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Uighurs are Persecuted in Mass Numbers in China. These are Their Stories and Some Information on How You Can Help

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By Mohani Niza

Muslim World Today

Date of publication:
22nd February 2019

You may have heard about the persecution of the Uighur community by now.

Uighurs – also spelled Uyghurs - are mostly spread in the Uyghur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang. It is China’s largest region, almost the size of Alaska.

Pockets of the Uighur community also live in Central Asia, with an approximate combined population of 300,000 across Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.

Uighur culture is steeped in tradition, which spans 4,000 years. Uighurs embrace Turkic, Iranic, Semitic and Indic traditions, and are descendants of the ancient Sogdian traders who made much of their living on the Silk Road - once observed by Marco Polo. Formerly Buddhists and Christians, the Uighurs nowadays are mostly Muslims who practice a moderate and secular brand of Sufi Islam.

The hostility between the Chinese government and Uighurs can be traced back to when Mao Zedong seized power in 1949. He encouraged the migration of ethnic Han to Uighur territory to stall independence efforts by the latter. Tensions arose as the government tried to shape Uighurs into loyal supporters of the Community party.

Since then, the Uighurs have been the target of a slew of cruel policies meant to squash their culture. In May 2014, the government launched “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism.”

Patrick Poon, a researcher at Amnesty International’s East Asia Regional Office, dispels the accusation that Uighurs are terrorists. He tells Muslim World Today: “The Chinese government has never provided any credible evidence to justify the claim of activities in relation to terrorism and extremism concerning the Uighur community. Instead, the Uighurs who have approached our organization for help about their missing relatives in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region are ordinary people, including farmers, academics, artists and even former party cadres. The Chinese government needs to explain why these people can be considered terrorists or extremists. The Chinese government is just using the excuse of crackdown on terrorism and extremism to persecute ordinary people in the region.”

Foreign Policy magazine reports that China has been locking up around 1 million Uighurs – which is larger than the population of San Francisco – in ‘re-education camps’ where they are subjected to violence by beatings, tear gas, Tasers, stun guns and spiked clubs. They are also made to recite propaganda, sing songs praising president Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist party and learn to speak Mandarin. They are also forbidden from saying “As-salaam-alaikum,” (the Islamic greeting in Arabic which means “peace be unto you”).

Resistance to any of these is met with solitary confinement, not being allowed to eat for a certain time, or orders to stand for 24-hours. This systemic torture is done in order to break the Uighurs’ lineage, roots, connections and origins to make them “better Chinese citizens.” 

Scores of Uighurs are also sent to detention centers and prisons. According to official statistics, formal arrests in Xinjiang have increased three-fold within the past five years since the Strike Hard campaign was implemented. Meanwhile, outside, Uighurs face surveillance by authorities and also arbitrary arrest. They risk having their passports confiscated and being sent to nationalistic ceremonies where they are forced to denounce their families and praise the party.

The persecution is causing scores of Uighurs to flee China. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, Xinjiang borders eight countries. Around half a million of Uighurs live outside China, with some becoming naturalized citizens in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. 

Kazakhstan, for example, encourages Uighurs to return and allows them on a fast-track route to citizenship. Almost 10, 000 Uighurs reside in Turkey, while others flee to countries such as Australia, Canada, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the US.

According to Poon, Uighurs fleeing China are vulnerable to deportation.

Ferkat Jawdat’s story

Jawdat is a 26-year-old Uighur living in Northern Virginia, U.S, where he works as a software engineer.

His father came to the United States in 2006 and applied for asylum. Once it was approved, he applied for visas for his wife, Jawdat, and Jawdat’s three other siblings.

“At the time since all four of us were under 18 years of age, we were able to get our Chinese passports easily, but my mother has not been able to get hers until now,” Jawdat tells Muslim World Today via email. “Since my father came to the U.S. my family has been harassed and questioned by Chinese police many times about my father’s whereabouts and his status in the U.S.”

