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Q&A with Uighur spiritual leader Rebiya Kadeer

The Monitor spoke with the exiled mother figure for China's Uighurs about the deadly riots, independence, and China's use of the label of 'terrorist.'

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Q: Some reports indicate that during the riots there were Han citizens helping and protecting Uighurs, and vice versa.

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A: I am extremely grateful for both Han and Uighurs that protected each other in the riots. That should be the true relationship we should have with each other. But this Chinese government has created such a tragic situation, that it is not happening, generally, as it could.

Q: Several years ago, China tore down the bazaar around the old mosque in Kashgar, angering Uighurs. This year, the entire old city is being razed.

A: I believe the Chinese government is attempting to completely destroy the Uighur identity and culture. Wiping out the ancient city of Kashgar is part of that. Kashgar is the cradle of Uighur civilization, and represents the heart of the Uighur people. Razing it is like trying to bury the Uighurs.

Only when the international community begins to raise the issue is there a chance of this act being stopped. Only if the world pays the same attention to Uighurs as to Tibet and Darfur, is there a chance for this to change.

Q: Uighur grievances include restrictions on religion, the study of history, forced abortions, and other policies. If Beijing ever asked you what is the first policy you wish changed, what would you say?

A: The worst is China's use of the global war on terror to hold us as a people to three alleged crimes: terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism. To pin that on the entire population in the media and the minds of Chinese is worse than restrictions on language, on religion, on the ongoing forced transfer of young Uighur women to work in factory sweatshops.

It is worse than the Mao Zedong years. Under Mao, during the Cultural Revolution, Uighurs were badly treated. But we could speak our language, study our history. We had our land. At that time, Chinese authorities were not sending great numbers of Han to populate Xinjiang as you see today.

Q: Do you think President Obama should speak to the issue – or is this too problematic for overall US-China relations?

A: It would be important for the Obama administration to voice strong concern and send a message to the Chinese government. US involvement in this could help prevent a worsening crackdown. I urge him to ask the Chinese government to release all arrested Uighurs, and other political prisoners. I hope President Obama will call on the Chinese government not use heavy measures, especially executions.

Q: Chinese president Hu Jintao and Xinjiang party leaders call for harsh measures, including executions. What would be the effect?

A: If executions are used, the consequences will be extremely dangerous. It is not in the interest of the Chinese government and the Uighur people. To prevent such an outcome, Obama, the Europeans, and the European parliament should speak.