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National Observer Home > No. 52 - Autumn 2002 >Articles

The Potent Triangle: Empires, Islam and the Pamir Region

Professor Leslie R. Marchant

Independent inland territories with three borders have long played an important part in Asian politics. Rebels have used them as spring boards to win empires. Defeated dynasties have used them for last stands, or as safe havens. And they have provided the illegitimate bases free from hot pursuit by any one neighbour, or easy ways to slip across a friendly border to find safety. Most important missionary-minded evangelists like Buddhists and Lamaists and Moslems have used them to radiate their beliefs outwards along any point of the compass, and to launch holy wars.

The Significance of the Pamir Triangle

The Pamir region, where Pakistan, India, China, the Russian states and independent Afghanistan share borders, has long been special for three reasons.

First, it is a long established cross-road point for trade. The Silk Road from China to Rome runs through it. Another goes south to follow the Indus to the sea and to the trade marts of the Persian Gulf, by which Alexander the Great’s explorers reached Babylon. Others pass through Afghanistan to reach Arabia and beyond. The Poles used these as well as the Silk Road. Powers have fought and conquered to incorporate the region in their empires, and tax the passing trade.

Secondly, the Pamir region has long been a meeting place of empires where power games are played. Early Persia, China, Rome, the later British Raj, China and Russia tried to carve it up, or make local leaders join their camp, or discipline them, as still happens today. That is what Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, set in the region, is about.

Thirdly and most important, where Arab merchants took their trade they carried ideas and beliefs with the spices and silks and carpets. After the Prophet Mohammed, they exerted two important disruptive influences. Committed spiritual leaders disseminated into the lands about, that narrow sort of Islamic faith which aimed at the conversion or elimination of the infidel through holy wars which included acts of martyrdom; and correlative with this, temporal leaders in Islam helped spread and recognize independent Caliphates and Sultanates and Emirates carved out of established empires, and built around them the paradise that Mark Antony briefly enjoyed with Cleopatra, hinting at the heaven ahead for their martyrs and their faithful.

Spread of the Moslem Caliphates

In the first instance, after the death of Mohammed, in the Age of the First Caliphates, both the faith and the system of Caliphates moved west along the Venetian spice trade routes into Mediterranean lands, as far as Spain. There was a China connection whose beginnings are not clear. The belief itself arrived in China in the 7 th century, in the T’ang period, during the rule of the Four Caliphs who expanded Islam abroad after the death of Mohammed in 632. An Islamic deputation at that time went to Peking, and a mosque was built in Canton which became a mart for the Arab trade as it expanded east by road and dhow. Sultanates cropped up along the routes that the dhows followed through the Spice Islands. But Confucian China remained unaffected, and intact.

Effect on China

The main change for China was in the population. Muslims flocked into China, settling in the western and southern provinces. After the Abassid Caliphate took over Islam and Greek learning in the 12 th century, they integrated well. The same Moslem science, medicine, mathematics and military science which impressed and affected Europe and its renaissance, impressed China. An Institute of Islamic Studies was created in 1314, paving the way for the later Jesuits whom historians incorrectly claim brought modern science to Confucian intellectuals. The role of the Jesuits was in fact to bring post-Copernican science. Moslems, in view of the respect in which they were held, reached high office throughout the land, and their talents as warriors were used to crush rebellions. The only blight throughout was the opium they introduced. But this was not an immediate problem. Opium was then mostly confined to herbal mixtures and remedies. The “foreign mud” introduced by the Arabs did not become an issue until the Portuguese introduced tobacco and the cheap pipes that multiplied the use of both. For that, Europe and India, not the Arabs, rightly received the blame. The image of them held good, although the Caliphates had been rolled back west by the Mongols whose empire went from China to Christendom.

Emergence of Problems in China in the Manchu Period

The first sign of major problems with Islam and the Moslems in China began in the reign of the last Dynasty, the foreign Manchus who created the present large empire that goes to the Pamirs. The two groups did not get on. From the mid-nineteenth century there were a series of Moslem rebellions. All were crushed harshly. Those in the Chinese provinces were not primarily religious. The uprisings were about equal rights and work, in particular in the mines. Religious confrontations and wars at the time were confined to Christianity which saw the Taiping Christians create a kingdom of their own in South and Central China.

Equal Rights Granted by the Republic

Moslems eventually received their equal rights and status, but not until the Manchus fell. In the new republic they were recognized as one of the five races in China represented by the five-petal flower on the Nationalist Flag. They organized like others. The Chinese Muslim Federation, with links to others was established in 1937. This followed the Republicans to Taiwan. It is important to note that it was this body which joined with other Moslem groups to condemn the communist attack on Moslems and their culture during the Cultural Revolution that started in 1966.

