Inner Mongolia

It surprises no one that the Chinese government has disputes with some of China’s ethnic minorities. The people of Inner Mongolia are no exception. In this New York Times article from 2011, Reporter Andrew Jacobs discusses events that the Mongolic people have done in protest against the Chinese government.

A major issue involves the nomadism that has been a part of Mongolian culture for a very long time:

“The Mongol nomads who have ranged across these blustery grasslands for millenniums have long had a tempestuous relationship with their Han Chinese neighbours to the south.”

Relations between Mongols and the Han have been rocky for a very long time. Genghis Khan, though not the only reason, was a strong catalyst for these conflicts. Today, although named after the Mongols, the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region has a Han majority:

“Even as an exemption from the nation’s one-child policy granted to minorities helped expand their numbers, Mongolians are still outnumbered by Han five to one in Inner Mongolia, a region twice the size of California that borders the independent nation of Mongolia.”

This is not unique to Inner Mongolia, as the Han have become the majority people of other autonomous regions of China such as Xinjiang and Tibet. The Han and Mongolians have very different cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

Traditionally, the Han were sedentary, and their language a part of the Sino-Tibetan family. Mongolians, meanwhile, have historically been nomadic herders, speaking a language in the Mongolic family which includes other languages like Yugur spoken in the province of Gansu and Kalmyk and Buryat in Russia.

Hindering the Mongolians’ herding culture plays a major factor in their unrest, but it was a possible murder that was the catalyst:

“Although the immediate trigger of the demonstrations was a homicide in which a Han coal truck driver struck and killed a Mongolian herder in early May, the underlying enmity can be tied to longstanding grievances that spilled out during interviews with more than a dozen Mongolians last week.”

Economic unrest always plays an important role in political activism. It’s important for the people to be able to pay for their own costs of living without being taken advantage of by taxes or inflation. The government’s response has been harsh:

“Internet access has been severely restricted, with most Mongolian Web sites shut down, and scores of students, professors and herders have been taken into custody. Enhebatu Togochog, an exiled human rights advocate, has described the crackdown as a ‘witch hunt.’”

The Chinese government apparently fears the possibility of uprisings, and so acts preemptively to stifle such events from taking place, in order to save face. The Inner Mongolians are not the only ones to struggle with Han dominance, and other groups similarly want autonomy.

There are over 200 languages spoken in China, but the government only recognizes a fraction of those ethnic minorities. Notable examples include the Uighur, the Hakka, the Cantonese, the Hui and of course the Inner Mongolians. They all have disagreements with the Han majority and the mostly Han-run government:

“…an iron fist cannot entirely extinguish the yearnings of some of China’s 55 ethnic minorities, who account for 8 per cent of the country’s population.”

When rights are being infringed upon, people will often react, even if those reactions are then repressed. It seems like an unfortunate ping-ponging effect. To its credit, however, the predominantly Han government is making an effort to preserve Mongolian culture and language, at least on paper. This also includes measures to make a greener industry model:

“They have vowed to correct abuses of the coal industry, among them unregulated strip mining and trucks that career over the fragile steppe. The government has also committed to broader changes, promising hundreds of millions of dollars for education, environmental protection and the promotion of Mongolian culture.”

This is important to a group of people who also have their own country just north of them. One cannot help but wonder how difficult it would be to defect from the PRC into Mongolia.

There would be some adjustments, such as learning to read and write Mongolian in the Cyrillic alphabet, but perhaps it could be a solution to preserve their language and culture. In the meantime, the Chinese government is trying to appease Inner Mongolians, at least in part for economic reasons:

“But it is unclear if the swift action will still resentments that have simmered despite Inner Mongolia’s fast-expanding economy…and affirmative action policies that have provided tens of thousands of government jobs to ethnic Mongolians.”

China needs Inner Mongolia because it is an economic powerhouse, so it’s important for the government to curtail Mongolian frustrations.

The future is uncertain for Inner Mongolia, but at least there is a discussion going on. Cultural and linguistic preservation is important for any group in any country, and Inner Mongolia is no exception.