His mother and 7 other family members, including uncles, are all in Chinese concentration camps. She was detained last February and Jawdat isn’t able to reach her.

“I used to contact my mother, my relatives and some of my friends through WeChat in China. But after 2016, it became hard to reach out to people and many people started deleting me from their contacts. I lost complete contact of my mom from February 2018 after she was sent to a Chinese concentration camp,” he says. “We don’t know the current condition of any of them.”

Humans Rights Watch states: “Many ethnic Uighurs and Kazakhs live abroad, and the crackdown has been tearing families apart. Some family members may be held in Xinjiang and cannot leave because authorities have confiscated their passports, or they have been detained, and the other part of the family is outside of China. People have not been able to communicate with each other.”

Jawdat fears things can become worse. He says that there have been incidents of Uighurs, particularly children, being forced to eat pork, aside from having to learn Han Chinese history, culture and language.

“They will grow up as Han Chinese instead of Uighurs. Their futures are destroyed, and one nation’s future is already being destroyed now,” he says.

Alfred’s story

Alfred Uyghur (or just Alfred as he wants to be known), 21, came to the U.S in October 2015 as an international student on a F1 visa. He had to stop studying after his mother was sent to a camp and his father imprisoned and he lost contact with them.

“After losing contact with my parents, I dropped out from my university since international students are not allowed to work and all their tuition and living expenses must be provided by either their parents or by a sponsor. I applied for asylum and it got approved on August, 2018,” Alfred tells Muslim World Today.

“At the time I applied for asylum I really didn't have any other choice. I couldn’t go back to my homeland or stay with my F1 visa. My attorney helped me during all the process, so I don't really know about the exact details. But generally, I first sent my application then I got a respond and interview date and time. Then I went to the interview and two weeks after, I learned that my application got approved. I was lucky because I happened to send my application at a time just after a new policy issued where new applicants must have to be responded within 60 days,” he says.

Alfred’s story is harrowing. Before leaving for the U.S, he bore the brunt of many injustices. He had to sign forms promising that he would not fast in Ramadan or pray. He said Uighurs are not allowed to book hotels in other cities and cannot travel to another city without the permission of the local police.

“After the large scale crackdown started in 2016, I had to have less and less contact with my parents because one of the first targets of the Chinese government was Uighurs who studied or travelled abroad and their relatives,” Alfred says. “Later, I heard my name Arafat was banned in our homeland. My name and other names like Muhammad or names with Arabic origin are considered to be too Islamic, even though both of my parents don’t know Arabic. Then as the scale of incarceration increased, I lost contact with my parents in fear of causing them trouble by having contact with them.”

“And only in August 2018, from a Kazakh family friend of mine who fled to Kazakhstan that I learned that my mom Gulnar Telet, a long time mathematics teacher, was detained in the concentration camp since the end of 2017, and my father, Erkin Tursun, a TV producer and journalist, was detained in March, 2018 and sentenced to 11 years prison,” he says.

Ahmet’s story

Ahmet (not his real name) is a 31-year-old living in Ankara, Turkey.

He arrived in Turkey in 2014, after much difficulty.

“I had a lot of difficulty getting a passport. Even though we were students, the conditions were very hard for us. It was the end of 2010 and we managed to get passports as we were university students, saying we wanted to study abroad. At that period we would get invitations from countries like New Zealand and Russia to apply for a passport as Turkish applications were not accepted,” he says. “I was staying in Turkey on a permit. On August 2017, I applied for a permanent residency and at the end of 2018 I received a permanent residency, which was not an easy process.”

“Many of my close friends were imprisoned because they had connections with overseas, and I myself was interrogated a few times by the Chinese intelligence. I decided to leave so as not to be imprisoned, but my child did not have a passport. Even though I and my wife did have one, they refused to give my child a passport which is why I came alone, and it took two years for him to be assigned a passport, and two years later with bribe money my wife and child could join me,” Ahmet says.

