Rebiya Kadeer, leader of the World Uighur Congress, has attracted plenty of international attention since the Chinese government accused her of orchestrating the Urumqui riots of July. Despite strict security measures, experienced Bwog contributor Mark Hay managed to get close enough to hear last night’s lecture, sponsored by CIRCA in 309 Havemeyer.

Rebiya Kadeer is no Dalai Lama. She is a brilliant woman, a staunch defender of her native Uighur culture, and an internationally significant figure. But until this year she enjoyed only a modicum of the symbolic power afforded certain Tibetan leaders with comparable relationships to the Chinese government. It is evident that accusations of her involvement in the July riots in Urumqi (in the remote Uighur region of China) still cling to her. Precautions taken for her lecture were perhaps more than necessary;  public safety was our in force and entrance was refused to anyone not on the pre-approved CIRCA guest list.

As a result, the attendance was lower than one might expect. The sparse numbers, the ample CIRCA personel standing around, and the muffled voice of her translator gave Ms. Kadeer an almost surreal aura as she spoke in her native Uighur tongue. The moment Ms. Kadeer opened her mouth there was a great commotion from the back of the room as three guards swarmed a young man trying to unveil a banner. He was removed from the event with relative ease and a few light swears. Stoic, Kadeer showed no reaction. Nor did she appear to notice to the small cabal of Chinese students in the back of the hall holding hastily-printed signs reading: “Rebiya Kadeer is a Terrorist.” Per capita, it was an overdose of intrigue, but Kadeer and most audience members seemed resolved to ignore every strange element of the night.

Despite their efforts, Kadeer’s reputation and controversy outshone the content of her speech. It seemed that everyone in the room already knew the basic history of the Uighur nation, or at least the similar story of Tibet. The Chinese government claims authority over both small, resource-rich lands with drastically different cultures from the Chinese majority. The Chinese, seeking to develop the areas, have sent ethnic Chinese populations to settle in both places, crowding the natives. Eventually the government imposed laws that favored the ethnic Chinese and diluted the culture of the native group by shipping off youth to become isolated minorities in mainland China’s factory towns. As Kadeer told the story of the Uighur and the Tibetans in an even tone, Bwog realized that it is a story so well known today that its power to move an audience has sadly diminished.

As Kadeer explained the plight of the Uighur it became apparent that her approach differs from the Dalai Lama (to whom she has been compared) in one vital way. She is an unequivocal nationalist, whereas he is a world citizen. Where His Holiness communicates in terms and stories appropriate to his audience and grasps the variety of audiences and situations, Ms. Kadeer lives in the realm of martyrdom. In her world, the Chinese government has initiated every evil and the Uighur are completely peaceful and innocent people, incapable of participating in the terrorist activities the Chinese accuse them of. In her world, an Uighur can do no harm. As such, she refuses to admit the real possibility the some Uighur initiated violence in parts of Urumqi, or that some of her people are involved in terrorist organizations. But the Chinese are capable of every exploitation, every foul misdeed known to man.

Her vision is, of course, no more measured than the picture the Chinese have painted of Ms. Kadeer – one of a rabid separatist, Islamo-fascist extremist bent on devouring the corpses of Chinese children. Both Kadeer and her Chinese nationalist enemies demonize each other past the point of human recognition and compassion. But despite the war of words, Bwog finds it hard to ignore the various third party evidence that support the Uighur claims of oppression. It is a shame that, for whatever reason, so many seats were empty in 309 Havemeyer last night.