My Dinner With Alptekin

In which your humble correspondent breaks bread with the Uighur democracy movement in Arlington, Virginia.

One day, the Communist Party chief of the vast Chinese region of Xinjiang visits a rural area on a publicity tour. A little girl comes up to him and says, "Mr. Secretary, there's this beautiful Uighur baby -- you should hug her." As soon as he does, the baby starts crying and spits on his face! "What's her name?" the party chief bellows. "Rebiya," the little girl says. And so he shouts and drops the baby!

I heard this joke from Nury Turkel, a lawyer and activist for the independence movement of China's beleaguered Uighur minority -- a Turkic-language-speaking, Islam-practicing people, numbering around 20 million -- at a dinner party in an Arlington, Virginia, apartment building on Nov. 11. Two weeks prior, a Uighur had crashed a car into the heart of Beijing, killing five and injuring dozens. An attack like that is extremely rare in China, and it reportedly led to scaled-up scrutiny of Uighurs throughout the country. On Nov. 16, Xinjiang authorities said assailants armed with knives and axes attacked a police station in a remote part of the region, leaving 11 dead, though details are murky. Ethnic tensions remain high, and more bloodshed will likely follow.

The joke, which Turkel told to me with good cheer and decent timing, surrounded by Uighur luminaries from around the world, may not have been funny, but the symbolism was clear. The Rebiya, of course, is Rebiya Kadeer, the president of the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) and the leader of the Uighur independence, or democracy, movement. Like with Tibetan activists abroad, China views members of the Uighur movement as "terrorists" trying to "illegally split" the country, and it has made clear it will brook no dissent in Xinjiang. All Kadeer and the Uighur movement can do, the joke implies, is spit in the face of the Chinese. And we all know what happens when you drop a baby.

The dinner party, in celebration of the 80th and 69th anniversaries of the founding of two short-lived East Turkestan republics, had that same spit-in-the-eye sense of fatalism. In 1950, one year after reunifying China, the Communist Party conquered the roughly 640,000 square mile swath of land that East Turkestan was part of, calling it Xinjiang, which means "New Frontier." China has ruled the territory since then; today, no country recognizes the Uighur homeland. Although China claims some Uighurs in Xinjiang work with the shadowy East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which it calls a terrorist organization, it is unknown whether there is an active freedom-fighting movement operating within Xinjiang, and the U.S. State Department does not include ETIM on its list of terrorist organizations. I'm no oddsmaker, but East Turkestan's independence seems only slightly more likely than Dennis Rodman being named ambassador to North Korea.

Turkel, a former president of the Washington, D.C.-based Uyghur American Association (UAA), an advocacy group, and Alim Seytoff, the current president, addressed, on some level, the quixotic nature of their goal. The UAA held an event commemorating the East Turkestan anniversaries on Capitol Hill on Nov. 12. They invited members of Congress, "but because of the shutdown none of them will come," Seytoff said, ignoring -- out of politeness, political savvy, obliviousness, or a combination of the three -- the fact that the government shutdown had already ended. The real reason is likely a combination of the near-total lack of interest Americans have in the Uighur cause and Beijing's well-documented policy of punishing politicians who meet with people -- like Uighur activists -- it considers enemies of the state.

Turkel fled China roughly a decade ago and began speaking out against official repression. "They wouldn't let my parents leave China and come to my wedding," he said. "That really pissed me off." Over the last few years, Xinjiang has been in a bad way. Ethnic riots in July 2009 in the region's capital, Urumqi, left nearly 200 dead, and July 2013 saw dozens others killed in attacks that Beijing blamed on "Islamic terrorists." Using these attacks in part as justification, local authorities have severely limited the right to speak out or assemble. Like with Tibet, Xinjiang is officially an "autonomous region," but it is firmly in Beijing's palm. Another famous joke, Turkel recounted that night, goes like this: "When the Chinese select the chairman of the region, they put all of the Uighurs into a box. Whoever has the softest head -- one you can really push your finger into -- they pick."

The dinner was held in a conference room on the first floor of an Arlington apartment building not far from the freeway, an apartment building that Yelp reviewers have described as "cheap" and "clean as f***." Apart from a conference table, the room had a little kitchen area and comfortable couches, where the women and children sat.

Besides myself, the other guests were all Uighurs, many of whom grew up in mainland China. One, who was last in Beijing in 1997, said, "It's a nice city; I just don't like the god-damn government." I asked a businessman whether he had been back to Xinjiang lately. "No." he responded. "I was back in East Turkestan. 'Xinjiang' is the word I hate more than any other. I was back in East Turkestan." Besides coming from Turkey and across the United States, many of the Uighurs had flown in from Germany, where the WUC was founded and where many of them live.