Ahmet recounts further the injustices his community faces under Chinese officials: “In 2004, with the pretext of consolidating schools Uighur language education was ended which had a direct effect on our ability to get better grades and enter university. After a few years of this, the teachers were also dismissed as it was claimed that their Chinese was insufficient, and Chinese teachers were brought in their place.”

“In 2006, after entering university we felt the difference between Chinese and Uighur students more strongly. The Uighur students were treated differently and humiliated. Students were restrained by the police, not allowed to fast in Ramadhan and not allowed to perform their prayers. For example, we could not put on the lights when we were fasting to have the pre-dawn meal and students who were noticed to have prayed in the mosque or to wear a headscarf were expelled.

Ahmet says the persecution escalated after the 2009 Urumqi massacre, where Uighur Muslims and Han Chinese clashed, which left more than 800 people injured.

“After the 2009 Urumqi massacre these bans became more harsh and controlled. In 2011, I finished university and saw the same injustices in trying to find a job, where 20 people were to be employed, a quota would be put for only one or two Uighurs,” he says.

From 2011 to 2014, Ahmet worked at a private company. Within just those three years, at least 10 of his friends were imprisoned. They lived in constant fear because there was no law that they could turn to.

“I cannot describe the fear that we felt at the time, we were under such pressure. We still live with the psychological effects of it,” he says. “Before 2014, this suppression was only enforced on religious or nationalist people, but later as you can see in the news, it included Uighurs who would not 'become Chinese', writers, intellectuals, artists. Whoever had any sort of visibility was put into prison or the 'camps'. This is just what I experienced there are millions of Uyghurs who have faced much, much more oppression than this.”

Ahmet had spoken to his mother, brother and sister in Xinjiang in April 2017 through webchat. A week later, his sister was put in the camps and since then, Ahmet has not been able to contact anyone living in Xinjiang and there are no news from his relatives. He describes this as “painful and terrifying.”

The disappearance of Sanubar Tursun

Ferkat Jawdat, Alfred Uighur and Ahmet are the “luckier” ones. Some Uighurs have disappeared without a trace.

Sanubar Tursun, an internationally renowned Uighur female singer-songwriter, was slated to perform in France just recently but has not been seen in months. She is presumed to have been detained in internment camps. There has also been unconfirmed reports that one of her brothers has been imprisoned.

Tursun’s friend Dr Rachel Harris, an academician specialising in music at SOAS University of London, tells Muslim World Today: “I was in regular contact with Sanubar up to 2015, helping to organize her concerts in Europe. I stopped contacting her in 2016 when it became clear that Uighurs with any foreign contacts were being detained in the new system of mass internment camps.”

Harris has not contacted Tursun’s family or friends due to the high risk involved. She has had to rely on second-hand reports and rumors to guess what is happening to her friend as the government does not provide official confirmation when people are detained, there is no formal charge, and no indication of how long they will be detained for.

Harris describes Tursun admirably: “Sanubar sang Uighur folk songs, classical muqam pieces, and she composed many new songs in the traditional style. She brought a rare refinement to the traditional repertoire, and she chose the lyrics of her own compositions carefully to speak to her Uighur audiences. She was one of the most influential singers of the past two decades. When I traveled around the Uighur region I could hear her voice everywhere - in the bazaars, in taxis and long distance buses.”

Why is China targeting Uighur’s artists?

“Although the Chinese government and media sources try to portray what is happening as a necessary campaign against religious extremism and terrorism, there is now overwhelming evidence that the campaign is much more broadly aimed at Uighur language, culture and identity,” Harris says. 

“All forms of everyday religious practice have been effectively criminalized as 'religious extremism'. Speaking the Uighur language in public has been labelled 'unpatriotic', and many Uighur artists, writers, academics, and other cultural leaders have been sent to the camps. I believe that Sanubar's detention is part of these new aggressive policies of cultural cleansing and cultural assimilation," she adds.

What can foreign governments do to help the Uighur community?

