media by ethnic groups. Content analyses of materials produced by diasporic communities as well as more ethnographic research will help to construct a better picture of the use of digital media by ethnic groups. End of article

About the author

Kilic Bugra Kanat is a PhD student at Syracuse University in the Political Science Department.
E–mail: kbkanat [at] maxwell [dot] syr [dot] edu

Acknowledgements

The author is grateful for the assistance of Barrett McCormick and Dru Gladney.

Notes

A different version of this paper was presented at the Association for the Study of Nationalities Annual Convention, 14–16 April 2005.

 

Notes

1. Dru C. Gladney, 2003. "Cyber–Separatism and Uyghur ethnic nationalism in China," Center for Strategic and International Studies (5 June), at http://www.csis.org/china/030605gladney.pdf, accessed 10 May 2005.

2. Shyam Tekwani, 2003. "The Tamil diaspora, Tamil militancy, and the Internet," In: K.C. Ho, Randolph Kluver, and Kenneth C.C. Yang (editors). Asia.com: Asia encounters the Internet. New York: RoutledgeCurzon, pp. 175–192.

3. Piet Bakker, 2001. "New nationalism: The Internet crusade," Paper presented at the International Studies Association Annual Convention, Chicago (20–24 February), at http://www.tamilnation.org/selfdetermination/nation/bakker.pdf.

4. Shyam Tekwani, 2003. "The Tamil diaspora, Tamil militancy, and the Internet," In: K.C. Ho, Randolph Kluver, and Kenneth C.C. Yang (editors). Asia.com: Asia encounters the Internet. New York: RoutledgeCurzon, p. 175.


Editorial history

Paper received 12 May 2005; accepted 15 June 2005.
HTML markup: Nicole Steeves and Edward J. Valauskas; Editor: Edward J. Valauskas.


Contents Index

Copyright ©2005, Kilic Kanat.

Ethnic media and politics: The case of the use of the Internet by Uyghur diaspora by Kilic Kanat
First Monday, volume 10, number 7 (July 2005),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue10_7/kanat/index.html





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