Murad Merican

Murad Merican

Friday, 12 July 2019 17:13

China rewriting its history?

China has, for 30 years, tried to deny its crime on Tiananmen. But the simple act of writing about it unwittingly tips journalists into activism. The success of Beijing’s Great Forgetting resonates on how memories have been manipulated. The party-state has been successful in pathologising reporting on Tiananmen.

Two commentators who were witnesses there asked the question of how to remain detached and objective when the topic is politically charged.

Writing in the The Guardian recently, author and academic Louisa Lim and journalist Ilaria Maria Sala expressed that the dilemma is becoming increasingly widespread among journalists and academics, with whole fields of study being pushed into activism by Beijing’s coercive actions. They cited the case of Xinjiang scholars.

Asserting that with one million Uighurs held in political indoctrination camps in the northwest of China, the academics studying a once obscure speciality have become some of the loudest voices advocating for the Uighur community. For them, activism is not just a moral duty but a professional (and a scholarly) responsibility since the culture to which they have devoted their scholarly lives is being annihilated by Beijing’s assault.

China is retrofitting its history into a vision that starts in the stone age and ends with the communists party, a single continuum that serves to legitimise the current leadership and its narrative of the past, present and future. We are witnessing that China is rewriting its whole civilisation into the linear history of a single nation. Xinjiang with all its ramifications, has become a classic example.

In June recently, China sent a delegation to Malaysia to explain “rumours about so-called humanitarian violations in Xinjiang”. I was drawn to two pieces of materials circulated to selected groups whom they met. I gathered these are also being distributed to the media in Malaysia.

One is titled, The Fight Against Terrorism and Extremism and Human Rights Protection in Xinjiang (henceforth, Fight Against Extremism and Terrorism) published by the State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China (dated March 2019), and the other, A Better Future for Xinjiang: Reports on Vocational Education and Training Centres in Xinjiang (henceforth, A Better Future) published by China Intercontinental Press (not dated).

The Chinese narrative is clearly a reconstruction of the past used to justify its present policies. The former booklet began with the chapter, “Xinjiang has long been an inseparable part of Chinese Territory”. It said that with the establishment of the unified feudal dynasties Qin (221-206 BC) and Han (206 BC-AD 220), multi-ethnic unification has been the norm in China’s historical development, and “therefore Xinjiang has always been part of a unitary multi-ethnic China”. And accordingly in 60 BC, the government of the Western Han Dynasty established the eastern region frontier in Xinjiang, “officially making Xinjiang a part of Chinese territory”.

Together with territorial claims, the booklet also asserted that the region has seen multi-ethnic groups since “ancient times”, migrating and communicating with each other. It said that during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties (1279-1911), the region was populated by among others, the Mongols, Kazakhs, Kirghiz, Mancu, Hui, Uzbeks and the Tartars. And later in the past century, there were also the Han, Tajik, and Russian, with “the Uighurs having the largest population”.

The booklet also refuted the conventional version that the Uighurs are a Turkish people: “The Uighur ethnic group came into being in the long process of migration and ethnic integration; they are not descendants of the Turks. The main ancestors of the Uighurs were the Ouigour people living on the Mongolian Plateau during the Sui and Tang dynasties.”

Both booklets emphasised that Xinjiang “has long been a multi-religious region”. It narrated that earlier, “Xinjiang residents followed primitive religion from which Shamanism evolved”. Later it described that a succession of religions “popular in the East and West were introduced via the Silk Road, the first of which was Zoroastrianism”. This was followed by Buddhism around the first century BC, and followed by Manichaeism and Nestorianism.

According to the Fight Against Extremism and Terrorism booklet, Islam was introduced into “southern Xinjiang in the late 9th and early 10th centuries, changing the religious profile of Xinjiang again”, and that the Uighurs have been adherents of other religions too.

China claims that for a long time, the “three evil forces” of ethnic separatism, religious extremism and violent terrorism have been grossly exaggerating cultural differences. China emphasised that “Chinese culture is a culture of the Han ethnic group which has nothing to do with that of the Uighur and other ethnic minorities”. Further, the Chinese refuted “Islamic culture as the origin of Uighur culture”.

According to the Chinese rationale the claims have “seriously undermined” Chinese cultural identity among some ethnic minorities. China clarified that it must remain committed to the Marxist cultural outlook, and that Xinjiang ethnic cultures are an integral part of “overarching Chinese culture given the close interrelationship between these cultures” (In A Better Future, p.17).

The Chinese insisted on adhering to the Marxist view of religion, i.e. as a historical phenomenon of human society. The Chinese have accused the Xinjiang Muslims as having woven an incorrect and “reactionary system of thought”, for the purpose of establishing the “Islamic Republic of Eastern Turkestan”.

It is quite clear from the tenor of the booklets that China is warning those who “distort the history of Xinjiang” and those who spread the “reactionary view that Xinjiang was an ‘independent state’ in history”.

China claimed that the link between the Uighurs and Turkic history was a myth. But why vocational education and training centres? That sinister link in the China rhetoric between human rights protection in Xinjiang and its reconstruction of history continues to be the source for activism amongst scholars, academics, writers and journalists.

The writer is a professor at the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation (ISTAC), International Islamic University, Malaysia.

Pubshied in: The New Straits TImes, Friday, 12 July 2019


Saturday, 22 June 2019 21:50

Tapestry of the Indian Ocean

In 2004, while visiting West Sumatra, we stopped along the promenade in Padang, the capital city of the province. My then 10-year-old son, Rumi, exclaimed in disbelief: “The Indian Ocean!”

That was the first time he and I stood before the vastness of the Indian Ocean, the geography and history that we had erstwhile encountered through textbooks and the media. Standing before the open sea, the geography is just awesome.