They have held on to their indigenous writing system when Mongolia opted for the Cyrillic alphabet. They value education, and it is good that they and the central government are working together to improve the situation. Whether or not the Inner Mongolians’ rights will continue to be taken advantage of is difficult to say at the moment.

Here’s to hoping. 

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The Continuous Tension Between the Kurds and Turkey

Wrote another piece that I couldn’t use for work. So…here it is.

Erdogan and the Kurds:

Smooth sailing would not be the best way to describe Kurdish progress currently in the Middle East. According to an Al Jazeera article from February 2018, Turkish President and Former Mayor of Istanbul Erdogan stated his frustration with the United States supporting Kurdish fighters in Syria.

The YPG, the Kurdish acronym for the Kurdish resistance fighters fighting against ISIS in northern Syria and Iraq, have been actively supported by US troops for the past few years. In English, it’s translated as the People’s Protection Units. Recep Tayyip Erdogan is no longer having it.

If one knows anything about Turkey, it’s that the relationship between Turks and Kurds has been strained and violent for a long time. More recently, the Kurdish terrorist group PKK (Kurdish abbreviation for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party), has caused countless problems to Turkish citizens, and caused Erdogan’s party, with the Turkish abbreviation AKP (Turkish for Justice and Development Party), to tighten its security measures and increase military action against Kurdish fighters:

“Turkey last month started a military incursion, dubbed ‘Operation Olive Branch’, into the Kurdish-held Afrin region in northwestern Syria to sweep Kurdish YPG fighters from its border there.”

The YPG is considered to be a part of the PKK. The PKK has been a thorn in the side of the Turkish people for the past few decades: “About 40,000 people have been killed in Turkey since the PKK launched its fight against the Turkish state in the 1980s, seeking more autonomy for the Kurds.” One may compare the PKK to the Basque ETA group in Spain.

For a long time, Kurdish people have been living in areas of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, but have never had an independent nation-state of their own.

Sometimes, the Kurdish area of Iraq is referred to as Iraqi Kurdistan, but until September of 2017, it was still under control of the government in Baghdad. According to an article from Independent, a referendum was cast in which the majority of Iraqi Kurds expressed their desire to leave Iraq: “Almost 93 per cent of those who took part in the referendum on support for Kurdish Independence from Iraq have voted to split from Baghdad, officials have said.”

The PKK wants a similar outcome in the Kurdish part of Turkey and is using the YPG for their agenda. Erdogan and the Turkish government are aware of this, which is why they reacted strongly against the vote: “As well as Iraq, neighbouring Iran and Turkey bitterly oppose Kurdish independence on economic and security grounds…Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent troops and tanks to the border with the KRG earlier this week, where they have been joined for joint exercises with Iraqi soldiers.”

In Erdogan’s mind, any sort of Kurdish insurgency must be quelled. All of this puts the United States into a tight position. Since the creation of the Republic of Turkey, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, America and Turkey have had a steady relationship.

Turkey made great leaps from a fallen empire to become one of the most democratic countries in the Middle East. The man accredited as the founding father of Modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, wanted to bring Turkey out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire into modernity by adopting ideas that inspired him from the West such as democracy, a secular government and an egalitarian right to education.

One step Ataturk’s dream of modernization was allying with the United States, and other like-minded nations, as a part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO. NATO was created, among other things to make sure the members never engaged in war with each other.

The American and Turkish disagreement about the YPG could now jeopardize such peace, as explained by the Al Jazeera article’s quote from a leading US commander:

“Paul Funk, the commander of US forces in Syria and Iraq, made a recent visit to Manbij and said that the US and its partners in Syria would hit back if attacked. ‘You hit us, we will respond aggressively. We will defend ourselves,’ Funk said.” This unprecedented challenge shocked and disappointed Erdogan, but it comes from American troops being placed in between a rock and a hard place.

