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Reviving Uyghur Culture In Kazakhstan, One 'Reel' At A Time

Uyghurs in Kazakhstan participate in cultural events organized by Digital Yurt, an Almaty-based online platform looking to build a community for the group in the Central Asian country.
Uyghurs in Kazakhstan participate in cultural events organized by Digital Yurt, an Almaty-based online platform looking to build a community for the group in the Central Asian country.

PRAGUE -- Said Maximov is trying to bring a Silicon Valley start-up mindset to help solve the problem of keeping Uyghur culture and traditions alive in Central Asia.

The 36-year-old entrepreneur with a background in public relations and marketing founded Digital Yurt in late 2022 in hopes of finding a contemporary solution for maintaining traditions, increasing knowledge of the Uyghur language, and fostering a community for an ethnic group with a legacy of repression that continues today -- namely in China.

So Maximov did what any modern-day millennial would do: He opened an Instagram account.

"I started with something simple," he told RFE/RL at the Unlock 2024 conference held on May 30-31 in the Czech capital, Prague. "Our biggest target audience is the youth -- and social media is how you reach them. The problem is that it's about entertainment there, not really dealing with problems that a community like ours is facing."

But Maximov has slowly managed to find a way to break through.

What began with "reels" -- short, fast-paced videos that are friendly to Instagram's algorithmic platform -- has evolved into a real-life community of hundreds, with nearly 50 regular contributors to Digital Yurt's work and an ever-expanding online footprint.

Since launching, it has grown into in-person events, raised money for an incubator to help fund Uyghur-owned businesses in Kazakhstan, and created a Montessori kindergarten in Almaty -- the country's largest city -- to boost literacy in the Uyghur language.

It's part of a wider strategy meant to adapt and modernize old practices that Maximov says is at the heart of what Digital Yurt is trying to accomplish.

"The youth still want to know and engage with their history, but maybe those traditional events or places with the older generation aren't really appealing to them. That's why we went digital," he said. "It's been exciting, but at the same time it's also been difficult because I didn't know how many problems our community is facing in modern society."

'We Can't Ignore It'

The most pressing of those problems for Uyghurs has been unfolding on the other side of Kazakhstan's eastern border in China.

Xinjiang Province is home to about 12 million Uyghurs, and since 2017 -- when Chinese leader Xi Jinping issued an order saying all religions in the country should be Chinese in orientation -- there have been repeated crackdowns, with many activists and human rights groups saying it is part of a deliberate campaign to eradicate Uyghur culture.

That repression has also extended to other, mostly Muslim, minorities in Xinjiang, with a dragnet sweeping up more than 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other groups in detention camps and prisons. China has also been accused of targeting Muslim religious figures and has put bans on religious practices in the region, as well as destroying mosques and tombs.

Said Maximov speaks to RFE/RL during an interview in Prague at the Unlock conference in May.
Said Maximov speaks to RFE/RL during an interview in Prague at the Unlock conference in May.

In 2022, the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said China had committed "serious human rights violations" against Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslim minorities, including forced labor, mass internment, and forced birth control, which may amount to crimes against humanity.

"Given our history and what is happening even now, some people from the community still think it's best to stay silent and that it can be dangerous to be seen, and I've even had some say this to me," Maximov said. "But what's happening [in China] is real and we can't ignore it."

While present-day Xinjiang, often referred to as East Turkestan in the Uyghur community, is home to the bulk of the population, the countries of Central Asia are also home to Uyghur minorities. Kazakhstan alone has more than 200,000 ethnic Uyghurs, and the global community has extended to places like Turkey and across Europe and North America as Uyghurs have fled mounting repression from Beijing.

China has justified its crackdowns as a response to episodes of violence in the 2000s, saying the camp system it launched was necessary to prevent terrorism and root out Islamist extremism. But Beijing has also been accused of exaggerating the threat in order to justify the repression of Uyghurs.

For The New Generation

As an ethnic Uyghur born and raised in Almaty, Maximov says these views are present in Kazakhstan, especially as the government has grown closer to China in recent years.

"Part of the mission is also to educate, and we don't want people to follow the Chinese narrative that we're terrorists, which is absurd," he said. "The Chinese Communist Party has tried to make an example of my people to show others what happens if you resist them."

Maximov is emphatic that Digital Yurt does not have a political agenda or any political ambitions, but he says that given history and what Uyghurs are facing today in China, it's not an easy separation.

"Even though we're doing work on empowering youth, making people more tech-savvy, teaching the language, and improving business skills, it still sounds political to some people simply because it's aligned with being Uyghur," he said.

As Digital Yurt continues to grow, Maximov says he hopes he can find new ways to keep bringing Kazakhstan's Uyghur community together and also engage with the wider diaspora spread out around the world.

While shared history -- both achievements and its darker chapters -- are part of the identity, he hopes to find new ways to "make Uyghur culture cool," including ideas for a fashion brand to merge modern streetwear with traditional garments.

But Maximov says his main goal for the future is to keep preserving the traditions and language from the older generations so that the new ones can interact, whether online or in-person.

"The older generation that knows the language and traditions is still here but maybe not for long," he said. "It can be easy for us to be separated from our Uyghur identity, so we need to keep our culture alive."

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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

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