The Moment of Truth — June 18, 2007

The Uighur Sanction

Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the fig tree that refuses to bear the leaves by which falsehood hopes to conceal its nakedness.

The following is a story of a kind of postmodern faith in ambiguity. If you like faith, there’s something for you, and if you prefer ambiguity, there’s something for you, too. But mostly, this goes out to the Uighurs.

Uighurs. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, you can’t ignore ‘em. Actually, most people can. But I can’t. And I’ve tried. I’ve never even been to Uighurstan, or wherever they live. You know, around Mongolia, where the Mongol hordes came from. Oh, I’ve been nearer than some have gotten, but much farther away than others. Never been a neighbor of a Uighur. That’s Uighurs, not wiggers.

I can’t claim complete innocence. I purposely went to a Uighur restaurant once in Coney Island. It was delicious and the service was wonderful, especially considering they spoke no English, nor any other language spoken outside their restaurant.

You know what, come to think of it, it wasn’t my intention to go to the Uighur restaurant at all. But the Bukharan Jewish restaurant in Rego Park was, for some reason, not doable that day. I wonder had we gone to the Bukharan Jewish restaurant if Bukharan Jews would have crossed my path the way Uighurs have.

I don’t remember when I first heard of the Uighurs, but on the radio show I contribute to, This Is Hell, the host Chuck Mertz interviewed a representative of the Uighurs who was complaining that George W. and Dick Cheney’s war on terror had given China permission to persecute the Uighurs even more aggressively than they had up till then. The Chinese think they own those Uighurs. Like they own Tibet. The Uighurs are Muslim, and the Chinese are as hostile to Islam as they are to Buddhism, or to anyone who contradicts them about the existence of supernatural forces or whose cultural identity stands out against a mythical cultural homogeneity the Chinese government promotes to maintain regional control.

Uighurs weren’t always Muslims. For a long time they were Nestorian Christians. I’ll tell you how I found this out. I was on a plane from Delhi to Guahati, in Assam, in northeast India.

By the way, Charlie Rose and I were searched side-by-side at the Delhi Airport—or maybe it was at the Mumbai airport—no, I think we were being searched getting off the plane in Delhi, changing planes—it was right on the tarmac. Charlie—I call him Charlie, he didn’t say I could, but I feel we’ve grown closer now that I’ve met him—suffering through airport security in the developing world with Charlie Rose brings one closer to Charlie Rose, as one might expect. It makes him easier to imagine in his underwear. In fact, the way I remember it, he WAS in his underwear. That’s called “perfect hindsight.” Anyhow, Charlie, who was not as tall as I had expected, but probably is now, was going on to interview the Prime Minister—who had his own relationship with Muslims and terrorism and license to terrorize Muslims—while I was going on with my writing partner/producer/director to scout locations and studio facilities for a movie we’re making.

On the plane from Delhi I sat next to an Evangelical Christian. I have often crossed paths with Evangelical Christians—more often and in closer proximity than has been the case with Uighurs—with varying degrees of resultant pleasantness. For some reason I especially tend to sit next to Evangelical Christians on planes. I don’t ask to be seated next to them, you can’t do that, it’s not like asking for the Kosher meal. Well, it so happened this was about the third or fourth Evangelical Christian I’d been seated next to on planes within the past two months. His name is Pastor Ted, for the purposes of this narrative and for his own purposes of self-identification, often, as well, I’m sure.

Pastor Ted was, and is, an amiable man, so we got to talking. Maybe because I told him how odd it was to me that I so often found myself seated next to Evangelical Christians on planes, or maybe it was a certain camaraderie one has with one’s countrymen when one meets them while traveling abroad, or perhaps for some other reason, I found Pastor Ted in an unevangelical mood. He didn’t try to save my soul. Perhaps because it was two Jews against one Christian—and smart-ass literate Jews at that, younger than him, too, and one of whom had had truck with such Christians before—while we did discuss religion and politics, he reminded me of, ironically enough, my first anthropology professor. I could have had the same discussion with either of them—not to say Pastor Ted verbally transgressed any fundamentalist understanding of the Bible or the origin of the world. But we weren’t there to dispute anything, just discuss. In fact I dare say he allowed some ripe opportunities for disputation to slip by, in the interest of civility.

There’s a traditional view that the Apostle Thomas spread the Gospel to India. One tradition has him entering the subcontinent at the harbor of Cochin, Kerala. I wondered aloud to Pastor Ted how much water those legends held. He seemed to think they held quite a lot. I felt they only held as much, if not less, than the tradition that Jews arrived in India via the same point of entry shortly before and not long after Titus’s destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. (And that, it turns out, is indeed a tradition that holds a lot of water.)

Pastor Ted believed he had read something salient on the point of Thomas in India, an article he’d left back home Stateside. He promised to send me whatever it was if he could locate it when he got back to Boca Raton, Florida. Yes, he is a pastor in Boca Raton. I had always considered Boca Raton to be the elephants’ graveyard of middle-class Jews. But if Thomas could go to India, Pastor Ted could pastor in Boca. We exchanged email addresses.

