Give 'Em a Country
Sometimes you write a column just so you can for ever after refer people to it. "Oh, that subject/point/complaint/theory/argument? I tackled/countered/responded to/exploded/demolished that back in July '11 — here's the link." Well, this is one of those.
Back in — heaven help me! — 1999 I wrote a column for the Weekly Standard about Uighurs. That's "WEE-goors," an ethny of ten million or so (depending on whose statisticians you want to believe) scattered across Central Asia, speaking a language kin to Turkish. They follow Islam, though mostly in the laid-back Turkish style rather than the more intense modes of Arabia and Iran. There's a considerable diaspora, with several thousand in the U.S.A., most around Washington D.C. Uighurs explain and promote themselves on a mass of websites: there's a good collection here.
Most Uighurs are citizens of the Chinese People's Republic. Their region has been taken over by China in those historical periods when the Chinese stopped fighting each other for long enough to impose imperial control over their "near abroad." The last such takeover occurred in 1949 when Mao Tse-tung's army marched into the Uighurs' home region. The Chinese communists subsequently visited all the cruelties and blunders of Maoism on the unfortunate Uighurs, as of course they also did on their own long-suffering people and on the other non-Chinese ethnies of their near abroad, most famously the Tibetans.
Naturally the Uighurs resented being ruled by foreigners, especially by foreigners practicing the demented politics of Maoist China. There was a resistance movement, occasionally flaring up into isolated guerrilla skirmishes or terrorist acts. This was happening in the late 1990s, and that was the occasion of my Weekly Standard column.
I had encountered expatriate Uighurs when hanging out with the Tibet Society in London during the early 1980s. I'd heard their story, and exchanged letters with Erkin Alptekin, the nearest thing to a Uighur voice in the West at that time. (He worked for Radio Free Europe in Munich. Erkin is the son of the Isa Yusuf Alptekin mentioned in my article.)
So there, in 1999, was this column of mine in the Weekly Standard, taking the side of the Uighurs against the Chinese.
You need to know that the Chinese government maintains a large corps of hired internet trolls whose job is to counter anything anyone posts that is contrary to Chinese state dogma. (You can see their work in, for example, the reader reviews of Frank Dikötter's recent book about the Mao famines.)
Beyond these paid shills there is a big penumbra of fiercely nationalist Chinese who make no distinction between Communist Party policy and the national essence, and who troll unpaid.
Every so often — usually when, as now, the Uighurs are kicking over the traces again — one of this mighty host of China-defenders will chance upon my Uighur column. Then I will get an email; or he will post on some website that will be spotted and sent to me by a third party. His argument will go like this, though I have stripped out the sneering, racism, and exaggerated sarcasm with which these productions are usually festooned: "So you favor Muslim terrorism so long as it's not directed against your own country. And you favor the secession of disaffected regions, even though you fought your bloodiest war to prevent one."
All right, here's what I say.
Muslim terrorism. Most Uighurs are Muslims, and a few are terrorists. There have been a handful of Uighurs among the Muslim terrorists plaguing the West this past decade or so. To the degree that Muslim terrorism is a problem for Western nations, though, it is so because of the damn fool policies of those nations — mainly, the policies of allowing Muslim settlement.
There was never any reason why Britain, or France, or the U.S.A. should permit large-scale settlement of Muslims. There are 57 nations in the Organization of Islamic Co-operation. Any Muslim who is dissatisfied with his nation of domicile is spoiled for choice. He can emigrate to any of 56 other Muslim nations, most possessed of very agreeable climates, and some stinking rich.
If Western nations practiced sane immigration policies — policies like Japan's, say — we should have very few Muslims in residence and Muslim terrorism would be an issue like cannibalism in the Matto Grosso: deplorable no doubt, but far from our everyday concerns.
Folly has its price, and our troubles with Muslim terrorism are the price we pay for the foolish mix of sentimentalism, guilt, ethno-masochism, and missionary universalism we of the West have been cultivating this half century past.
I don't mind Islam and I'm not much bothered by Muslim terrorism so long as it is not directed against my civilization. No, I don't favor it; but what I principally feel about Muslim terrorism is resentment at the fact that I have to think about it at all; and I blame that fact on my own nation's stupid policies, not on Muslims, who no doubt have some sort of case to make.
Secession. I think the Uighurs have every right to rule themselves, as they did briefly in the 1940s. It must be an awful thing to be ruled by foreigners, especially foreigners who are as staggeringly bad at government as the Chinese.
I'm quite (gulp!) Wilsonian about this. I'd give every ethny its own government that wanted one. Imperial rule over subject populations sometimes worked in the pre-modern era — the Ottomans pulled it off quite well, so did the British and Austro-Hungarians. There is something in modernity that forbids that old imperial order, though. Diversity — big populations of different ethnies under a common jurisdiction — is a bust in the modern world. Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia are gone; Cyprus is two countries; Belgium soon will be.
Where ethnies are anciently and intricately mixed, as in Northern Ireland, there isn't much do be done but stagger on under the horrible affliction of diversity, putting up with the occasional massacre. Where a coherent nation can be separated off, though, it should be.
The Uighurs should certainly have their own nation. So should the Kurds, the Catalans, the Scots, the Jews, the South Tyroleans, the Chechens, and any other people sufficiently civilized to run a statelet and sufficiently coherent to think themselves a single ethny.
Such arrangements would, it seems to me, go with the grain of our times. It more and more looks as though the age of big nations is passing. The attempt to make one big nation out of Europe is obviously failing; and the current troubles of the U.S.A. are so deep and systemic one cannot but suspect that this whole unwieldy arrangement must soon fall apart, to the general benefit.
(In which case, the Civil War may have just postponed the inevitable. And yes, since I'm on the subject, I do think the Confederacy had a good case in law and right, though I also think Lincoln's wish to preserve the Union was not contemptible. Would the world be a better place today, or a worse one, if war had not been joined? I have no idea, though it would surely be different.)
For the Chinese, in any case, with their cratering demographics, it will become increasingly difficult to hold down large subject populations by force. As the Chinese population ages and shrinks, at some point real autonomy for the near abroad will begin to look like an attractive option; then, not much later, it will be unavoidable.
There now. Let the Uighurs have their country; let there be no mass settlement of them in mine; let the Chinese withdraw to metropolitan China to rule over Chinese people; and let harmony and peace prevail under Heaven. Amen.