Unquestionably, the situation in Syria is a mess. The Assad regime is a clear evil in this conflict, but so is ISIS, and they are fighting each other. ISIS is also fighting the YPG, which is being supported by American troops. The YPG is also fighting the Turks because Turkey considers them a terrorist group. The Turkish government clearly does not approve of the YPG, but they also don’t approve of ISIS.

The confusion creates a web that tangles all the fighting parties up, and American troops are frustrated. One of the underlying problems comes with disagreement in the process in the fight against ISIS:

“Erdogan, however, said that the US could no longer use fighting ISIL as an excuse, as the group – according to the president – has been largely defeated in Syria. ‘From now on, nobody has the right to use the Daesh [Arabic name for ISIS] as an excuse. The theatre of ISIL has ended,’ he said.”

The theatre may be over in Syria, but the show goes on in Iraq, and American troops of it bleeding over. This is another cause for concern for the desired Kurdish independence from Iraq, as explained by the Independent article:

“The international community – and in particular Washington DC – had advised against it, worried the vote could stoke already inflamed Irbil-Baghdad tensions and affect the fight to destroy Isis in its remaining strongholds in the country. Earlier on Wednesday, [Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi] demanded in a speech that the Kurdish authorities ‘cancel’ the referendum and its results.” Irbil is the Kurdish-majority city where the referendum took place.

The war rages on, however chaotic and illogical it can sometimes be. Conflicting agendas prolong any chance for peace. ISIS continually poses a threat, even if it is not in direct combat in Syria.

The Assad regime continues to hold power and to kill Syria’s citizens. Power and politics prevent the madness from ending sooner. It maybe is obvious to say that there is no easy solution, but is still important to get information out there and to share how the Kurdish people play a role in the events happening.

Tibet, and the Loss of the Tibetan Language

This is a commentary of an article by the New York Times. I will also include a clip of the Tibetan language, from a YouTube channel I’m currently called “I Love Languages!”

Throughout the world, there are occupied regions that stir a lot of heated arguments and emotions whenever they are brought up: Israel and Palestine, Iraq and the Kurds, even Scotland being a part of the United Kingdom.

Tibet is no exception, and the negative press about it has been a thorn in the side of the Chinese government for a long time. The first time I ever heard any serious news about it was the Free Tibet movement in high school. High profile figures, especially musicians, came together to protest the occupation of Tibet by China. I distinctly remember listening to a John Mayer song recorded specifically for the movement.

The most well known individual from Tibet is of course His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism is a facet of Buddhism distinct from other forms, involving mysticism and its own distinct holy book, The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

The Dalai Lama was exiled from Tibet by the Chinese government and now resides in India. As the leader of his sect of one of the world’s largest religions he wants peace in the region, but often his name alone causes controversy. Much of the situation in Tibet is controversial.

In this New York Times article, Reporter Edward Wong writes about the people of Tibet working to preserve their language and culture, despite the constant pressure and attempts to homogenize by the occupying Chinese government.

In the past, it was possible to study both Mandarin and Tibetan equally, but now that is no longer the case: “And public schools had dropped true bilingual education in Chinese and Tibetan, teaching Tibetan only in a single class, like a foreign language, if they taught it at all.” Teaching Tibetan like a foreign language in the province where people should be speaking it as their heart language is cruel and insulting to the Tibetan people.

Unfortunately, this is not unique to Tibet, and it is not even unique to the rest of China. Nations across the world have been known to suppress minority languages from being spoken, in the name of nationalism or white supremacy. The English did it to the Welsh, the Americans did it to American Indians, and the French did it to several countries in Africa. China just happens to do it well:

“China has sharply scaled back, and restricted, the teaching of languages spoken by ethnic minorities in its vast western regions in recent years.”

This refers also to the Uighur people located in the Xinjiang Province. The government wants ethnic minorities in China to speak Mandarin, the language of the Han people, the ethnic majority of the country.

On paper, it’s meant so that everyone can communicate with each other, in addition to people having their own languages, but in practice, it’s become a form of linguistic persecution. Of course, like many other of the world’s problems, money plays an important factor in maintaining this policy:

“And some parents have welcomed the new emphasis on teaching Chinese because they believe it will better prepare their children to compete for jobs in the Chinese economy and for places at Chinese universities.”