As we ate home-cooked Uighur lamb dumplings and flat noodles, Turkel introduced me to the roughly 15 men sitting around a table. "This guy runs the Uighur show in Japan," he said, pointing to a gruff man in a suit jacket. "And this older gentleman -- before Kadeer, this guy's father, Isa Yusuf Alptekin, was the face of the Uighur movement." Alptekin was a top official in East Turkestan in the 1930s and a celebrity among the Uighurs in Turkey, where many of them settled after 1949. "It's a Googleable name," Turkel told me. It was a casual gathering, though as the night progressed, several men stood up and gave speeches. Throughout the evening, the ground shook a few times, as a man lifting weights in an adjacent gym threw his barbells on the floor.

The son of the former face of the Uighur movement is Erkin Alptekin, a former WUC president and a Germany-based former journalist for the U.S. government-funded Radio Liberty. The WUC's website says Alptekin has attended "more than 6,000 international conference[s]" over the last 35 years. "Can you believe it? This guy is 74 and he was out drinking with me until 2 a.m. in Dupont Circle!" Turkel said.

"I'm a good Muslim, but I love beer and vodka," Alptekin responded good-naturedly.

Alptekin moved around the table, smiling and shaking hands. One of the men poured cups of whiskey under the table by his legs and surreptitiously -- but with a wink -- distributed them. The conversation was in Uighur, so when Alptekin stood up to speak I could not understand what provoked the belly laughs and good-natured ribbing. "I'm so tired of speeches," Alptekin said, plopping down next to me with an exaggerated sigh. Then he grew philosophical. "My own personal opinion: Things are going to get worse." The Chinese, he said, try to call this radical Islam or terrorism, but it's not: It's an independence movement that has lasted for several hundred years.

I only knew one of the men at the table -- a friend of a good friend from China -- and after listening to several speeches that I did not understand, and several gulps of whiskey, I went to go talk to him. But he doesn't speak much English, and I felt communicating with him in Mandarin would be in poor taste. So I smiled at him, and he smiled sadly at me, and pulled out his accordion. "We eat, we talk, we drink -- water or tea, not vodka, like me," Alptekin said with an exaggerated wink, as my friend stared into the distance beyond the gym wall and started playing a mournful song on the accordion. "And that's how we free East Turkestan."

Photo: PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images


The Tehran Connection

How much can a superfast algorithm tell us about Iran? Quite a lot, actually.

Iran's nuclear program has been one of the hottest topics in foreign policy for years, and attention has only intensified over the past few days, as an interim agreement was reached in Geneva to limit enrichment activity in pursuit of a more comprehensive deal. The details of the deal itself are of course interesting, but in aggregate the news stories about Iran can tell us far more than we can learn simply by reading each story on its own. By using "big data" analytics of the world's media coverage, combined with network visualization techniques, we can study the web of relationships around any given storyline -- whether it focuses on an individual, a topic, or even an entire country. Using these powerful techniques, we can move beyond specifics to patterns -- and the patterns tell us that our understanding of Iran is both sharp and sharply limited.

In the diagram below, every global English-language news article monitored by the GDELT Global Knowledge Graph -- a massive compilation of the world's people, organizations, locations, themes, emotions, and events -- has been analyzed to identify all people mentioned in articles referencing any location in Iran between April and October 2013. A list was compiled of every person mentioned in each article, and all names mentioned in an article together were connected. The end result was a network diagram of all of the people mentioned in the global news coverage of Iran over the last seven months and who has appeared with whom in that coverage.

This network diagram was then visualized using a technique that groups individuals who are more closely connected with each other, placing them physically more proximate in the diagram, while placing individuals with fewer connections farther apart. Then, using an approach known as "community finding," clusters of people who are more closely connected with each other than with the rest of the network were drawn in the same color. The specific color assigned to each group is not meaningful, only that people drawn in the same color are more closely connected to one another. Together, these two approaches make the overall macro-level structure of the network instantly clear, teasing apart the clusters and connections among the newsmakers defining Iranian news coverage.

(For the technical readers, the software used was Gephi, the layout algorithm was "Force Atlas 2," and the community-finding tool was Blondel et al.'s implementation of modularity finding.)