Need to Comprehend the Background to China’s Outlook

It is essential for American, N.A.T.O., Australian and other planners to comprehend fully historical and other background information not only to understand the mindset of Chinese officials and Peking’s position and policy lines in the action against terrorism, but also to engage in sensible negotiations to which they can be party. For their outlook came from within their own culture and historical experience. It is relevant for outsiders to know, for example, that Moslems in China have been subject to attack like the democrats, and that the latter are seeking to expand their support in the provinces, including those populated by Moslems. More important, China’s oblique warnings to others while threatening Taiwan for its separatism, could be taken as a warning to inland provinces that it will tolerate no Chechnyas. This outlook could be a factor in the terrorist negotiations, and helps explain their links with the Russians. On the other side, Taiwan, which inherited the Republican System, has the formal ties with the Moslem world which Peking lacks. Its presence at the Shanghai meeting from which it was barred, and from which the A.P.E.C. powers followed the Peking line, could have made a difference in the negotiations with the Moslem powers.

Moslem Rebellions in China

It is also essential for negotiators to know the background to the Moslem rebellions and Moslem expansionism in China in the past. For these experiences helped determine the mind-set of Chinese officials.

The main problem area was inside China, in particular in the south and south-west provinces. The rebellions there threatened to break up the Chinese Empire at the same time as Britain, France and Russia were expanding their empires in that region. Both Britain in India, and Russia were then “protecting” the Moslem communities in their territories near China. This provided possibilities for the powers to intervene, and to create protectorates at China’s expense. There then was a fear that China was disintegrating. That is still a fear in the light of what has happened to the Russian Soviet Socialist Union whose parts now face a fundamentalist Islam problem.

The Problem of Turkestan and the Expansion of Sultanates

Foundations for the problem were laid when Britain invaded Afghanistan on 16 January 1839 to keep Russia out. In 1841 an uprising ended with disastrous results. Of the British force of 16,500 which withdrew from Kabul on 6 January 1842, only one man, Dr. Bryndon, reached British India. Afghanistan then expanded its influence, sending out crusading believers, and supporting the eastward expansion of sultanates. The clash was primarily in Turkestan. The Moslem problem was solved by military force in the Chinese provinces. It was in this context that Mohammedan rebellion broke out in 1855 in Yunnan where there was a large Moslem population near the borders of Burma and British India, close to the present Golden Triangle which has been of significance in Chinese history. Two Chinese Moslem leaders emerged. Ma Te-hsin was a spiritual leader, an Imam, living in Kunming. He had been to Mecca. He supported the rebels, but played both sides, offering to work for Peking as well. The more important leader was Tu Wen-hsiu, the political head of the rebel government. He established himself as Sultan Suleiman and carved a large kingdom for himself and Islam out of Chinese territory. The Sultanate lasted inside China for 16 years from 1856 to 1872 while China was crushing the lesser Moslem uprisings in other provinces. The main ingredients for the disintegration of the empire existed. There was revolt within at the same time as powerful neighbours were pressing from outside. The rebellion in Yunnan brought this point home to China. A British official traveller was killed. London demanded treaty concessions at the time when India was being made into a new power centre when Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India, which committed her to protect her Moslem subjects.

Afghanistan’s Expansion and the Foreign Powers in Central Asia

The more politically important action,which set the scene for the confrontation with Islamic fundamentalist terrorists after their destruction of targets in America on 11 September 2001, was in Turkestan which was in the nature of a No Man’s Land about the Pamir Triangle. Islam moved in, primarily from Afghanistan. So did the big powers. Three developments directly affected Peking. First, a Moslem rebel, Yakoob Bey, in 1873 occupied the whole of the rich Tarim Basin that straddles the trade routes formed by the old Silk Road. Secondly, the powers reacted. Turkey, which had the supreme sultanate watching over Muslim kingdoms, conferred the title of Emir of Kashgaria on the new claimant. London, Delhi and St. Petersburg moved. The Emir fell. What happened then determined the present shape of the borders of Afghanistan and its neighbours. Turkestan was shared out between China and Russia. This added some six million square miles to the Chinese Empire, with Afghanistan and Russia as new neighbours. The Manchus acted swiftly to bring their part of Turkestan under the direct control of Peking. In 1884 it became Sinkiang (The New) Province. This province, which has a large Moslem population, now has as neighbours, besides Afghanistan, the former Russian territories of Tajikistan which, together with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, border Afghanistan to the north. It is Chinese officials in Sinkiang who will be providing information to distant Peking. Their information, recommendations and local actions are relevant in making assessments of China’s policy.

Guide to Fundamentalism

One of the local Sinkiang officials’ fields of interest, as in the former Russian states bordering Afghanistan, is the Chinese Moslem population and Moslem fundamentalism which is directly affecting their populace, and related matters.

The Claridge Press in Britain has published one of the most useful recent books to use for this. Mervyn Hiskett’s Some Turn to Mecca to Pray: Islamic Value and the Modern World (Claridge Press 1993), provides a comprehensive description of the rise and nature of Islamic theology and political culture, the problem of fundamentalism in Islamic lands, and the problems that Islamic migrants, who have been attracted by the economic miracles in Western lands, are creating in places such as Britain where there is now a large resident Moslem population. Education, social cohesion, politics, culture and religious expression are all affected, as Hiskett points out.

