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Pressure to conform in west China

China's 'Go West' effort poses a challenge to the identity of eight million ethnic Muslim Uighurs.

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In the blurry quarter-light of dawn, a long line of Uighur men streams silently out of morning prayers at the Idkah Mosque - known as the "Mecca of Xinjiang." The men walk in twos and threes, wearing dark clothes and solemn expressions, and head off to work or homes.

For centuries, the outside of this mosque, a central symbol of China's most Islamic city, which lies along the old Silk Road, was a gathering place for ethnic Muslim Uighurs after prayer - a rich jumble of Persian-style shops, stalls, adobe homes, and tea vendors.

No longer. In recent months, the old neighborhood has been flattened - to be replaced by an open plaza designed to attract tourists. An artist's conception is plastered at a bus stop just off the building site; Uighurs nearby stare blankly at an image of mostly Han Chinese visitors, some with cellphones and short skirts, skipping across the ancient venue.

Such changes are systematically under way throughout the vast province of Xinjiang. An ambitious "Go West" campaign is bringing new populations and infrastructure to one of China's least developed regions. The change is a sharp challenge to the identity - and, some say, the viability - of a desert Central Asian people that were a majority in Xinjiang until the late 1990s.

The eight million Uighurs of Turkic Muslim origin are facing new policies - such as requiring their children to learn Chinese in primary schools - and large funding cuts in majority Uighur colleges. They are confronting as well the effects of a five-year "strike hard" campaign to wipe out acts of "separatism" through round-ups, arrests, and executions. More executions take place in Xinjiang, an estimated one or two a day, than in any other part of China, according to Human Rights Watch. Since Sept. 11, moreover, the government has tried to conflate, as one expert puts it, all local separatist movements and Uighur identity struggles as part of an "Islamic terrorist" movement.

Fall in line - or fall behind?

Idkah's prayer leader, Imam Mohammed Ammin, is about as moderate an imam as one will find in Kashgar. He says the new plaza is progress because it will bring ethnic Uighurs and Han Chinese closer together.

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