The historic port city of Padang is sandwiched between the waters of the Indian Ocean and the Minangkabau highlands. That moment drew upon me the consciousness of the oceanic space, a mare liberum before the coming of the Europeans in the 16th century.

The sea was a commons. There was no control of maritime matters by any of the authorities, by the littoral communities or by a string of small port/city states from the Swahili coast, Aden and Hormuz, to Calicut on the Malabar coast, the western coast of Sumatra, Melaka and the rest of the Malay archipelago.

For example, 16th century chronicler Tome Pires, in his Suma Oriental, mentioned that in Melaka, political authority was quite diffused, foreign merchant communities exercised considerable autonomy to practise customs, laws and religions under their leaders, and shahbandars (port officers) to adjudicate their differences.

But the Portuguese entry ended the peace and tolerance. It disturbed a civilisation. The single-minded crusaders had made their arrival into the Indian Ocean as conquistadors. The capture of the spice trade of the Indian Ocean was paramount. Brutality was the order of the ocean. In one instance, the Portuguese cut off the ears and noses of those they found on board a ship to Makkah.

The Suma Oriental recorded that in Calicut, the Portuguese sought to break the common economic interest shared by the Hindu rulers, and their Muslim subjects and foreign traders. They demanded the expulsion of the Muslim traders.

The Zamorin refused, saying that it was impossible to expel “more than 4,000 of them, who lived in the city not like foreigners, but as natives, and from whom his kingdom received much profit”. The old Indian Ocean principle of tolerance, respect for all religions, socio-cultural integration and common economic interest was breached.

Like Padang, the port in Tanjung (cape) Pulau Pinang, they were beneficiaries from the tolerance of the Indian Ocean — a cultural continuum from the Swahili coast in eastern Africa to the Malay archipelago, and penetrating deep into their respective hinterlands.

French historian Fernand Braudel’s longue duree (historical writings) precisely seeks to understand such great movements in history. The Indian Ocean reveals the intimate relationships between man and the environment, trade and culture, and ethnicity and identity.

There is depth, dialogue and duration. And only in recent years, in the search for the vanished Malaysia Airlines MH370, was the ocean floor mapped and disclosed, breaking its blackness with light that it had never seen before. The surface of the ocean over more than a millennia of movements in human history ever glows in enlightenment.

According to Abdul Sheriff, executive director of the Zanzibar Indian Ocean Institute (2007-2012), the Indian Ocean is “An Islamic Lake”.

While the mercantile world of the ocean was tolerant of a great deal of diversity, its spiritual face increasingly became Islamic along its whole rim, from Southeast Asia and beyond to the northern tip of Madagascar as the centuries wore on.

In a 2014 essay — “Globalisation with a Difference: An Overview”— Sheriff clarified that Islam developed in the Indian Ocean as the overarching milieu in which commercial and cultural relations were forged. That moulded administrative, legal, educational and spiritual structures that underpinned the expansion of the Indian Ocean’s global economy beginning in the 7th century.

A new “language language” emerged in the climate of free trade — a common vocabulary and cultural concept from the major lingua franca of the Indian Ocean: Arabic, Persian and Gujarati. And the patterns of borrowings of words from those languages into such languages as Swahili and Bahasa Melayu — at the two ends of the Indian Ocean world.

There was diversity and cosmopolitanism. The Indian Ocean wove littoral societies into an elaborate tapestry. The global unity has long preceded capitalist globalisation. The Hadhramis of Yemen is central to that cultural fusion and continuum.

Migration has been an integral part of the culture of the Hadhramis. Sheriff, in co-editing the book (with Engseng Ho) — The Indian Ocean: Oceanic Connections and the Creation of New Societies — cited the idea of the Indian Ocean as an extension of their home base (from Ulrike Freitage’s 2003 study) “and they were more closely connected with Southeast Asia, India and East Africa rather than with the interior of Yemen”.

The Hadhramis were described as a “translocal” community that held multiple identities linking them both to place of origin and their new places of residence. They maintain an almost religious bond with their homeland over several generations, but there was also a process of indigenisation in their new homes.

It was a two-way process — assimilation by host societies around the Indian Ocean, and the transformation of Hadhrami society itself in their involvement in the Indian Ocean World as we see in Malaysia and Indonesia.

But that dialogue reached a crescendo during the 15th century. The Portuguese violently entered, introducing an entirely a new concept of trade monopolies, a crusading spirit and territorial conquest.

K.M. Pannikar, Indian historian and diplomat in his book, Asia and Western Dominance (1953), dubbed the rupture as the “Vasco da Gama epoch” of history. Thus, began the colonisation of the Indian Ocean region.

The writer is a professor at the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation (ISTAC), International Islamic University, Malaysia.

Pubshied in: The New Straits TImes, Saturday, 22 June 2019


We saw the passing of statesman, scholar and diplomat extraordinaire Dr Surin Pitsuwan on Thursday. Born Abdul Halim Ismail on Oct 28, 1949, the son of Pondok Ban Tan in Nakhon Si Thammarat, southern Thailand, Surin broke with tradition. Instead of the usual religious studies in “Kedah, Kelantan, Mecca, Cairo or Indonesia”, as he put it, he moved abroad as a high-school student in Minnesota, the United States, on an American Field Service exchange scholarship in 1967-68......................Download the full article in pdf attachment (below)

Saturday, 07 February 2015 16:51

To offend and to be offended

Weakness: The narrative of grievance is very much pronounced in the Muslim world today. We have seen this before and should expect things to continue - the Charlie Hebdos and the Salman Rushdies. The provocateurs will be around ad nauseam. I am not directly referring to the recent Charlie Hebdo incident.................Download the full article in pdf attachment (below)