It’s understandable that parents would want bigger and brighter futures for their children, and it appears that some Tibetan parents are willing to sacrifice their language and culture in order for their children to better succeed. But deprivation of language is a deprivation of identity. It robs people of a part of what makes them unique.

Many American Indian tribes have lost their indigenous languages, due to constant persecution from the United States government for the entirety of its existence. Still in some places in the US today, one will hear about the government kidnapping American Indian children, putting them in white foster homes and forcing them to speak English. It’s not common practice today, but it still happens.

The major difference between the US and China in this aspect is that China’s actions are relatively new:

“The shift away from teaching Tibetan has been especially contentious. It is most noticeable outside central Tibet, in places like Yushu, about 420 miles northeast of Lhasa, in Qinghai Province. Many schools in these areas — home to nearly 60 per cent of China’s Tibetan population — had taught mainly in the Tibetan language for decades, especially in the countryside. Chinese was taught too, but sometimes not until later grades.”

The push for getting rid of Tibetan in schools is recent and most likely political. China has put its foot down with its stance on Tibet. To them, it is a part of China, even if certain people want to think otherwise. This push for language suppression is just the next step in their assertion of dominance.

Assimilation is a deceptive concept. On one hand, it is made to sound like inclusion, accepting someone else as their fellow man. The catch, however, is that acceptance only comes when the outsiders begin to look and act and sound like the majority group. This could lead to some dangerous results. Homogenization is rarely a happy process and robs people of their language and culture.

One can only hope that the language suppression of Tibetan in China does not last too long. Tibetan is just as valid of a language as any other in the world, and Tibet’s people deserve to be able to speak the language of their heritage.

Introducing Uighur Culture Through Food: A Commentary on an article by the New York Times

The first time I learned about who Uighurs were was when I spent some time in China in the summer of 2012. I was working at a summer camp as a conversational English teacher in Dongguan, Guangdong, a province very far away from where Uighurs usually live.

I learned about them from another American man who had spent significant time in China and taught me about some of the various ethnic minorities of the East Asian nation. I didn’t know until then that the Chinese government recognizes 55 different ethnic minorities, and some people speculate that there are probably much more unrecognized.

Many of these people speak languages in the Sino-Tibetan language family, like Mandarin, Cantonese and Hakka. Uighur, however, is not in this group. When he told me about them, he and I couldn’t help but chuckle a little, because to us it sounded like a bad word used in the United States. But once I knew who they were, and just how different they were from the rest of China, I was perplexed.

A New York Times article from February 2018 describes Uighur style specialties at a restaurant in New York City, an anomaly as it is odd to see such cuisine so far away from the predominantly Uighur province of Xinjiang, China, and odd to see a Chinese restaurant that doesn’t serve the “typical” types of Chinese cuisine one would expect.

The Uighurs are an ethnic minority primarily located in the northwestern region of China, who speak a language in the Turkic family, like Turkish, Kazakh and Kyrgyz. The chef of the New York restaurant is a Uighur man named Kudret Yakup. Yakup is from the city of Kashgar, and does not sugar coat what he’s come to serve:

“The menu is to the point: meat, and above all lamb. (In Kashgar, restaurants often hang whole sheep carcasses by the entrance.) Lamb chops, the juices shining, are thrust on blades a foot long, crossed like swords; leg of lamb is hewn in hunks, pressed with crushed cumin seeds, black pepper and salt, then skewered.” Yakup’s restaurant is not one for vegetarians.

The hanging sheep carcasses are all too familiar to me, having lived in Tunis for a year. Butchers will hang up full sheep, as well as chunks of beef, and sometimes even the heads of cows!

I’m amazed also by the fervour some people have to learn another language. I’ve met multiple people just in Tunis who have learned English the same way Yakup did: “Mr Yakup, 35, is driven: He left home for Beijing at age 18, taught himself English by watching American movies and ran an English-as-a-second-language school in his apartment.”

