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).
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.
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:
- Forcing Muslim shop owners to sell alcohol and cigarettes (or be threatened with closure/ action by local authorities)
- Banning children (under 18s) and women from entering mosques
- Prayer bans in government offices and schools
- Bans/restrictions on beards, headscarves and face veils. Only elderly men can wear beards. These religious traditions are labelled as “extreme” and limitations include bans if taking a bus and restricted access to certain public places (see here and here for one example). One man in particular was jailed for his beard. “Project beauty” is the State’s campaign aimed at encouraging men and women to not wear veil or grow beards.
- Forced abortions (the Uyghurs were not included in the one child government policy)
- Restrictions on Islamic education
- Banning of religious books printed outside of China
- Forcing of imams to dance in public
- Almost wiping out the Uyghur language within educational institutions
- Bans on fasting the month of Ramadan. People working for the State (civil servants) and students cannot fast the month of Ramadan. Incidents include free meals/drinks given by government officials, checks for food in student bags (any items found for breaking evening fast must be eaten) and officials checking on people in their homes to see if they were fasting. Restaurant owners are also forced to leave their restaurants open or be fined (see here and here for further information)
- Arrests for encouraging people to fast Ramadan
- Imprisonment for “illegally practising religion”. For example, one imam and eight farmers were imprisoned for “teaching religion illegally” and praying together in places “not designated for Muslim worship” by authorities
- Incidents of shootings of Uyghur prisoners for praying
- Detaining web writers and administrators and Uyghur human rights scholar and advocate Iham Tohti’s for “inciting separatism”. Tohti was given life imprisonment after he criticised the State’s response to a suicide attack – a verdict which Amnesty International called “deplorable”. The US, EU and UN called for his release beforehand
- Imprisonment and execution including the torture and death of a detainee imprisoned for watching “illegal Islamic video” (after which the family were told to not hold a funeral)
- Restrictions on being able to go to do hajj or umrah (pilgrimage) in Mecca
- Restrictions on Uyghur weddings and funerals
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.
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.
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 voiceless. Some Uyghurs, who have been unsuccessful in gaining asylum in foreign countries and have been treated poorly, have later become radicalised.
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).
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 rioters. Uyghur 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).
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.”
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).
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.
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:
- Firstly, raise more awareness – this is crucial! There are lots of resources online. Share news and information on the Uyghur issue – blog, post, tweet etc. Here are some Uyghur rights related pages on Twitter to get you started from which you can find and share information: Thabit, UHRP, Uyghur from E.T, World Uyghur Congress, Voice of Uyghurs, Voice of Uyghur, Uyghur Turkestan
- Go on demonstrations
- Boycott Chinese goods
- Sign petitions (see here and here)
- Ask your government to address the problems the Uyghurs are facing. Ask them to appeal to the Chinese government to end their oppression towards the Uyghurs
- Support some of the thousands of Uyghur refugees living in Turkey
- Donate to and/or volunteer for Uyghur activist groups/NGOs such as World Uyghur Congress (WUC), Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) and Uyghur American Association (UAA)
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.
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 word – re-blog, tweet, post and raise your voice!
Eid Mubarak and salam!
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