I am Iraq… the voice of award winning Iraqi poet Younis Tawfik

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Torture of an Iraqi citizen at Abu Ghraib

In 2003, award winning Iraqi poet and novelist Younis Tawfik (based in Italy) published his work L’Iraq di Saddam (Saddam’s Iraq). It was a powerful plea to not enter Iraq and remains a emotional reminder of Iraq’s history and torment which is ongoing today. The Gulf War, Operation Iraqi Freedom, ISIS…Iraq is a wonderful land rich in history and culture torn apart by war.

As a powerful tool to voice Iraq’s suffering, pain, torment and nostalgia for its rich yet neglected history and culture, Younis Tawfik’s work once again shows the power of literature and art. Here are two translated extracts.

The Gulf War: Night of Destiny (1991)

Night of Destiny

On the passage between night

and the impossible,

under a veil of snow,

I heard you cry out the shapes of the wounds,

and in the tent you suffered the echo of silence:

you shared your terror with your assassin,

you opened your breast to the wind,

you put your passion in chains,

and for your cry…

It’s the Night of Destiny,

Thus tear your cape of patience,

and sacrifice your eyes to the gods of war,

until your visions will vanish…

The night is icy,

It’s blazing

It’s night

that the mirrors of the sky see shatter,

from which falls down moons,

as though they were raindrops of stone…

And so I stare at your name,

and your face,

I stare at death until day arrives.

But meanwhile, you…

you share my torment and then vanish,

you transform into a childhood mirage,

you penetrate into the secret of the desert

and your heart blossoms onto the sand,

like a sunflower, like a funeral lament.

Meanwhile, you…

you become the laughter of a child that life has killed

and in this night he is reborn, when

God comes down, sad full moon,

above the two rivers,

and on the ranks of the palms.

Y. T.

Italy, 17th January 1991

Pre-Operation Iraqi Freedom: Rebirth (2003)

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Let us remember Iraq and the Iraqi people.

Salam!

Credits/copyright:

Literary extracts taken from: Tawfik, Y. (2003) L’Iraq di Saddam, Bompiani, Roma – translations by Elizabeth Arif-Fear (2011) Reframing Iraqi migrant narratives in a (post-)conflict setting: a translation of Younis Tawfik’s ‘L’Iraq di Saddam’ for Anglophone audiences with commentary (MA Translation Studies thesis) (c)

Image credits: feature image – JesuscmUN Development Programme

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Pain, patience, persistence – poems from Guantánamo

There are currently around 80 detainees currently being held at Guantánamo Bay detention base in Cuba under US jurisdiction – a place of torture, isolation and humiliation for those held within its walls. Whilst, without a doubt, criminals should pay the price for their crimes, many detainees at Guantánamo protest their innocence and whether guilty or not; many are never tried and never charged. They are simply left to rot. Since 9/11, 779 people have been detained at this base, yet 674 of those were later released without charge (Human Rights Watch, 2016 – see chart below). “Innocent until proven guilty” we say. All the more in this case – present your charges, your evidence and take them to trial – do not let them just sit and wait. Men, separated from their families, protest their innocence and are simply left to wither away; tortured, starved, humiliated and denied their rights…

Those of you following the news may have heard about Shakeer Aamed, a Saudi national and British resident, who after 13 years of detention at Guantánamo (without charge) was finally released in 2015 – at which point he could finally meet his teenage son for the first time! Well there are others like him. Check out the small snapshot of figures below:

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Produced using data from: Human Rights Watch (2016)

It’s in this light, that detainees sought means to express their anguish by any means possible. Cut off from the public, from their families and loved ones, they wrote on cups, using toothpaste – in any way possible and in secret. A remarkable collection of poems of the detainees was published in 2007. Here is a small sample of their words and their voices…

Death Poem (Jumah Al Dosari)

Jumah Al Dosari is of Bahraini nationality and was released in 2007 without charge after more than five years of detention. He was held without trial and was subjected to physical and psychological abuse. He was held in solitary confinement from 2013 onwards until his release (see here for more information).

Death Poem

Take my blood.
Take my death shroud and
The remnants of my body.
Take photographs of my corpse at the grave, lonely.

Send them to the world,
To the judges and
To the people of conscience,
Send them to the principled men and the fair-minded.

And let them bear the guilty burden, before the world,
Of this innocent soul.
Let them bear the burden, before their children and before history,
Of this wasted, sinless soul,
Of this soul which has suffered at the hands of the ‘protectors of peace’.

Jumah al Dossari

Hunger Strike Poem (Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif)

Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif is of Yemeni origin and was held from 2002 until his death in custody in 2012. The cause of death was declared as suicide.

Latif was involved in an accident in 1994 from which he received serious head injuries and required medical treatment, which he sought after in Jordan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Post 9/11, he was held by Pakistani forces and handed over to the US for $5,000. When he was later taken to Guantánamo he was kept in an open-air kennel for some time, leading him to being exposed to the elements which had a detrimental affect on his health. Latif went on hunger strike like many other detainees.

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Even If the Pain (Saddiq Turkestani)

Saddiq Turkestani is an Uyghur Muslim raised in Saudi Arabia. He was imprisoned by the Taliban in Afghanistan and later sent to Guantánamo in 2002 where he stayed for four years. He was later released in 2006 after US authorities declared that he was not a military combatant.

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Taking action

Inside JTF Guantanamo Camps 5 & 6

Image Credit: Dvidshub

Whilst President Obama declared he would close down Guantánamo, this is still yet to happen.

To get involved and call for its closure, here are some petitions to get you going:

– Avaaz

National Religious Campaign Against Torture (print out for collecting signatures in the US)

So there you have it! Salam!

Credits and further information:

Feature image: Open Democracy

Poems and background information taken from: Falkoff, M., Miller, F. and Dorfman, A. (2007) Poems from Guantánamo, University of Iowa Press

Amnesty International USA (2007) ‘Poems from Guantanamo‘, Amnesty International Magazine

Human Rights First (07/2016) GTMO By the Numbers

Human Rights Watch (18/04/2016) Guantanamo: Facts and Figures

What has the European Convention on Human Rights ever done for us?