I’m always amused by conversations where my Tunisian friends will ask me if I’ve kept up with certain television shows. I’ll ask them if they watch them dubbed in French and they’ll insist that they watch them in the original English. It’s a fun way to not only learn English but to learn good (usually American) idioms.

Perhaps Yakup didn’t realize at the time just how vital learning English would be until he got to New York. Although New York City is world famous for its Chinatown, it is undoubtedly crucial to have a solid grasp of English when dealing with people from other walks of life.

Yakup appears to be a smart businessman. He was given a scholarship to Harvard, and now that his restaurant is thriving, he’s acquiring investors. His main goal is “a plan to share Uighur culture with the world.” That’s a beautiful thing because it’s important to learn about the many ethnic minorities of China.

Uighurs are particularly fascinating because they are a Muslim minority whose culture is quite unlike the ethnic majority of China known as Han. They have more in common with the various Turkic peoples of Central Asia.

A cuisine specialty that connects Yakup and the Uighurs even more to the rest of Central Asia is naan. Most people in the West associate naan with India, but it is irreplaceable in countries like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. It is a round flatbread that is baked to a golden brown, and then often slathered with butter. It goes well dipped in soup, or merely as a filler to go with your main course meat dish.

Uighur cuisine could very well become the next niche place for New York hipsters to explore while in China town. If one has a taste for Central Asian kebabs and East Asian spices, then Kudret Yakup’s restaurant will probably be a taste of heaven on Earth.

Food is always a great door opener into a new culture. If one appreciates the food of another culture, then appreciating the people of that culture shouldn’t be too difficult. This is part of Yakup’s dream, and so far it seems to be working.

China’s Border Town with Kazakhstan

Here is the second one:

This is not the first article about Kazakhstan that I have commented on or even the first such article written by Reporter Andrew Higgins. In this article, he writes about a visa-free zone in a border town named Horgos between Kazakhstan and China.

I wonder if Higgins realizes the irony in his lede: “Except for men with long beards and women wearing veils or jewelry with a crescent moon motif, just about anyone can enter Chinese territory — at least a few miles of it — across a frontier marked only by two thin stripes of paint daubed across the road.” Everyone is welcome, except for those that are not.

He must know because there is an importance to the coverage of Chinese methods to prevent Islamic terrorism, and how sometimes those methods may go too far. More often, one talks about such behaviour towards the Uighur ethnic minority in Western China, but the same can be said about China’s relationship with Kazakhstan, and other culturally Muslim Central Asian countries.

Facial hair and clothing may seem like a superficial way to keep tabs on potential threats, but it can be said that those that adhere to this condition are letting both the Chinese and Kazakh governments know that they have no intention to cause trouble.

The ease of crossing borders is a nice perk in return: “The visa-free border area is the result of an agreement between China and Kazakhstan that in 2012 established a special economic development zone covering three square miles and comprising territory from both countries. China has set up many special zones over the years, but they are all firmly within its borders and open only to Chinese and foreigners with Chinese visas.”

The neighbouring countries want to improve trade relations with each other because, for a long time, Kazakhstan’s main trading ally has been Russia. Kazakhstan would like to distance itself from Russia some, however, and improving relations with China is one way to do that.

Methods of doing that include a landlocked “port” in Kazakhstan for Chinese shipping to be taken by rail to Central Asia and even Europe, as well as this visa-free border. Kazakhstan might be more able to pull this off because they are the most financially stable nation in Central Asia:

“Compared with most other former Soviet republics, Kazakhstan is faring reasonably well, its economy driven by a highly educated population and large reserves of oil and other natural resources.”

Most other post-Soviet countries still lean on Russia for support. Russia is usually willing to do so provided it is then given the ability to influence political and cultural happenings in those countries.