Because most names in the news occur in just a handful of articles, the visual above shows the result of filtering the network to show only those names that occurred in 15 or more articles. This eliminates the vast majority of names, while preserving names that are more likely to be directly related to Iranian affairs and still capturing a broad swath of the discourse around Iran. The purple cluster is largely the United States and its allies, with Barack Obama right in the center, while the dark blue node towards of the lower center of the entire network is Edward Snowden, capturing the way in which he has become one of the most prominent figures in discussion of U.S. foreign policy. This is a fascinating finding: While Snowden obviously has no part in the Iranian-U.S. nuclear talks, his outsized role in the global conversation about U.S. foreign policy has made him part of the context in which those talks are discussed. In particular, there has been substantial media coverage connecting the approaches Snowden used to defeat the NSA's internal security procedures with some of those used by the United States in its attempts to sabotage Iran's nuclear efforts. The media has also used the materials Snowden has released to reconstruct how U.S. spy agencies may have been involved in the Stuxnet attack on Iran.

The blue-green cluster in the bottom right largely consists of Israeli reporters and commentators, while the light blue cluster at top left consists of international reporters. The yellow cluster along the left side of the graph is where all of the Iranian names appear, with key figures like Hassan Rouhani, Ali Khamenei, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad all playing prominent roles in bridging Iran to the other clusters. Iranian politicians like Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Mohammad-Reza Aref, and Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel play central roles internally to the cluster, representing their important roles within Iran, but their limited engagement and contextualization over the last several months with the rest of the world.

The fact that this network accurately distinguishes internal and external leaders is a critical finding. Such resolving power means that this approach of externally mapping the newsmaker network around a country using public news coverage is sufficiently accurate to capture the nuance between newsmakers who operate largely within a country and those who have a more external role, and the external newsmakers with whom they are most closely connected. That such a news-based network would be capable of perceiving such nuanced detail suggests this approach may have powerful applications for mapping the internal structure of countries and organizations that receive considerable media coverage, but for which policymakers lack the detailed leadership diagrams compiled for higher-profile subjects like Iran.

The visual also makes it clear that the discourse around Iran does not focus on Iran itself or its internal politics, but rather on its nuclear ambitions and how they fits into the rest of the world. In particular, there is a strong Western-centric narrative to the English-language coverage around Iran, emphasizing U.S. interests, with Iranian leaders mentioned only in passing as they relate to those interests. In other words, news coverage across the world focuses on what the United States wants from Iran and what Iran needs to do to satisfy those demands, rather than the Iranian perspective on its role in the world. This is a key finding, as it reflects Iran's intense marginalization over its nuclear program and is in contrast to other nations like Egypt. (An interactive version of this network is available here.)

The visualization below displays the same network as above, but this time filters to include only names and connections appearing in at least 50 articles, reflecting the most dominant newsmakers in global coverage of Iran. As one might expect, this graph reflects a much simpler structure, with Iranian figures occupying the lower green segment and the United States, its allies, and related countries like Russia occupying the top yellow cluster. The orange cluster at far lower left consists of a set of major reporters and a few politicians connected back to the broader network through Edward Snowden. In a nod to Israel's key influence, Benjamin Netanyahu is the central pink node that connects the U.S. and Iranian clusters, while other key European figures like Catherine Ashton and William Hague also reside in this interface layer. (An interactive version of this network is available here.)

In Iran, it is notable that the actual nexus of power, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, does not occupy any more central of a network role than current President Hassan Rouhani or former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This reflects the fact that despite his actual ultimate authority over Iranian politics, he maintains a relatively low external profile, delegating most interactions with foreign dignitaries and formal public statements of policy. This can be used to better understand how a nation's political elite view themselves and their internal and external roles, and especially how this may be changing over time.

Perhaps the most interesting finding is that when these "newsmaker networks" are constructed for a nation, the resulting layers of the network appear to at least largely match the broad contours of the political environment in that nation. Leaders most closely connected with external nations like the United States are those representing that nation's foreign policy efforts, while those in successively inward layers are those who occupy progressively more internal roles in domestic politics.

This, however, raises the critical question: If data mining only tells us what we already know, is it actually useful? The ability of a network diagram, constructed automatically by computers and entirely of open global news coverage, to capture at least a semblance of the internal political structure of a nation, especially the separation of internal and external layers, is remarkable in what it enables. Our deep understanding of Iran's internal power structure comes only through the breathtaking investment by the U.S. foreign policy community of decades of intense study by vast teams of analysts. The ability of a computer algorithm to arrive at even a most remotely similar diagram in a matter of seconds based only on open news coverage represents a fundamental transformation of our ability to rapidly understand a world in constant change.