With recent violence in China’s western province of Xinjiang, Washington is increasingly ensnared in events dealing with the Uyghur community in China.  However, many questions remain about the true goals of this Turkic ethnic group: are they terrorists bent on overturning law and order, or freedom fighters trying to throw off the yoke of a repressive government?

The quick answer is “neither.”  Making any generalizations about a population is, of course, difficult: Uyghurs are geographically and culturally diverse.  In order to understand the conflict that recently flared in Xinjiang, it is important to note not all Uyghurs see themselves as such.  Data gathered by Professor Justin Rudelson show that many Turkmen identify with labels that correspond to their home town or religion as opposed to ‘Uighur.’  Rudelson showed that the concept of a Uyghur ethnicity is often a fuzzy, particularly in the lower and middle classes.

This lack of a Uyghur identity is due to hundreds of years of separation resulting from formidable natural barriers.  While those of the same ethnicity had settled around the region, the vast desert and rugged mountains sometimes made travel outside Xinjiang more feasible than travel within the province.  Thus, those in the oasis town of Ili have a much stronger historical and cultural connection with the Fergana Valley of Uzbekistan than with their ethnic cousins in Kashgar, China.

How does this help us understand the recent strife in Xinjiang’s capital city of Urumqi?  The localized identity, which has existed for thousands of years, may be beginning to shift.  While it is too early to begin to discuss a true “pan-Uyghur” identity (as promoted by the World Uyghur Congress, for instance), ethnic Turkic peoples in the region are beginning to feel more isolated from their Han countrymen.  In addition to Urumqi, ethnic strife in Shaoguan and other areas of China are making Uyghurs feel more vulnerable and cognizant of their “otherness.”  Indeed, violence is becoming increasingly common place.  Charles Hutzler in the AP:

Tens of thousands of what the government calls “sudden mass incidents” rock China every year, presumably soaring in number since Beijing stopped releasing the statistic publicly in 2005, when there were 87,000 of them. While loss of life is rarely on the scale of the Xinjiang riot, protesters often vent their rage on public property, burning government offices and cars.

This does not necessarily mean Uyhurs are feeling closer to other Uyghurs—large rifts still exist between Uyghurs.  However, these riots indicate that the vast majority of peaceful Uyghurs are likely increasingly uneasy about coexistence with greater China.

At present, only localized and fragmented sentiments of “Uygur-ness” persist, and China still has an opportunity to integrate the Uyghurs into the wider economy and society.  However, if Uyghur grievances in Urumqi and elsewhere are not taken seriously, the further growth of “us/them” sentiments may cause more violence in the near future.

Griffin Huschke is an intern with the Atlantic Council’s Energy and Environment Program.  He holds an MA in International Relations from the University of Chicago.