The language exchange between both sides is interesting to observe. Most Kazakhs speak Russian in addition to Kazakh, so perhaps it was easier for the Chinese government to find translations for signs in Russian than in Kazakh:

“Posters written in Russian, a language most Kazakhs can understand, make clear that the area is not entirely at peace. They offer a ‘friendly’ warning that bushy beards and Islamic clothing are not welcome in China and include photos of prohibited dress and jewelry.”

There is also still plenty of signs and billboards written in Mandarin Chinese characters: “Kazakhs who cross the border into Horgos are greeted by a giant screen displaying Chinese political slogans that sing the praises of President Xi Jinping of China and his recent 19th Communist Party congress. But all are written in Chinese, so virtually nobody from Kazakhstan has a clue to the exultant message.”

These are targeted towards the Chinese people who come from other parts of China. Both shopping and the cost of living are cheaper in Horgos than in Eastern China. Higgins writes that this border town experiment is particularly fascinating because of China’s ongoing problems in that region:

“The unusually relaxed border at what the Chinese call Horgos and the Kazakhs Khorgos is all the more remarkable because it marks the entrance to a tense Chinese region that has been struggling for decades to contain a low-grade but persistent insurgency by militants from a minority Chinese Muslim ethnic group, the Uighurs.” He refers to the Xinjiang province, in Northwest China, where the Turkic ethnic minority known as the Uighurs are most heavily concentrated.

I balk a little at this remark, however, because it sounds like he’s equating the two people groups. Kazakhs, although also speakers of a Turkic language, are not the same as Uighurs. Furthermore, they are not Chinese citizens and thus do not feel the same frustrations that the Uighur feel towards the Chinese government.

Whether or not those frustrations are valid is not for me to decide, but for the writer to equate two ethnic groups and two nationalities in such a blase way rubbed me the wrong way a little.

Overall, however, I think the article is fascinating, and I think this border experiment could have positive effects on relations between China and Kazakhstan in the years to come.

China’s Land Port with Kazakhstan

I’ve become recently obsessed with Kazakhstan so I found two articles about their relationship with China. This is my commentary on the first:

It’s no secret that China is becoming more of a global superpower every day. With the largest population in the world, a steadily growing GDP and ambitious business deals all over the world especially the developing world, China is slowly extending its influence worldwide.

This is just as true in Kazakhstan. It isn’t surprising to hear of growing trade deals between these two Asian neighbours, but it is surprising to hear that it is manifesting itself in a landlocked “port,” as reported by this New York Times article by Andrew Higgins from January 2018. Both countries’ governments are calling it the “One Belt, One Road” port, referring to the Silk Road. The particular location within Kazakhstan is a little alarming as well:

“The barren wilderness close to the border with China stands near the Eurasian Pole of Inaccessibility, meaning that nowhere on the landmass of Europe and Asia is more distant from the sea.” Kazakhstan is known for its frigid winters, explained in another article about its dying cowboy-led agriculture industry.

The ambitious port is connected by trains, rather than ships, in an attempt to connect the two countries to a train system that will eventually take exports all the way to Europe. Higgins explains, however, that the snag in the trade deal lies with Russia.

Russia has always a steady hand over Central Asia since much of it was once a part of the Soviet Union. Higgins writes: “The gamble is not only reshuffling global transport routes, but also shaking up Kazakh and global politics as China inserts itself deeper into a region that Russia considers squarely within its area of influence.”

Russia’s relationship, particularly with Kazakhstan, is long and complicated, considering the amount of ethnic Russians that have lived in Kazakhstan for centuries, and the strength of the Russian language in the country.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev began taking steps to distance the nation from Russia’s grip, including a recent decision to change written Kazakh from Cyrillic script to Roman script, but that still won’t account for the Russian Kazakhs who often speak little to no Kazakh, but wish to remain living in Kazakhstan.

So the port with China could complicate matters more. It does not help that China and the Soviet Union actually did have legitimate conflict during the heyday of the USSR: “Kazakhstan’s border area with China was a sealed military zone during the Cold War, when the armies of China and the Soviet Union clashed briefly in 1969 along their shared frontier just north of Khorgos.”

