It was a moment of bravery, an act of defiance following decades of oppression that finally brought the plight of the Uyghurs in China to the attention of the world. A lone Muslim woman was dressed in hijab and jilbaab, hobbling on a crutch, and standing up to the Chinese state paramilitary forces in Urumchi, shaking her fist and demanding that her husband and four brothers be released by the authorities. Tursun Gul probably did not realise it but her defiant courage rekindled memories of a lone student standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square just over 20 years ago. That image, forever etched into the collective conscience of the world, has become symbolic of the power of popular uprisings against state oppression. Perhaps, Tursun Gul’s moment of heroism will likewise constitute a turning point in the fortunes of her people, who have suffered tremendously for over half a century at the hands of the Chinese government.

After brief sympathy for the Uyghurs by the Western media, likely motivated by historical enmity towards China, the tide quickly turned with detailed accounts of how the Muslim Uyghurs had “rioted” in the streets, burning cars and shops and attacking and murdering Han Chinese. No explanation was provided or sought as to the underlying reason for the diturbances. Instead, they were passively dismissed as “ethnic tensions”. Once again, without any detailed analysis of the historical background or political developments in the region, the incident was brushed under the carpet as just another example of Muslims unable to coexist with their neighbours.

So what is the reality? Why did Uyghurs spontaneously march onto the streets in their thousands on July 5, 2009? What was the catalyst that enraged the normally docile people to rise up and vent their fury on the persons and property of Han Chinese, knowing the brutal backlash they risked from the Chinese authorities? US-based leader of World Uyghur Congress, Rebiya Kadeer, has shed some light on the issue. According to her, on June 26, vicious rumours spread that Uyghurs in a factory in Shaoguan, in southeastern China, had raped two Chinese women. The unfounded rumour led to a mob of Han Chinese workers raiding dormitories of the Uyghur workers and attacking them with knives, metal pipes and other weapons. By the time the riot police had creaked into action, many Uyghur workers had been killed. The Chinese government’s response to the violence was telling in that all it deemed sufficient to do was to indicate that it had punished the disgruntled Chinese man, a former worker at the factory, responsible for spreading the false allegations of sexual molestation. However, there was no official indication that any arrests would be made related to the murders and beatings that took place.

For the Uyghurs, one may have thought that such a moribund reaction from the Chinese authorities would be expected given the fact that they have had their land occupied for over half a century, have been subjected to a campaign of ethnic cleansing, and been exposed to great levels of radiation as a result of decades of Chinese nuclear testing in their backyards. Moreover, in addition to the social and economic discrimination they face, the deliberate efforts to struggle to suppress Islam through closure of mosques, “re-education” of imams and prohibitions on Hajj, have led to a diluted Islamic identity among the people. Yet, this one act of injustice, epitomizing everything that is immoral and unjust about the Chinese treatment of these people, appears to have essentially been the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Despite the incident occurring in a town over 3000km away, the Uyghurs of Urumchi filled the streets protesting at the continuing failure to hold anyone to account for the murders. The mood of the crowd steadily grew angrier in response to heavy-handed policing until it finally erupted into violent attacks on people and property, and the deaths of over 100 Han Chinese. The reaction was not confined to the factory killings but to 50 years of systematic genocide. The tightly-controlled state media distributed CDs to international journalists featuring exclusive footage of violence committed by Uyghurs.

In the days that followed, what was not reported in the media was that over 400 Uyghurs in Urumchi were slaughtered in the state-sanctioned pogrom both as a result of police shootings and civilian mob beatings. Also unreported was the fact that the pogroms spread to other cities including Yarkand, Aksu, Khotan, Karamay and Kashgar. Unconfirmed reports stated that over 100 Uyghurs were killed in Kashgar with two Chinese soldiers being posted to each Uyghur house.

In Urumchi, soldiers raided Uyghur homes and arrested over 1,400 men who remain in detention. The men were stripped to their underwear and forced to lie face down on the street before being taken away. One of these men is Tursun Gul’s husband. Four are her brothers. It is with certain knowledge of the torture and abuse that Uyghur detainees receive in detention that drove her and 300 other Uyghur women to defiantly take to the streets again calling for the release of their men.

Those men remain in detention. East Turkestan remains occupied and it seems that little has actually changed. The media have other news stories to cover and the world has moved on. But the events of July 2009 in Urumchi may be the beginning of the return of Islam to that land. The Uyghurs often make the legitimate complaint that the Muslim world cares little for them, presuming they are even aware of their existence. Many in the Muslim world criticise the Uyghurs for becoming too secularised and preach that their straying from the Book of Allah is the direct cause of their suffering. Yet, there appears to have been a merging of minds now with the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC), for the first time, calling on China to resolve the underlying grievances of the Uyghurs and the entire Ummah now becoming aware of the plight of their brothers and sisters in this land. Many mosques in the UK have organised events discussing the plight of the Uyghurs and providing a platform for Uyghur Muslims to educate the masses. Within East Turkestan, people are returning to Islam steadily. This in itself is the greatest threat to China whose fear of Islam is evident in one of the measures they felt was necessary to maintain order in the city — closing the mosques on Friday. That a few mosques courageously defied the ban due to the pressure of the congregations is a sign that the Uyghurs will rise again.