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Image credit: Rich Girard

On June 23rd the British public voted to leave the European Union. This came as a shock for many of us. It also brings to light a series of further questions: What about free movement? What about trade? What will happen to EU citizens already in the UK? What about the European Convention on Human Rights?

As a member of the Council of Europe, the UK is bound to the The European Convention on Human Rights. The EU and the Council of Europe are two different bodies. Phew, what a relief many of us might be inclined to think.

However, and this is the butlawyers fear what the future holds post-Brexit regarding the ECHR and Britain. There has been talk about pulling out and adopting a British Bill of Rights. The Human Rights Act (1998) – which the British government have been looking at scrapping for a long time – is the partial incorporation of the ECHR into domestic law and ideas are based on replacing this with this potential British Bill of Rights (see here for full details). We quite rightly should be worried. Theresa May – the new British PM – when working as Home Secretary prior to the referendum on leaving the EU stated the following:

It isn’t the EU we should leave but the ECHR and the jurisdiction of its court

This is very shocking indeed. The ECHR is an important, powerful instrument which I often feel is undervalued by the British public and is clearly undermined by British politicians. Human rights are being eroded in the UK. Those affected include disabled citizens, “Skype families” of mixed EU and non-EU families being forced to live apart and those on low incomes and benefits. It is time to get vocal and stand up for the ECHR.

I was shown a fantastic sketch made by The Guardian starring Patrick Stewart, which I urge you to watch entitled: What has the ECHR ever done for us?” Well, that’s a good question. You can check out the video below for the answer:

So, what has the ECHR ever done for us? Well, a lot and we need it!

Here are 20 rights it enshrines; rights which offer us freedom, hope and equality:

1. The right to life

2. Freedom from torture

3. Freedom from slavery and forced labour

4. The right to liberty and security

5. The right to a fair trial

6. Punishment to be enforced only by law

7. The right to respect for private and family life

8. Freedom of thought, conscience of religion

9. Freedom of expression

10. Freedom of assembly and association

11. The right to marry

12. The right to an effective remedy

13. Freedom from discrimination

14. The right to education

15. The right to free elections

16. Prohibition of imprisonment for debt

17. Freedom of movement

18. Prohibition of expulsions of nationals

19. The right of appeal in criminal matters

20. Compensation for wrongful convictions

So, spread the word and let’s raise the profile of support for the Human Rights Act and the ECHR. Sign and share the following petition and blog and tweet away!

Salam!

Credits:

Feature image: Portal gda

The biggest massacre in Europe since WWII – do you know it?

After the tragic events of WWII and the genocide of millions of Jews, Roma gypsies, homosexuals, political opponents, the handicapped and anyone else deemed “unworthy” under Nazi Germany‘s policy of extermination, the World said never again. Yet the sad reality is that the world continues to witness immense violence and the massacre of groups of people due to their political, ethnic, cultural and /or religious beliefs.

The fact is that last week witnessed the 21st anniversary of the massacre of around 8,000 young men and boys. What was the “reason” behind such killing?

They were Muslim

I attended a memorial evening showing the following documentary and was shocked. It retells events of 11th July 1995 – the day in which Bosnian Serbian forces entered the town of Srebrenica and massacred 8,100 Bosnian Muslim men and boys. This is the genocide of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in the 21st century.

This genocide of Bosnian Muslims is the biggest massacre since WWII. The documentary is really is worth a watch to get the facts behind the massacre and show just how it continues to affect families and the area it devastated.

What was left from this massacre – stemming from extreme nationalism and religious hatred – is the unearthed and scattered remains of these victims and heartache of the wives, mothers and sisters left behind. In some cases, generations were wiped out within one single family. Those in power sought “revenge” for the Ottoman domination – as absurd as that sounds. In seeking “revenge” and Serbian domination, they massacred thousands – raping women and killing their male family members.

In order to conceal their crimes, the Serbian forces scattered the remains of the victims across a variety of sites. If not painful enough, many families cannot fully morn the loss of their loved ones as they await for their remains to be found. Other families hold a funeral with what remains of their loved ones are left. Any sense of real closure is near impossible:

I can visit my loved ones. It is much harder for the widows and mothers who still haven’t been able to bury their loved ones.

Fadila Efendic, Srebrenica survivor

DNA sampling continues to be used to trace living relatives to the remains of the massacre. According to Valerie Hopkins of Al Jazeera: “About 1,000 people remain missing from Srebrenica, another 7,000 are unaccounted after the 1992-1995 conflict which claimed a total of 100,000 lives.”

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Remains of the victims are stored until they can be identified / pieced together – Image credit: Hifsa Haroon-Iqbal

Whilst families still struggle to come to terms with their losses, there is another crucial message that comes from such tragedy: whilst we said never again –  it happened. This massacre stemmed from a gradual process of demonisation and discrimination up until the point of genocide.

Dr Gregory Stanton, President of Genocide Watch, formulated the “10 Steps of Genocide” detailing how stereotyping, and minor hate crime can lead up the mass extermination – genocide – of a group of people. These stages go hand in hand with the series of events leading up to the extermination of Jews in Nazi Germany and massacre of Muslims in Bosnia:

  1. Classification: distinguishing “us” and “them”
  2. Symbolization: adding names and symbols for these classifications
  3. Discrimination: oppressing other groups in terms of legal, political rights etc.
  4. Dehumanization: denying the humanity of said group – equating them as “animals”
  5. Organization: arrests, torture, special army training, buying arms
  6. Polarization: driving people apart using propaganda
  7. Preparation: increasing hate propaganda, using euphemisms (e.g. objectives are for “counter terrorism” purposes or as “ethnic cleansing”), building armies/
  8. Persecution: formulation of “death lists”, segregating victims into ghettos, deporting victims to concentration camps, confinement
  9. Extermination: mass killings, rape
  10. Denial: burning of bodies, digging up mass graves, covering up evidence

Further information in how these 10 steps relate to the massacre of Bosnian Muslims, can be found in the NGO Remembering Srebrenica‘s latest publication which can be viewed online here. I really recommend reading this mini-book to get an overview of events past and present and to learn more about the NGO and how you can help. The fact that concentration camps were introduced post-WWII is simply shocking. Testimony of camp survivors is also available online via their website, including that of Subin Musić at Trbopolje Camp, Prijedor):

Men would be shot dead before us, and left to rot for hours. The smell was intoxicating. […] The women were systematically raped at Trnopolje. They were kept in a separate building to the men, but we could hear them.