The Kazakh port lies in Khorgos, a small town in the boonies with “winter temperatures that can plunge to minus 40 (the same temperature in Celsius and Fahrenheit).” Workers have to be willing to endure the hellish climate, as well as to be careful with the material being handled, as they can be damaged from the cold.

They have begun storing items in heated containers, which has helped. They are also making new towns specifically for the purpose of maintaining the port: “A new town, called Nurkent, has been built from scratch—with apartment blocks, a school kindergarten and shops to serve the railway workers, crane operators, custom officials and other staff needed to keep the dry port running.”

Creating these types of town out of nothing aren’t entirely out of the ordinary across the world, but it seems more of a gamble when there isn’t an absolute certainty that the port will be a success.

The small size of the town also has an effect, with the people living there having a difficult time adjusting to a routine that’s not particularly exciting: “Streets are clean and apartments comfortable, but young residents complain about the tedium of living and working alongside a small number of people in an isolated settlement surrounded by wilderness.” Akin to workers moving to North Dakota for the financial opportunity, there lies a catch in the stir-crazy and claustrophobic atmosphere.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been a steady push of ethnic Kazakhs wanting to assert their position as a free people, and their language as the language of prestige and prowess in Kazakhstan. As a result, waves of nationalism occasionally spring up, causing unrest to Russian Kazakhs and the central government.

With this dry port, however, people are reacting negatively to the prospect of China having more influence in Kazakh life. They are a free nation and do not want China to come in and affect that in a way that Russia had in the past: “Kazakh nationalists complain that their country, having gained independence from Moscow, now risks becoming a satellite of Beijing. ‘When the Chinese come, the apocalypse follows,’ runs a Kazakh saying.”

Chinese workers, however, are little deterred by such sentiment and are there to get the job done. There are important products that need shipping, especially electronic devices, and these goods get to Europe much more quickly by land than by sea.

That is why the dry port is so important to China. Higgins fails to mention, however, how this financially benefits Kazakhstan, apart from the presumed relationship that they would then have with China.

Towards the very end of the article, he states that such a relationship would combat the always encroaching Russian presence: “Kazakhstan, like China, has invested huge political capital in making the new Silk Road work. For Mr Nazarbayev, greater economic integration with China, despite being a touchy issue for many Kazakhs, offers the only viable way to balance the power of Russia.”

Throughout the post-Soviet Central Asian states, Russia has had a tendency to loom over to the annoyance of the countries’ leaders, usually because it knows it holds economic leverage. At times, nations like Turkmenistan resorted to asking Russia for help with bailouts, which it is usually eager to do provided it can then keep a watchful eye on the goings-on in said nations.

It appears that Kazakhstan wants to distance itself from such a relationship once and for all. Perhaps that newfound independence is worth any financial risk; it’s a gamble but if successful Kazakhstan may no longer need to lean on Russia for support, as long as they then won’t have to lean on China instead.

Algeria and Thoughts on the Hadith

So no, Algeria is not in Asia, but it’s culturally similar to the Middle East, and this was a piece I couldn’t use for work. So I’m putting it here.

I met a French Algerian man named Hamid in a hostel in Barcelona. We started talking and he told me he spoke four languages: French, Arabic, English, and Hebrew. He also told me, that Algerians were not Arabs, but more uniquely North African. Our conversation gradually led to Islam, and how Hamid personally was quite critical of the way the religion is often taught in the Arab world.

He grew up Muslim but walked away from it as an adult. He mentioned how he believes there needs to be an official reform of Islam across the world, and that it should start by giving less authority to the various Hadith texts found in Islamic study. “I went to Saudi Arabia in 2005…they are extremely arrogant,” he said. “The predominant understanding [of Hadith] is extremely evil, and extremely unhealthy, and should be eradicated.”

The Hadith is a collection of sayings, said to be given originally by the prophet, passed down from generation to generation, often orally until they were finally written down. The problem, Hamid told me, is that oftentimes there are various interpretations of what the prophet said about a particular aspect, and it leads to disagreements and disruption, sometimes drastic.