He also reveals that the Islamic view of the universe with its spheres that are found in Shakespeare’s imagery, is Ptolemaic, and, unlike that of the West, remained unreformed after Copernicus and Galileo drew on better sources. This helps explaine why Portugal prospered and spread world-wide by sea at the expense of Arab traders. Its Germanic-based mathematics and astronomy put it in the lead in eastern water where its ships replaced the trading dhows.

The hierarchical heavens, which mystical Taoists in China might recognize, are unique in that the top heaven is reserved for Moslems who are of the true faith. The lower hells are reserved for infidels and hypocrites.

The Promise of Paradise for Martyrs

Most unique in the fundamentalist outlook is the place promised to martyrs who fight holy wars. These are not judged by how many innocent victims they might kill and take with them, or by their cruelties, but by their faith. Although the form of their ascension to paradise is not clear, they believe the body and soul will go to paradise where they will be eternally young men enjoying magnificent feasts, wearing costly and beautiful garments, surrounded by ravishing scents and music enjoyed with all the other joys men can derive when they meet Hur al Ohun, the black-eyed daughters of paradise whose heavenly charms have been cleansed of impurities women possess on Earth.

In the acts of terrorism, only the martyrs will enjoy paradise. Their infidel victims, innocent and otherwise, are destined for the lower of the seven hells with an eternity of torture and cruelty.

On this point the terrorists who kill innocent civilians and their spiritual teachers who launch holy wars could well heed the advice of the Australian-Muslim poet Yusuf Peter Bladen-Pryor given in his poems about suicide bombers and terrorists in his collection Millefleurs, Istanbul, 2000, that this “patterns the coward’s war”, and that for their actions against humanity they should:

“Remember though, on Resurrection Day
Our fate hangs not on when and where we pray …
Instead: How many children did you slay,
Strangers, the frail, the virile and the lissome.”

This outlook on terrorism stems from the fundamentalist image of human society and the future for this revealed by Mohammed. As Hiskett describes, because Mohammed’s revelations were more recent than those in the Christian Bible, they are regarded as finite and superior. No more will be revealed and added to the Holy Book until the second coming. In the meantime, all people on Earth are regarded as under the spiritual sway of the Moslem Prophet. Humanity, consequently, is divided, like the heavens, into a sphere. At the top are the clerics and their martyrs. Beneath them is a divided humanity consisting of various types of followers and potential converts who have come under the rule of Islam as it expanded. This includes merchants, slaves, infidels and at the lowest level hypocrites who will face eternal fire. It is against the latter two that holy wars are launched to achieve a spiritual empire on Earth.

Points of Research and Reflection

Seven points need to be borne in mind by those engaged in military actions to end terrorism, and by negotiators at the political level.

First, it is relevant to note that powers selected to serve in the front line are not only those with expert military experience. America, Britain and dominions such as Australia are the ones who enunciated and fought for the four freedoms announced by Roosevelt in June 1941 when democracy was imperilled, and who laid down the principles in the Atlantic Charter which became the basis for the United Nations. The present action against terrorism is based on an historical tradition of support for freedoms.

Secondly, although Caliphates tended to disappear after the demise of the Ottoman Empire, new Caliphs have emerged in disguise in places like Malaysia and Indonesia which, because of their large Moslem populations, have become “Moslem States”.

Thirdly, international meetings held to solve world problems, such as the Shanghai A.P.E.C. meeting, consist of temporal, not spiritual leaders. The political leaders at the meetings neither control nor speak for the spiritual leaders.

Fourthly, it is not the political leaders who announce Holy Wars, it is local clerics with flocks in small territories that launch these and call on all Islam to join in. For Islam lacks political unity as do nations such as Indonesia where local spiritual wars commence and persist.

Fifthly, spiritual wars have been launched by fundamentalists on a world-wide scale. Those in South East Asia intimately affect bordering China and Australia and the Indian Ocean region which Canberra, with its Pacific outlook, as well as other powers should note.

Sixthly, it would be wise not to exclude Taiwan from international meetings about terrorism. It has a Moslem population and traditional institutions which have links with the Moslem world that Peking does not possess.

Seventhly, Peking’s communist government, like the Manchus, suppresses home-grown Moslems just as it suppresses the democratic movement. The latter is now making inroads in the provinces containing minorities. That development needs to be observed. It brings in the question of human rights which plays a part in the way the fight against terrorism is conducted, and about which Peking’s policy is not only clear but badly blotted.

Need for Research-based Institutes and Periodic Publications, Not Think Tanks of Selected People

In Australia, the announcement that its forces will form part of a military command dealing with terrorist groups, has been followed by the announcement that a special think tank has been established in Western Australia. This was launched with a cocktail party attended by invited top people. That is not the way to go to offer the worthwhile advice needed for sound policies. People at the top are not necessarily the most able, or if they are, they may lack the knowledge needed for constructive thinking. Research centres are better. Haskill’s work was not conceived in a tank full of thinkers selected for their social eminence.

It would not be wise to wait for books to be written by the many talented and informed scholars who exist. In the crises in South East Asia in the 1960’s, S.E.A.T.O. published a scholarly journal. The new situation calls for a similar publication. The information provided by governments and their agencies is neither comprehensive nor intellectually complete.






National Observer No. 52 - Autumn 2002