The fact that such events happened so close to home for many of us and so recently – essentially breaking all “Western” conceptions and stereotypes of human rights and tolerance (akin to Orientialist discourse) – shows us once again that we all belong to one global humanity where hatred is widespread. We are no different from each other: we are capable of doing both good and bad. What this teaches is us is that: intolerance, negative stereotyping, “otherising” and scaremongering are found all over and they have serious consequences. All this can lead to discrimination, persecution and even genocide.

Communities must embrace differences and build a common foundation of tolerance, peace and understanding. If we look at the rise in media scapegoating of refugees and immigrants, the rise in Islamophobia and hate crime steadily over the last few years and in recent weeks since Brexit we must stand united. Remember the lyrics of the famous Groove Armada song:

If everybody looked the same
We’d get tired of looking at each other

Well, it’s true! Variety is the spice of life as they say. We should be proud of who we are but not exclude others. Discovering other cultures and languages and meeting new people is what life is about! Find the common ground and celebrate the differences that make us individual and unique. At the wonderful memorial presentation I attended last week by Hifsa Iqbal, Muslims and non-Muslims were reminded/witness to the following verse:

O you who have believed, let not a people ridicule [another] people; perhaps they may be better than them; nor let women ridicule [other] women; perhaps they may be better than them. And do not insult one another and do not call each other by [offensive] nicknames. Wretched is the name of disobedience after [one’s] faith. And whoever does not repent – then it is those who are the wrongdoers.

O you who have believed, avoid much [negative] assumption. Indeed, some assumption is sin. And do not spy or backbite each other. Would one of you like to eat the flesh of his brother when dead? You would detest it. And fear Allah ; indeed, Allah is Accepting of repentance and Merciful.

O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.

Qur’an (49: 11-13)

We were created differently and should embrace difference and treat each other fairly. Sadly, Srebrenica is not an example of tolerance, community and peace but instead demonising, Islamophobia, nationalism and ultimately death…

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Women left behind to remember the victims – Image credit: Photo RNW.org

Helping, learning and moving forward

So with the sad remnants of Srebrenica and in today’s context of increased levels of hate crime, intolerance and prejudice, what can and should we be doing to both remember the victims of Srebrenica and to ensure that this sad tragedy (like many others) does not repeat in any other form?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Host a memorial event
  • Teach children about the event and the importance of community cohesion
  • Donate to help towards the cause
  • Blog, tweet and raise awareness online
  • Check out the Remembering Srebrenica‘s website for ideas and make a pledge
  • Work towards relations in your community: join/form/become involved with interfaith groups, community centres and intercultural programmes
  • Stand up to racism/intolerance whenever you see it
  • Encourage victims of hate crime to report incidents to the police. Muslims can also contact Tell MAMA and The Islamic Human Rights Commission directly

Remember the past, learn from it and keep the peace!

Salam!

Credits / further information:

Feature image: Stefano Giantin

Hopkins, V. (10/07/2015) ‘Srebrenica: Unearthing loss‘, Al Jazeera

Remembering Srebrenica – further information, witness testimony and extra resources

Stanton, G. (2016) ’10 Stages of Genocide’, Genocide Watch

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What is jihad?

The Muslim concept of Jihad has always seemed to me to indicate something more profound in the human emotional makeup than the rather shallow image of physical conflict with which it is commonly associated.

The concept of struggle i.e. conflict seems to go to the heart of virtually all human experience; indeed it could be said to be the very essence of existence.

Without the knowledge of vice, could we truly value virtue? It appears to be a law of nature that every state has its opposite: male/female, hot/cold, love/hate etc.

Where we see balance, equilibrium, in both the human and natural worlds, there is an innate sense of rightness; conversely in arenas of stress, warfare or natural disasters, all tranquility is absent.

chris plant vice

Humanity employs a great deal of its collective energy, in unceasing search for conflict resolution; be it international, i.e. east vs. western ideologies, capitalism vs. communism etc. or drug, religious or racist scourges that afflict our communities.

Just occasionally we are cheered by the bright spark of enlightened intelligence. For instance, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation committees, which probably saved that country from the fate of the Congo and many others?

Northern Ireland is also a welcome example of the triumph of rational compromise over ingrained prejudice. Another beacon is Columbia which is hopefully about to bring a many decades long civil war to an end – again through enlightened dialogue and compromise.

Sadly, the opposite is only too frequently the case, for example in Israel vs. Palestine, where exists a deadly convergence of […] race, religion, culture. External pressures have combined to produce a Gordian knot of intractability which, like a malignant growth, will not simply go away but will fester relentlessly to its fatal conclusion.

When we humans harness the best of our inclinations, miracles can and do happen.  

Credits:

Text: Christopher Plant

Image credits:  Svenwerk (feature image), William Brawley

“Things are getting worse day by day” – an interview with Uyghur Muslim “Mr X”

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An elderly Uyghur woman – Image credit: Sheila

In a recent post I mentioned about the oppression of the Uyghur Muslims in China – a minority who face economic, social, cultural, political and religious oppression under the Chinese government. Whilst China is not known by any means as a land of religious freedom, the plight of the Uyghurs is very much under-published. In this article, I’m going to expand on the Uyghur issue – the whos, hows and whys surrounding the issue – and share the Uyghurs’ story.

I’ve been fortunate to be able to interview an Uyghur Muslim living in exile from China to help give a real insight into the Uyghur crisis. He told me what it’s like for Uyghurs back home, including his family, and given me an insight into why the People’s Republic of China is targeting Uyghur Muslims. So here’s the background and his testimony.

Who are the Uyghurs?