“We don’t have just one understanding [of Islam],” he said. “The message [Mohammed] brought was not good enough…they made up a new parallel religion, and they entered by something called Hadith. They say ‘well he said that. He did that.’” The example of one particular interpretation Hamid mentioned to me was avoiding certain animals and people from walking in front of a person while they pray towards Mecca.

“In Hadith you find women being classified with dogs, donkeys, stuff that nullifies your prayers. If you’re praying and a dog passes by then your prayer is null…if a donkey passes by, that nullifies your prayer. If a woman passes by, that nullifies your prayer.” There are some interpretations where this would be interpreted to mean that no person should walk in front of somebody praying, but in other places, in often equates women to be of the same level as dogs.

This could be a reason why the civil rights of women have long been fought for and not yet achieved in places like Saudi Arabia or Qatar. Saudi Arabia has made unwanted publicity by its policy forbidding women to drive cars and forcing them to wear burkas in public. According to Robert Lacey’s Inside the Kingdom, they are not laws given by monarchy’s government, but by a group of men known as the religious police.

They are the ones who enforce a strict set of conduct that all people must follow or else face public humiliation, and possibly legal trouble. Things forbidden according to the religious police can be as simple as playing music in public, to women wearing visible makeup. Lacey’s book reiterates Hamid’s desire for the reform of Islam, but specifically within Saudi Arabia. He interviews a man named Tawfiq Al-Seif, who says this about Koranic interpretation:

There is a verse in the Koran that says in order to be strong in a war against your enemies you have to prepare ‘swords and horses.’ Well if you take that literally nowadays and go into battle with swords and horses you will find yourself hopelessly weak against your enemies. So here is a case where everyone would agree that you have to reinterpret what the Prophet said.   

A lot of the rules, in fact, disenfranchise women in particular. The biggest example that made international news was when a girls school caught fire. According to On Saudi Arabia, there were girls inside that tried to escape, but the religious police kept them locked in because they were not wearing burkas. They burned alive, and the religious police thought it would better for them to die “pure,” then to publicly expose themselves and shame their families.

This is now seen as a national embarrassment, and the biggest example of Hamid’s plea for reform. He thinks there needs to be a recognized sect that reads and respects the Quran but does not take everything it says literally and takes certain aspects as merely cultural concepts that were relevant in sixth century Arabia but are irrelevant today.

Hamid did not mention this, but this might give women more freedom in their decision to veil. He did claim that although there is evidence of veiling in the Bible, there is no such demand for women to do so in the Quran. Many Islamic countries do not make it mandatory for women to wear hijab, but some countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran do.

Reza Aslan mentions in No God but God that wearing a hijab was not something the prophet was particularly concerned about. This isn’t to say that Muslim women should not veil. The West has just as bad of a problem enforcing women to take their veils off as certain middle eastern countries are with making them put them on. This is just to say that women should be allowed to wear whatever they want.

Hamid was not merely critical of Islam but had some choice things to say about Christianity as well. “People will say ‘Jesus died for your sins,’ but I will say, ‘what sin? The original sin?’ I’m wary of someone who says their religion is perfect,” he said. It’s interesting to me, as an outsider, to see a man grow up influenced by two very different cultures, even though those two cultures have had a long relationship with each other. France colonized Algeria in the 19th century, and relations with the North African country are still strained.

Many Algerians immigrate to France for work and new lives, as well as people from Tunisia and Morocco, two other Arab countries colonized by the French. The Arabic language has certainly penetrated French culture, and French still has a big influence in these countries, known as the Maghreb, as well. It is interesting because otherwise, these are cultures that are quite different from each other.

It’s important to take a look at the things we hold to be unchangeable doctrine, and decide if that is really the case or not. The same goes with Christian scripture and rhetoric as well. I’m not saying we should turn around and say that it’s all wrong, but maybe it’s important to simply ask why certain rules and beliefs are put into place and to investigate and debate their legitimacy. A debate, not an argument or a fight.

A Discussion of History and Current Events in Asia