Our first morning in Guahati my producer/director—I’ll just call him Danny from now on—Danny got antsy waiting around for our Indian friend and host to show up. Danny is not as constitutionally suited to the do-nothing pace of the developing world as I am, so he decided we would just hop in a car with our driver and go look at something. We were dropped off at a TV and film studio and walked around the facilities, where we stumbled on some folks dubbing a music documentary, and then somehow ended up at the house of the film’s director, Manju Borah.

Manju Borah didn’t know who in the world we were, but here just before noon she invited us into her home for tea and conversation with her ethnomusicology consultant. Manju Borah is a woman of a girth which emphasizes her magnanimity, and in my memory she’s coming to resemble Della Reese, being of a similar hue, with long, curly graying hair—Della Reese with her hair down and in flowing, brightly-colored raiment. The whole situation was complete magic to me. We talked, saw photos, watched footage from the upcoming ethnomusicological documentary Manju Borah was making. And the footage from this documentary we watched, over and over, as the director discussed methods and esthetic decisions, showed a group of musicians—Muslims, from somewhere around Mongolia… Uighurs!

There I was, in northeast India, watching the only TV I was going to see for the next two weeks, and what was on every channel? Uighurs.

Uighurs on Chicago radio, Uighurs in Coney Island, and now Uighurs on video in India. Not to say I wasn’t delighted to see the Uighurs in traditional costume playing their traditional music on traditional instruments. I was delighted. I was delighted by the whole experience, and the Uighurs being part of it made it that much more delightful.

Still, as I say, for someone who has never purposely sought out any information on Uighurs, I sure do stumble across them in some odd places. Some people live their whole lives without hearing a single word about a Uighur. A Uighur never enters their radar. Not me.

Compare this to the amount of truck I’ve had with Evangelical Christians, whom I never seek out, either. Pastor Ted thinks I ought to examine what the Cosmos, or more likely its Creator, is trying to tell me by seating me next to Evangelicals on so many flights. Well, Pastor Ted, what about the Uighurs? What’s up with that? I come from the USA, the very wellspring of Evangelical Christianity, during an upsurge in religious fervor. I’m statistically likely to come across quite a few Evangelicals, especially as I have no particularly acute phobia of goyim. But, come on, Uighurs? That’s what I call a spanner in the gears of destiny. All right, maybe more like a barleycorn. Still, it’s in there.

Being someone who is quite comfortable with spiritual discomfort, and tends to see the ambiguity of my ongoing conversation with the universe as one of life’s most exhilarating, if often disturbing, and at times depressing, attractions, I’m epistemologically at odds with the tenets of Evangelical Christianity and its adherents’ certainty of its unambiguous truth. And as a Jew I’m eschatologically at odds with it, and find quite insulting the condescending statement, “You Jews have an important part to play in fulfilling God’s plan.” Being offered salvation on the terms defined by Evangelical Christianity rankles. So don’t ask me to help rebuild the Temple if your plan is just to throw me into a lake of fire when your messiah comes. I going to want a severance package.

Trying to get someone to accept your exclusive path to salvation is a lot like offering meat to a vegetarian. It’s excusable if you don’t know the prospective recipient is a vegetarian. But when you do know, I think it’s a little rude. Unfortunately, Evangelical Christians are by nature evangelical, it’s part of their faith, like fasting on Ramadan is for the devout Muslim. The difference is of invasiveness. A Muslim’s fasting irritates him—if you’ve ever spent the month of Ramadan in a Muslim country you know what I mean. But an Evangelical Christian’s proselytizing irritates others. Certainly there is much that irritates others in the practice of Islam—those calls to prayer over the loudspeakers, for example, the subjugation of women, and of course beheading. But the evangelizing of the Evangelical is a bane within the context in which I most often find myself, in civil society in the USA.

Be that as it may, Pastor Ted was true to his word, which is a much less irritating quality Evangelical Christians claim as part of their practice, and has since sent me the text he referred to, discussing the evidence for Thomas the Apostle’s presence in India. The pertinent information is contained within a text originally in Syriac chronicling the travels and careers of two thirteenth-century Nestorian monks. They left their home in Central Asia to journey to the Holy Land, from which they ended up taken a significant detour. And these two Nestorian monks were Uighurs.

I had said nothing about Uighurs to Pastor Ted. He had sent me the text, which was very nice of him (along with some evangelical material which was of the meat-for-the-vegetarian variety), only by way of cluing me in to the depth of the tradition of Thomas the Apostle’s sojourn in India. But what he sent me was a hundred-seven-page story about Uighurs.

A side note on Nestorian Christianity: Nestorius believed that Jesus was the son of God, but that he wasn’t God. Nestorius was on his way to discuss his views with the rest of the Christians in the world, sometime around the fifth century. But before he could get there, this bigshot Cyril, now St. Cyril, not the Cyril of Slavic alphabet fame, a different, earlier Cyril—Cyril decided to start the discussion before Nestorius got there. He was a real piece of work, that St. Cyril. He was the Dick Cheney of fifth-century Christianity. There isn’t a single hagiography that doesn’t emphasize what a prick he was. They don’t just mention it, they belabor it. It’s almost like he was such an ornery son of a bitch that it was considered miraculous; he may have been made a saint because of his supernatural unpleasantness. Very much like his present-day counterpart, Dick Cheney, who is justly revered for his choleric temperament.