The Uyghurs are one of China’s religious, ethnic and cultural minorities – one of 56 ethnic groups in China. The two main groups of Muslims in China are the Hui and the Uyghurs. There is a small number of Uyghur Christians but the majority of Uyghurs are Muslim. Overall, the Uyghurs constitute the largest non-Chinese group of Muslims in China today. They live predominantly in the North Western region of Xinjiang (translated as “new territory”). This area was formerly the free independent State of East Turkestan until the Mao Communist Party of China (CPC) took over the country in 1949 (see here for more information). In the 18th century, the area was also previously ruled under the Qing dynasty. Xinjiang borders Tibet, India, Russia, Afghanistan and Pakistan and its population is nowadays divided mainly between Uyghurs (45%) and Han Chinese (40%). Today, there are around 10.2 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang (according the latest available figures from China’s 2000 census).

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Map of China and the North West region of Xinjiang (East Turkestan) – Image credit: www.futureatlas.com

The Uyghur are Turkic and are not ethnically, linguistically or culturally “Chinese”. As a Turkic group, they are more Central Asian than East Asian. As an ethnic group, they see themselves, like the Tibetans, as colonised by the Chinese. I asked Mr X how he defines himself in terms of nationality and culture and this was his response:

Many Uyghurs out of the country, they describe themselves as Uyghur from Eastern Turkestan. Since we still not get our independence, when somebody asks my identity, I will tell them I am Uyghur from Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China. So, culturally and nationally, I define myself as Uyghur with Chinese citizenship.

When East Turkestan was seized by China, the Uyghurs were promised autonomy but the reality is that whilst it is listed as an autonomous region, Uyghurs suffer repression. The Uyghur people want a break from what they see as Chinese colonialism. Some Uyghurs want a free independent State (East Turkestan), whilst others simply want more autonomy and greater cultural, linguistic, political, social, economic and linguistic rights.

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An elderly Uyghur man – Image credit: Uyghur East Turkistan

How are the Uyghurs oppressed?

Since the onset of the seizing of East Turkestan, the Uyghurs have been suppressed by the PRC and the situation is getting worse:

How long has the oppression been going on for?

Since 1949, [when] the Communist party took over the authority from the local government of Xinjiang, they haven’t stopped the oppression over Uyghurs and Tibetans. There was a period between 1987-1990s when Uyghurs were relatively free. In this period, many books related to their identity, history, culture and religion were published. The Holy Quran [was] also translated into [the] Uyghur language. There were not so many requirements for the Uyghur Muslims and the tension between Uyghurs and [the] government was not so bad. After 2001, especially the Urumqi Protest in 2009, the oppression became worse than ever.

My interviewee “Mr X” was born in a town in the Xinjiang region but moved outside of the area to study before later leaving China. He has been living outside of China since 2014 due to the human rights situation:

The major reason for living outside China is because of my own safety and desire of freedom. Before I left China, I was arrested twice by the Chinese authorities because of sharing some photos about Chinese oppression in China on the Chinese media while I was at University. After my graduation, my family [were] afraid of my safety, they sent me to Turkey. Here I enrolled at University for my master program. But, however, while I was in Turkey, Chinese authorities contacted me many times. Finally, I came to Germany and seek asylum here.

The Uyghurs are up against a wall of oppressive policies. Some of the injustices in Xinjiang include the following policies/occurrences:

Further (much more detailed) information on restrictions and human rights abuses can be found in the Uyghur Human Rights Project report, which also includes information about (the small number of) Uyghur Christians and their persecution.

I asked Mr X about the restrictions facing Uyghurs as the Chinese government sent mixed messages (lies) regarding Ramadan this year, following new coverage of the issue:

This year China declared there would be no restrictions in fasting Ramadan – and also wished Muslims a Happy Ramadan – but reports coming out since have stated otherwise. What is the reality?

[…] the situation of Uyghurs who living in Xinjiang is different with other Muslims live in other part of China. In Xinjiang, people who are government officers, students, teachers anyone who works in Chinese authority and State controlled companies can not fast. And, in the day time, students and workers are asked to eat and drink. Only these people who are working private company or self-employed like farmers and businessman can fast freely. But, other part of China, there is no rule like this.

In addition to these restrictions, Uyghurs also suffer from lower living standards and claim to suffer discrimination against Han Chinese migrants when looking for work.

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Kashgar (Xinjiang) – Image credit: Uyghur East Turkistan

Why are the Uyghurs facing such oppression?

Political, ethnic, socio-economic, cultural and religious factors have merged into a crisis in which the daily reality for Uyghurs is that they have no real freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion and no freedom to protest.

There are several issues surrounding the Uyghurs. The Chinese government sees three issues:

The Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in May this year criticised China’s treatment of the Uyghurs and “at times violent crackdown” of Uyghurs in Xinjiang: “In 2015, the Chinese Communist Party tightened its internal ideology, elevating the crusade against the three evils, particularly with respect to religious freedom.” The Chinese government has been “cracking down” on the Uyghurs due to – according to USCIRF – what they conceive to be these “three evil forces”: ethnic separatism, religious extremism and violent terrorism.

Independence, Islam and Islamic extremism

The Chinese government claims that “Uyghur militants” are “waging a violent campaign for an independent state” when in reality this are exaggerated lies used to suppress this religious minority. In relation to national/ethnic separatism, some Uyghurs want an independent state whilst some simply just want more freedom and autonomy. Clearly China wants to maintain control over the region. Experts have pointed out two key reasons for this:

  • Xinjiang’s rich natural resources (oil and coal) – which a developing China needs
  • Xinjiang’s location as a “buffer zone” bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan

Bearing this in mind, and the fact that Xinjiang is three times the size of France and makes up 1/6th of Chinese State territory, the Chinese government do not want to give up the Xinjiang region to allow Uyghurs to recover the State of East Turkestan.

