There is little reason to wake up early in Kashgar, an ancient Silk Road city of 350,000 in the southwestern corner of China’s vast Xinjiang region. The local Uighur people, a Muslim, Turkic-speaking minority from the northwestern region, adhere to a time zone two hours behind China Standard Time, the officially designated time zone for the People’s Republic. Even if you wake up at ten AM in the mostly Uighur city, hardly any businesses are open. Into the late hours of the morning, the twisting streets of Kashgar’s atmospheric old town remain bastions of solitude; stirring, peaceful places for the introspective traveler. But this was not the case for the unlucky French tourist who, while walking in front of Id Kah mosque in the young morning hours of July 30th, came upon the bloodied body of imam Jume Tahir.
Id Kah is China’s largest and oldest mosque, dating back to the 15th century. Its front, which faces a sprawling public square, is a bright daisy yellow with two towering spires on either side. The mosque dates back to the 15th century and is China’s oldest. It was right outside one of the side entrances to Id Kah where Jume Tahir was attacked by three young men wielding knives and axes. He had just finished morning prayers when 19-year-old Nurmemet Abidili, along with two other young Uighur men, came upon him. They struck quickly and were attempting to flee on foot when police responded with gunfire. By the end of the episode, Abidili had been apprehended and both his co-conspirators shot dead. The 74-year old cleric lay motionless in a pool of blood, dead beside his place of work and worship.
The internet was shut off and text messages wouldn’t send
I was also in Kashgar that day. Soldiers and police flooded into the city on the backs of hulking military trucks. The internet was shut off and text messages wouldn’t send. I was staying at the Old Town Youth Hostel, where dorm beds rent to Western travelers for $6 a night, and the owner there told me he had received a call from the local police ordering him not to allow guests to leave the premises. When I finally managed to sneak out the front door, I expected to emerge onto deserted streets. I was surprised to see everything to be the same as it had been for the last three weeks that I had been there.
Uighurs on motorbikes zipped down the road while young boys shouted “Hello!” at me and shot black pellet guns at one another. Women in bright headscarves walked in groups down the sidewalk past hawkers selling nang, a large thin flatbread, and iced drinks of yogurt and honey. Most businesses were closed, but they had also been the day before, to mark the end of Ramadan and the beginning of Roza Heyt, or the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast, a celebratory period that typically lasts for five or six days after Ramadan. It is a joyous time of family gatherings, festive dress and dancing. Even though imam Jume Tahir had been both the vice president of the China Islamic Association, a state-run body supposed to represent the entire nation’s Muslims, and the leader of Id Kah, no one seemed to be in mourning over the murdered cleric. A 25-year-old Uighur summed up to me what seemed to be the local consensus about the assassination: “They don’t care,” he said. “The guy was a Communist.”
Since the Urumqi riots of 2009, where ethnic rioting between Uighurs and Han resulted in the deaths of nearly 200 people, the distinction between religious and political violence has become increasingly blurred. There have been nearly two dozen major instances of violence in Xinjiang since 2009, including two terrorists attacks this past spring that left 34 people dead and over 170 injured. Though Beijing attributes much of the violence to Al Qaeda-like militancy, only a handful of instances can be said with relative certainty to be terrorist attacks perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalists. It is unclear whether the other attacks were of an Islamist nature or merely the lashing out of an extremely disenfranchised group.