Anyhow, by the time Cyril was done, he’d caused a huge schism between Rome and the rest of Christendom. It’s entirely possible the Uighurs, Chechens, and who knows who-all, would be Christians to this day had it not been for the choleric St. Cyril. Much as, centuries from now, historians may look back and say, “The USA could have continued as a superpower long into the third millennium, had it not been for the choleric Dick Cheney.”

Several weeks ago I was on the far north side of Chicago. I had just been in the studio as a guest correspondent on the radio show This Is Hell, where I’d first learned of the Uighurs, and I was on my way to the bar that served as the gathering place for the show’s participants and fans, Cary’s Lounge, on Devon Avenue. Devon is well known in Chicago as the main Indian and Pakistani commercial corridor. On my way, as I say, I stopped to shop for vegetables before hitting the bar. I parked my car, and there, standing at the curb, was an Indian man. Hardly surprising, on Devon Avenue. But this Indian man, who had taken the name Benjamin, proceeded to evangelize to me Christianly, praising the Jews for their specialness once he’d ascertained I was a Jew, flattering me for my intelligence, and generally jerking my chain in that way they have. I told him I would talk to him when I got back from shopping.

And when I got back there he still was. We talked some more, jerking each other’s chains now, since I don’t mind participating in mutual chain-jerking when there’s time for the full complexity of our differences to emerge and bring things to a satisfying climax (auto-erotic connotations intended). I finally got around to quoting my favorite verses of the Gospels, Matthew 21:18-21. It’s a story where Jesus is wandering around with disciples in tow, and they come upon a fig tree. The fig tree is not bearing fruit. This ticks Jesus off, and in a spiteful, unchristian fashion he causes the fig tree to wither. Then he promises his impressed disciples that they, too, with enough faith, can wreak the same destruction, even casting mountains into the sea just by commanding it be so.

These verses in Matthew are traditionally understood to refer to the Jewish people, who didn’t offer their souls to Jesus, i.e. bore him no fruit. I told Benjamin, the Indian Christian, that Jesus and I were in disagreement when it came to interpreting the Jewish reaction to his whole shtick. At some point the conversation turned to the wide variety of interpretations of the Gospels, at which point Benjamin declared that George W. Bush was a great Christian. There I finally had to get vehement. I said Bush was not a Christian, that if Bush was a Christian then Jesus was Satan, and since we knew Jesus was not Satan, Bush was therefore not a Christian, and Dick Cheney was probably the offspring of Idi Amin and a succubus.

I then realized I’d bought some figs at the market, and gave some to Benjamin. He thanked me for them. I said, “They’re not for you, they’re for Jesus. Tell him we’re even.”

I haven’t crossed paths with an Evangelical Christian since, so it would seem my figs were enough to placate Jesus for a while.

Now, Bush’s connection with Evangelical Christians is well known. His link to the Uighurs, however, bears some brief explication. Bush’s framing of the war against anyone he or his allies don’t like has given sundry oppressive regimes license to stomp ever harder on resistance to their oppression, and it’s certainly given China license to squelch the Uighurs with a kind of international nod and wink, a situation I alluded to before. But there’s an even closer tie between Bush and the Uighurs.

Five Uighurs who had been captured in Afghanistan five years earlier were released from Guatanamo under interesting circumstances. They were released at around this time last year. A court was about to hold a hearing following a US judge’s order that the Bush administration release these Uighurs. The judge’s ruling had called the detention of the Uighurs at Guantanamo illegal and disgraceful. The hearing was to determine whether to allow the innocent, wrongly-imprisoned Uighurs to enter the United States.

To circumvent the courts entirely, so as not to bow to any authority but its own, the administration sought some other place to dump the innocent Uighurs before the hearing could be held. The Bush-Cheney administration is unenthusiastic about setting their wrongly-imprisoned prisoners loose in the United States, where they might cause a hue and cry, or possibly a rhubarb, dust-up, or even a donnybrook. They couldn’t be sent back where they came from, because in China they were still considered terrorists, and would either be tortured or simply not signed for when UPS rang to deliver them.

Bush and his helpers finally found Albania, a country excited to be able to suck up to the only superpower on the planet. So the US military shackled up the Uighurs, put them on a plane, and cut them loose in a completely alien land whose language they didn’t speak and whose currency is backed only by the Albanian government’s supply of generic laundry detergent.

George W. Bush was in Albania a few days ago. There his watch was stolen right off his wrist—‘they’ say it wasn’t, but I like to ignore ‘them’—and I like to think it found its way to one of those five Uighurs from Gitmo. Then I like to think that Uighur got it to one of his relatives back home, who in turn converted it into figs to give to a missionary to bribe Jesus to tell George W. Bush to take a flying leap.

Not the most efficient political process, but it’s the best we’ve got.

This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!