Since 9/11 and the “war on terror” the PRC joined the US in waging a war on Islamic extremism and raised concerns about Islamist links and outside radicalisation from Afghanistan, Chechnya and Pakistan. The fear of outside Islamist influence seeping in e.g. from Al Qaeda and potential terrorism is (in their minds) a real concern for the Chinese State. Al Qaeda for example has stated that it wanted to “recover” East Turkistan for it to form part of an Islamic Caliphate. Over the years, China has therefore been “cracking down” on what it believes to be religious extremism and terrorism:

China has vowed to crack down on what it calls religious extremism in Xinjiang, and regularly conducts “strike hard” campaigns including police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people, including videos and other material. But experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from Uyghur “separatists” and that domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence there that has left hundreds dead since 2012.

Source: Free Radio Asia (13/06/2016)

In 2014 for example, 32 Uyghurs were jailed for “spreading extremist content online and organising terror groups”, including building explosive devices. The Islamic extremist party – The East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) – was accused by China of being responsible for a suicide attack in Tiananmen Square in 2013 and whilst is does have branches active in Syria and has been deemed responsible for terrorist attacks by the UN and US, it is not listed on the US government’s main list of Foreign Terrorist Organisations. Regardless of its unfortunate presence (like all Islamist parties), Uyghurs insist the Chinese government exaggerates the threat posed by ETIM in order to justify “repressive security” in the region and US reports appear to back this up:

China does not always distinguish between legitimate political dissent and the advocacy of violence to overthrow the government, and it has used counterterrorism as a pretext to suppress Uighurs.

China’s government characterised Uighur discontent, peaceful political activism, and some forms of religious observance as terrorist activity […]

Source: BBC (01/11/2013)

 Up to 300 militants are said to have become part of ISIS and officials claim that Uyghurs “join ISIS overseas and return to take part in terror plots”. Raffaelo Pantucci, a researcher for the defence think that Royal United Services Institute, admitted that although Muslims from Xinjiang could have gone over Syria and Iraq to fight as part of ISIS, the idea of people being able to return was more unlikely:

Whether individuals are able to make the journey all the way back seems difficult, especially given the difficulty people from Xinjiang seem to have in getting passports. […] We have seen numerous reports of foreigner fighters getting executed for trying to leave, including groups of Uighurs […]

There sadly have been stories of Uyghurs leaving China and joining ISIS or becoming involved in extremism. Muhammed Amin, an 80 year old jihadist who is thought to be a Uighur from China, went to Syria to join ISIS. He is quoted as saying: “I was subjected to oppression In Turkestan at the hands of the Chinese […] for 60 years and when I saw my son killed alongside the Mujahidin […] in a video I resolved to make Hijrah.” As sad as it is, he appeared in ISIS videos. One can never justify any form of terrorism. However, jihadism is not synonymous with being an Uyghur and neither is extremism simply an “Islamic problem”. Sadly, jihadis – young and old – have run off to Syria from all over the world. Despite what Islamophobes think, ISIS is not synonymous with Islam and (moderate or “normal” for want of better words) Muslims – like the Uyghurs – who simply want to live their lives and freely practice their religion in peace.

The small minority of extremists aside, China refuses to accept the Uyghur’s grievances – cultural, religious and linguistic oppression – simply blaming violent extremism (we do not deny there have been violent incidents) and any non-violent protest becomes labelled as “inciting separatism”. The State’s notion of gaining “stability” through anti-terrorist measures to ward of future attacks is equitable to oppression. Uyghurs are labelled “terrorists” by the Chinese government yet state they are simply protesting their freedom when taking to the streets to speak up against their lack of rights. Whilst we cannot support violent attacks (see here for further information), other testimony gives light to oppression of Chinese security forces during peaceful Uyghur demonstrations and the fact that this label of terrorist is simply a label to excuse oppression. As a result, thousands of Uyghurs are now fleeing China. News reports told of Uyghurs trapped in Thailand who had fled for reasons of persecution and went on hunger strike begging the Thai authorities to not send them back to China:

If we were returned back to China, we will face physical and emotional torture, and be killed or sentenced to stay in prison for life,” wrote the group calling itself For Freedom. “Therefore, we announced a hunger strike and thought it would be better to die from a hunger strike while in here. We will continue our hunger strike until we are freed or relocated to a third country or till we die here. […] We are not criminals […]

Uyghurs who flee are evidently not economic migrants – something proven clear from laptops and large amounts of cash hidden in bags found on Uyghurs who had fled to Thailand who say they fled violence in Xinjiang which is blamed on extremists (see here for video footage). Uyghurs fleeing China were accused of heading to Syria and Iraq as jihadis whilst they say they were fleeing persecution on route to Turkey – a country with which they share linguistic and cultural similarities.

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Uyghur Muslims being sent back to China from Thailand (2015) – Image credit: Prachatai

Even being in contact with Muslims outside of China can see you labelled as a “terror suspect”. Although Mr X has left China he could still not reveal his identity. There are many Uyghurs who have fled to Turkey and for Uyghurs abroad, surveillance is a reality. Mr X cannot freely communicate with his family even though he is now living in Germany where he is seeking asylum:

When I was in Turkey, I kept contact with most of my friend and family. According to their posts on the Chinese major social media, WeChat, I felt they were living under a tight control. They never share posts and pictures about Islam, politics and history of Uyghurs. Many friends deleted me from WeChat after they learnt I came to Germany as they told me that police always check their phone and it may cause problem to them if police found some one in abroad from their phone. My brothers told me never call their phone and I can only contact with them via WeChat, which is highly controlled by government and my brothers think this is for their safety. Because my mom can’t use social media, I call her phone once a week. But, we only discuss about each other health, like “Are you good?”, “I am good”, she never let me talk about my life in Germany. Just yesterday, I asked her what did you eat for suhur in Ramadan, she closed her phone.

Surprisingly, the Chinese constitution does grant some form of “freedom of religion” but with restrictions as religion is under state control and regulated in mind of national goals (communist) and national security. Religion is viewed as a private matter and where deemed necessary the state can intervene. Yet, whilst no one can support terrorist and violent behaviour (which as explained, is a small minority of incidents and does not represent the peaceful Sunni Sufi-esque Uyghur Muslims), this cannot explain how demonising a whole religious group and prohibiting Muslims from following their religion in a peaceful manner every day through veiling, fasting etc. is in line with “proportionate” security measures. In addition, this refusal to accept the need for change risks radicalising others:

The state’s refusal either to acknowledge the legitimacy of ongoing grievances or to make structural adjustments, as well as its abusive policies and zero-tolerance toward dissent, will not encourage submission to Beijing’s rule. It will likely radicalize more severe resistance tactics in the vacuum of avenues for nonviolent action and the presence of moderate voices offering cognitive liberation.