Darren Byler, a lecturer in the anthropology department at University of Washington, said there are several ways foreign countries can do to help Uighurs.

“The most crucial thing that the US government can do to help the Uighur community is first of all support and sign into law the bipartisan bill ‘Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2018,” he tells Muslim World Today.

Byler explains that the bill was introduced by senators Marco Rubio and Bob Menendez in the Senate (Bill #S.3622) and congressmen Chris Smith and Tom Suozzi in the House (Bill #HR 7123).

Byler says that the U.S must protect the Chinese diaspora living there “by actively documenting, in conjunction with law enforcement, instances of intimidation and harassment perpetrated by agents of the government of China, and that this data is routinely referenced in conversations with Chinese authorities.”

He urges the U.S government to expedite the asylum applications of Uighurs and Turkic Muslims and also expedite their resettlement applications.

Asylum is a misunderstood form of relief, notes Supna Zaidi, editor-in-chief of Muslim World Today, and an immigration attorney in the United States. “Much of the international community feels the US has become anti-immigrant given the push by the current administration to lower immigration numbers to the U.S. Ironically, legitimate asylum cases continue to be heard and reviewed objectively. This has resulted in many individuals, like members of the Uighur community, being granted asylum in the U.S. Their greatest difficulty is getting to the U.S to apply for asylum.”

Byler also urges the U.S. to grant United Nations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) unrestricted access to Xinjiang in order to investigate the persecution as well as obtain documented evidence from China on its detention practices.

Alongside that, the U.S should impose targeted economic sanctions, through the ‘Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act’ (or the ‘Magnitsky Act’), on Chinese authorities who are complicit in the mass surveillance, arbitrary detention, and systematic persecution of the Uighur community, and this includes party secretary Chen Quanguo.

Asked about Trump’s response to the persecution of Uighurs, Byler says: “It sounds as though some of the key members of the administration - such as Mike Pompeo, Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio - are willing to act on the types of proposals outlined above, but that for President Trump himself who seems to have very little concern for human rights, this is simply a negotiating point in his trade war with China. Other Republican leaders who I named above seem to be primarily interested in this because they are "anti-communist" rather than because they believe that Muslim lives matter.”

So what can the average person do to help?

Maya Wang, China Senior Researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), tells Muslim World Today that it is important people from various nations to speak up against the abuse.

She quotes her op-ed in The Interpreter, saying: “There has been comparatively little international outrage over what may be among the world’s most draconian and comprehensive control over Muslim life.”

“We need Muslim majority countries, such as Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia, to be the champion of the rights of people in Xinjiang, and to press for independent access into Xinjiang. These countries can band together and press for that at the UN, such as during the upcoming Human Rights Council session in March, or by speaking together through the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.”

Meanwhile, this is what you as an ordinary person can do. The Uighur Human Rights Project (UHRP) has a useful list of suggestions on its website on how you can help:

  • If you are in the U.S, contact senators, representatives and the White House to support the ‘Uighur Human Rights Policy Act of 2019’ (House Resolution R.649 and Senate Resolution S.178 .);
  • Share UHRP's short briefings with religious and civic leaders and ask them to speak about these issues;
  • Share UHRP’s report, The Persecution of the Intellectuals in the Uighur Region Continues and urge universities, publishing houses, and exchange programs to suspend exchanges and cooperation with government institutions in China;
  • Write to the International Federation of Red Cross & Red Crescent Societies urging action to trace missing family members of Uighurs;
  • Write to the International Olympic Committee and their National Olympic Committee (Canada: digital@olympic.ca) and urge reconsideration of holding the 2022 Olympics in a country maintaining concentration camps for Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims;
  • Write to companies with operations in Xinjiang urging them to cease operations and sales as long as the Xinjiang Regional Government continues to operate concentration camps and total-control measures of collective punishment.
  • Muslim World Today is also accepting donations to support pro-bono asylum services through the non-profit that runs the website. If you are interested in donating, please email Askalawyer@muslimworldtoday.org