Source: Michael Caster (2014)

It is important to remember that oppression and violent ideology can go hand in hand when people feel voicelessSome Uyghurs, who have been unsuccessful in gaining asylum in foreign countries and have been treated poorly, have later become radicalised.

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Urumqi (Xinjiang) – Image credit: Uyghur East Turkistan

Protests, violence and Han Chinese migrants

An important element to consider socially, culturally, economically and politically is mass communist Chinese culture. The Uyghur community have not assimilated by and large with Chinese culture and the Han Chinese. They (quite rightly) maintain pride in their religious, ethnic and cultural (non-Chinese) heritage but feel that to “get on well in life” they have to follow the Chinese policy of “forced assimilation“. Since the influx of Han residents to Xinjiang, cultural and socio-economic tensions between Uyghurs and Han have grown as, due to the influx of Han migrant workers in the region, apparent negative attitudes towards Uyghurs by Han residents and discrimination in relation to housing, employment and education, Uyghurs feel economically disadvantaged and that the influx of migrant workers is “diluting their culture” towards the (dominant) Han (Chinese) culture. Mr X was keen to state that Han migration to Xinjiang had resulted in social problems: an increase in unemployment and an “imbalance in terms of resources between locals and migrants”, amongst other issues. This migration is encouraged and led by the Chinese government:

[…] most of the Chinese migrants are organised and transported by the State from the other parts of China. Yes, there are many Chinese [who] came to Xinjiang through their own choice, but most of them are encouraged/cheated/forced to migrate by be provided with housing, a salary, transport.

Between 1949 and 2008, the proportion of Han in Xinjiang rose dramatically from 6.7 percent (220,000) to 40 percent (8.4 million).

Mr X

According to figures in a study on internal Han internal migration to Xinjiang, in 1945, 82.7% of the population of Xinjiang were Uyghur (the dominant ethnic group), whilst Han Chinese made up 6.2% (Chaudhuri, 2005). By 2008, the number of Han Chinese had risen dramatically to 39.2% – making the Han the second largest group in Xinjiang, secondly only to the Uyghurs (46.1% of the population) (SBX, 2010). Findings in this research, undertaken in Urumqi in southern Xinjiang, found that contrary to the majority of previous research into “state orchestrated Han migration” – deemed responsible for inequality amongst the Uyghurs – the Uyghurs generally had a higher income due to their generally high level of education. This goes against the generic trend that the Han are generally “better off” than the Uyghurs. However, such research in any case does not negate prior opinion/findings and the fact that there is an increasing gap in terms of development between eastern and western China and that migratory movements/trends are shifting towards west bound movement, including both “state orchestrated migration” and also “self-initiated migration“.

Migrants in any fair, non-discriminatory form should be welcomed and citizens should have the freedom to move and earn a living if they so freely choose or need to. However, there have been tensions forming between the two ethnic groups. It is crucial to first understand these socio-economic and cultural tensions to then understand their relation to unfortunate violent events between the State, security forces and both Han and Uyghur residents. On 5th July 2009, Uyghur citizens led (what were) initially small and apparently peaceful protests in the city of Urumqi (Xinjiang) to protest what they believed to be officials’ “indifference” towards the Uyghurs. Following a rape accusation (believed to be unfounded), two migrant Uyghur workers were killed by two Han citizens in another region in Southern China. News and rumours spread and Uyghurs believed more Uyghurs had been killed, causing the Uyghurs to blame the government of “indifference” (see here). China however blames the influence of Uyghurs living in exile abroad, Uyghur “rioters” and “ethnic separatists”. Rebiya Kadeer (President of The World Uyghur Congress) was accused of “instigating riots” by the PRC but strongly denies this, claiming that protesters were holding Chinese flags and demanding their civil rights and equality under the law. Sadly though, Uyghur gangs started to attack Han residents. Police began raiding Uyghur homes and detaining Uyghur residents, leading to a big conformation between Uyghurs and security forces as Uyghur women protested the detention of their sons and husbands.

Events took a turn for the worse as Han launched “revenge attacks”. Police finally intervened, letting off tear gas and arresting Han attackers. As a result many Uyghurs were saved but some witnesses claim that some police officers “just stood by”. The government actually later admitted shooting dead 12 Uyghur riotersUyghur exiles state that peaceful demonstrators were killed by the police. Information on 1400+ detained Uyghurs and those who died is lacking. Almost 200 people were killed during the July 2009 violent conflict. One witness stated: “an estimated 800 to 1000 people, most of them Uighurs, were shot to death during that one and a half hour period of time. For this reason, the Turkish Prime Minister compared this violence to genocide.”

Violence cannot be accepted by either locals (whether Uyghur or Han) or State authorities. However, when Journeyman Pictures travelled to Xinjiang in attempt to investigate violent incidents, they were met by constant State restrictions: allegations of a lack of “permits”, guards, surveillance and security checks. The reporter stated their team had been “harassed unrelentingly all the way. […] For people that live here, this is their daily life experience”. High security is a constant presence in Xinjiang. In a one-off chance to speak to Uyghurs themselves, they stated there was “no freedom” and speech of “equality” is simply “lies”.  An Open Democracy report on violent (unconfirmed) incidents in 2013, written by Henryk Szadziewski with the assistance of Michael Phillips from World Uyghur Congress in gathering data, states that 219 people died in Xinjiang in that year – most of which were Uyghur civilians killed by Chinese security forces. These incidents were listed in terms of cause as the following: ethnic confrontation (2), security measures (10), religious (7), unknown (5) and forced demolition (1).

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Urumqi (Xinjiang) – Image credit: Uyghur East Turkistan

Not “Chinese enough” – Uyghur Muslims vs. Hui Muslims

The PRC wants political control. Where groups appear to have assimilated, hold no political aspirations and do not criticise the State, they are seen as less of a “threat” and are therefore unless less religious/cultural restrictions. This is visibly clear if we compare two different Muslim groups – the Uyghurs with the Hui Muslims.

Hui Muslims are ethnically Chinese and their language is Mandarin. Whilst the Uyghurs locally live in the Xinjiang area, the Hui are mostly located in the North West and inland. They also belong to the autonomous region of Ningxia – although they are more “spread-out” across China than the Uyghurs. Hui Muslims use Islamic texts in Mandarin Chinese and have adopted a more “Chinese identity”. Some Hui themselves are no longer Muslim and marriage amongst Hui Muslims and non-Muslims is also practiced – while this remains uncommon with Uyghurs (the Chinese State introduced incentives to encourage mix marriage between Han Chinese and Uyghurs). The Uyghurs, who are not Chinese (in ethnic, historical or cultural terms) and are “East Turkestani”, do not associate with being Chinese (they are not!). Uyghurs want to be able to maintain their culture, history and traditions – whether as an independent state or simply under the Xinjiang region. Erkin Alptekin, President of the World Uyghur Congress in Berlin, explains the colonialist Chinese policy: “The Chinese want to replace us with their own people as colonists, and assimilate those of us who remain, wiping out our culture.”

The link between religion and national-cultural identity is what makes a stark difference in terms of religious freedom. Hui Muslims enjoy a relatively free practice of Islam, in stark contrast to that of Uyghur Muslims. This year for example, the Chinese government announced that there would be no ban on fasting this year and opening hours of halal restaurants but the story is not so clear cut. Hui Muslims have been free to fast, whilst there are still restrictions in Xinjiang. Businesses in Xinjiang have been forced to stay open and those studying or working for the state cannot fast. According to Mr X, unlike the Uyghurs, Hui can freely: wear hijab, have beards, fast, publish books and have religious schools where Hui Muslims and their children can learn and teach about Islam and the Arabic language. All of these activities are “forbidden to Uyghurs” according to Mr X. Additionally, whilst going to perform hajj has become increasingly difficult for Uyghurs, an increasing number of Hui Muslims are going. In essence, the region of Ningxia with the Hui is of absolute stark difference to the experiences of Mr X:

Throughout Ningxia and the adjacent Gansu Province, new filigreed mosques soar over even the smallest villages, adolescent boys and girls spend their days studying the Quran at religious schools, and muezzin summon the faithful via loudspeakers — a marked contrast to mosques in Xinjiang, where the local authorities often forbid amplified calls to prayer.

In Hui strongholds like Linxia, a city in Gansu known as China’s “Little Mecca”, there are mosques on every other block and women can sometimes be seen with veils, a sartorial choice that can lead to detention in Xinjiang.

Mr X – when asked him about Islamophobia and other religious groups in China – explained that he didn’t think China was Islamophobic per se but that the problem is that the Chinese government sees political aspirations as a threat, i.e. the more political a group, the bigger a problem they are for the state and here lies the difference between different religious groups such as Hui and Uyghur Muslims:

Why do you believe the Chinese state is so anti-Islam? The State oppresses religion minorities […]. Do Muslims simply fit into this bracket of religious minorities or do you believe there is a higher level of Islamophobia within the government?

[…] firstly […] China is dominated by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the goal of communism is to wipe religion and class from the world. […] CCP […] sees every religion as threat to their authority. So, CCP’s […] major task is to control […] religion and force them to work with them.

Secondly, CCP [is] very afraid of people’s union that people may overthrow the government. CCP never allow their people including minority groups to establish political party and groups. So, they [are] afraid […] that people [may] come together by religions and rise against the authority. So, that is why they go on oppression on religious groups as well as political groups.

[…] I do not think that the Government is Islamophobic. […] There is a big difference between [the] Government’s attitude towards Uyghur Muslims and Hui people. The news about oppression on Muslims of China you heart actually is about Uyghur Muslims. Hui Muslims have better condition than Uyghurs. For example, they can open schools to learn Quran, Religion and Arab language. They can teach their children about religion and can freely pray in the mosque with their children and these are impossible for Uyghurs in Xinjiang. And, some Hui woman also can wear niqab which sees as symbol of radicalism in Xinjiang (there was a report about […] a man who has beard and a lady who wear niqab were sent to jail). The major reason of this because Hui Muslims are mostly like Chinese, they speak Chinese, [their] culture is Chinese, [they] looks like Chinese and they [are] loyal to Chinese government. But; Uyghurs are an independent nation culturally, ethnically and linguistically […] Uyghurs […] still struggle for their independence and identity.  That’s why government continues their oppression on Uyghur Muslims but not on Hui Muslims.

Raymond Lee, a specialist in Chinese affairs from the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, explains how the difference between religion and national-cultural identity is what constitutes how much religious freedom a group is granted and this is why Hui Muslims have greater religious freedom: “The PRC central authorities do not view their Islamic faith as a potential hazard to the government because most of them primarily identify themselves as Chinese. That is the reason why fewer religious constraints are imposed on the Hui people.”

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A Hui worshipper strolling through the courtyard of Daqingzhen Si, Xian (Shaanxi) – Image credit: Peter Morgan

China wants to maintain a good public image and trade with many Muslim nations yet as a State its main goal is political dominance at all costs. Comparing to other religious minorities such as the Falun Gong who have been severely persecuted, we once again see that if a religious group does not criticism the government, holds no political goals and is “loyal to them” then they will not face oppression, as explained by Mr X:

As far as I know, there are, of course, some Chinese are against with religion, especially with Islam. I always read posts from […] Weibo that humiliate Islam and Muslims. But, the Chinese officials normally do not care about these [sic] kind of information. And, there is no group or agenda of anti-religion that officially registered. But, there are some groups on the internet called themselves as anti-Islam warriors to humiliate Islam and its believers.

[…] in the past there were many Fa Lun Gong believers spread messages about anti-CCP dictatorship. So, they got oppressed by China. And, to the Christians, actually government didn’t carry oppression on these Christians who accepted government’s control, didn’t have any political background or goals and loyal to them (just like Hui Muslims).

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Urumqi (Xinjiang) – Image credit: Uyghur East Turkistan

Conclusions – where do things go from here?

Essentially, the role of religion in this crisis is not one of terrorism but one of national, socio-cultural identity intertwined with politics. China, in seeing how religion forms part of the Uyghurs identity (one different from typical Chinese identity), and in wanting a unified Communist state – wants to suppress the Uyghurs religious freedom in order to stem political growth and ethnic separatism. China wants Xinjiang – not an East Turkestan – and to do so has to demonise the “other” as terrorist and “water down” or simply control religion. When I first interviewed Mr X, I expected the oppression to be based on an anti-religious agenda. I was therefore shocked when I learnt how the Chinese government views the Uyghurs and what they consider the “threat” they pose to be:

Many of reporters believe that the problem between Uyghur and government is about religion or culture. I believe that actually [the] State’s biggest problem about is separatism. Even the government claims every violence attack by Uyghurs as terrorist attack, but the true is most of the attack caused by the highly oppression on the religion and culture above Uyghurs. And, the major reason for this because, most of the Uyghurs want claim their independence from China. And, this desire became stronger after Central Asian countries, which are owning the same root on ethnically and the same belief on religion, got independence from Soviet Union. To get this great goal, Uyghurs believe the culture and religion are most powerful weapon. So, since CCP take over the land from Uyghurs, Chinese government started to destroy the identity of Uyghurs on culture and religion to prevent the separatism movement. However, their oppression causes strong dissatisfaction and resistance.

In an article for Al Jazeera last year, Usaid Siddiqui wrote exactly the same thing:

It is erroneous to conclude that the Uighur crisis is solely religious. […] The Uighur nationalists’ desire for more autonomy has long been at odds with China’s centralization policy. If anything, Chinese authorities are using the ‘war on terrorism’ as a cover to demolish the Uighur people’s nationalist aspirations.

This scenario is the same as the Tibetan cause but in this case, as it is a Muslim cause, the Uyghurs have received less public sympathy. I asked Mr X if he felt there was any public sympathy for the Uyghur cause amongst other Chinese citizens or other people worldwide and he felt there wasn’t. For many Uyghurs, fleeing abroad is their only hope. Like many Uyghurs, Mr X left for a life of freedom outside of China due to the worsening situation and now lives in Germany. I was keen to see his views on the future and what he believes it may hold for himself and the Uyghurs in China:

Are things getting better or is it all simply lies?

No, things are getting worse day by day. Too many people left from the country in recent years and the control became more tighter than ever.

How do you see the future for your people and for yourself?

I am not very optimistic about the future of Uyghurs as I saw bad news from the media and Chinese social media. I don’t think the oppression will end soon. […] like most […] Uyghurs, I also desire an independent Uyghur state which based on democracy and freedom where our problem gets solved. Since this is like a day dream, I hope at least China become a democratic country and stop oppression and assimilation above [all to] Uyghurs. To my future, AlhamduliAllah I came to Germany and I live in freedom. But, I want to go back to my home if the situation gets better and there is no danger to my life.

As with an ever increasing number of Uyghurs living in exile abroad, Mr X has had to separate himself from his home, his friends and family. Even abroad, he is not free to express his identity and disdain for the Chinese State. Yet without hearing the voices of Uyghurs, the situation carries on and China buries more skeletons even deeper into its closet. For  experts such as Raymond Lee, who concludes that to stop the “intensifying” violence and worsening situation which is due to various short and long term factors (social issues, a rapidly changing society, ethnic cleavage and Islamic activism clashing with Chinese security), China must greatly improve Uyghur living standards and be more tolerant towards Uyghur Islamic identity rather than enforcing assimilationist policies:

[…] China should […] respect the Uyghurs’ Muslim identity not only in the cultural but also in the political sphere. Such a concession could pave the way for granting more autonomy rights […] . Next, Beijing should elevate the Uyghurs’ underprivileged status by improving their living standards, promoting Islamic values, and employing extensive preferential policies. […]  Beijing should […] construct an equal, respectful, and harmonious interethnic relationship between Han Chinese and the Uyghur minority. […] a democratic political institution is needed. […]

China is far from being a democratic political institution – that is something we all know – and its mass Communist State culture is one of united political, social and cultural identity with no form of difference, variation or individual expression. It does not allow for a truly multicultural model, which would provide a model of national political, social and intercultural co-identity based on a set of shared values including tolerance and diversity and collaborative shared history/future. The Chinese government does not allow for true minority rights. What is needed is greater rights and autonomy. For some Uyghurs, independence is the answer and their dream.

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Chinese police in Urumqi – Image credit: Dai Luo

How can we help?

Well, I believe the region should be free and go back to being East Turkistan but that is a different rather more political issue! In more immediate practical terms how can we help end the suppression of the Uyghurs in China itself?

There are a variety of ways in which you can help. As suggested by Mr X who is an online activist himself, you can:

Rebiya Kadeer (of WUC) has long fought for the rights of Uyghurs in China. She herself spent six years in prison in China before being granted leave to go to the USA for medical treatment, where she now lives in the USA with her husband. She has been twice nominated for the Noble Peace Prize and was the focus of the documentary “The 10 Conditions of Love” which looks at her life and work fighting for Uyghur human rights. This worth a watch and is a good introduction.

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WUC President Rebiya Kadeer and her husband Sidiq Rouzi – Image credit: Uyghur East Turkistan

For other news, you can visit: Radio Free Asia where there are a wide range of articles (as you will see in my list of resources below). And finally, here’s one final message from Mr X:

Please, do not forget to pray for us. […] happy Ramadan to my Muslim brothers and sister in the world.

So, please spread the wordre-blog, tweet, post and raise your voice!

Eid Mubarak and salam!

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Image credit: www.futureatlas.com

Acknowledgments

I’d like to thank Mr X for his participation and his openness in sharing his story and that of the Uyghur people.

I wish him, his family and the Uyghur community all the very best for the future.

Credits, sources and further information

Feature image: Uyghur East Turkistan

For a list of credits, sources and further information, the bibliography is available to download in PDF format