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The silenced voices of the Uighur Muslims

1 July, 2022

Nawal Abdisamad, Global Leadership Fellow

Xinjiang is in the north-west of China, and is home to around 12 million Uyghurs Muslims. For centuries a place where their history and culture flourished, it has slowly turned into a surveillance state, with residents being tightly monitored by Beijing’s security services.

Evidence demonstrates that Uyghur Muslims are currently being systematically oppressed by their own government. They live in a police state where they are being monitored and tracked by one of the most advanced and intrusive surveillance systems in the world. Although there is mass surveillance in the People’s Republic of China in general, Uyghur Muslims are being specifically targeted and tracked. Every online activity is monitored, and they are forced to install spyware apps on their phone, or will have to face the consequences. Their ability to practise their religion has been constrained, and many traditional Muslim names such as Mohammed have been banned for newborns. The Communist party system is determined to crush Uyghur identity and is going about it systematically.

To help get a better understanding as to why this is the case, it is important to know Beijing’s desire for this level of control stems from. Although China has for a long time been suspicious of the Uyghurs, its worries increased after Al-Qaeda attacked America on 9/11. Concerns were also raised after a number of knife attacks by Xinjiang separatists. One of the most notable occurred in Kumming, where assailants killed 29 people with knives and machetes. Against the backdrop of the US War on Terror, the Chinese government took on an opportunistic position, claiming they were also a victim of global terrorism. The Uyghurs are deemed as different by the Chinese government and different is bad because they believe the control of the Communist party is the only thing that stands between China and chaos. After those attacks, there was a belief and agenda that Xinjiang (with a predominantly Muslim population) especially was getting out of control and needed to be brought back in line. The Chinese government likens Uyghurs to a cancerous tumour, going as far as to “treating Islam like a mental disease”, believing that those who are Muslim, “have been infected with religious extremism and violent terrorist ideology”.

Due to Muslims being seen as mentally ill and China’s state authorities often describing their internment camps as schools and hospitals, it is important to understand what occurs in these facilities. China has suppressed religion in Xinjiang, and images have been placed in some mosques and on prayer mats, which is an act that offends religious sensibilities. Beards and face veils have been banned, as have some halal products. Mosques have been bulldozed and abandoned, with those remaining used only as tourist attractions rather than places of worship. The Uighur language is banned from school, resulting in Uyghur heritage being slowly wiped out. It is cultural genocide with a very specific purpose, systematic method and ultimate goal.

There are currently more than one million Muslims held in ‘re-education camps’, which are concentration camps in all but name. Muslims being portrayed as being ill is seen as a method to legitimise these centres and strip these citizens of their identity and beliefs, and indoctrinate new Chinese beliefs and identities. This has been facilitated by the use of ‘total surveillance’ in the region. China is using leading hyper-surveillance techniques in Xinjiang, most notably face recognition, and cameras monitoring Uyghurs on the streets. They can be locked up for any reason at all, or no reason. The Chinese government argues that this surveillance technology and the camps they support are solely designed fight terrorism to re-educate extremists, and also that they are ‘voluntary’ training camps. This is largely untrue.

Most of what we know about China’s brutal tactics comes from survivors or leaks. Children are being forcefully taken and separated from their parents and sent to different camps, in which they are then indoctrinated with Chinese propaganda. Uyghur men are being taken from their homes in the middle of the night to these facilities. Some of the reasons why you can be sent into these camps include visiting a foreign website, fasting, praying, wearing a full beard or items of clothing with Arab writing on. Many have also been detained for visiting countries with Muslim majority populations or simply listening to lectures on mobile phones. Merely exercising freedom of speech and expression aren’t good enough justification to lock someone up.

In May, a series of leaked documents showcased the Chinese governments abuse and mistreatment of Uyghur Muslims, finally revealing the truth after many years of Beijing’s denials. The leaks have confirmed that they did in fact use force and intimidation tactics such as there being guards stood next to the detainees with batons, even though claims of coercion have been consistently denied by China’s most senior officials. The leaks showed more than 2,000 police photos of Uyghur Muslims as young as 17 years old.  One example is a teenager being detained for listening to illegal speech and another boy being sentenced merely for being related to other detainees. The lack of any crimes committed by the Uyghur Muslims highlights and strongly suggests evidence for police targeting. Uyghur Muslims are being hunted down just for their faith and culture.

Former detainees have spoken out, saying that inside these camps they are forced to learn mandarin, renounce their faiths, and pledge loyalty to the Chinese government. Uyghur Muslims are forced into indoctrination camps whereby they are subjected to Chinese propaganda and history. They must praise Chinese President Xi Jinping and obey his will. There are also other forms of torture, such as sexual abuse and forced sterilization. Furthermore, they are exploited for cheap labour. This is one of the biggest mass internments of an ethnic-religious minority group since World War 2.

The use of concentration camps by the Chinese is eerily like that of other totalitarian movements of the recent past, including that seen in Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Drone videos have shown many prisoners being blindfolded in a confined space, which was referred to as scenes similar to Hitler’s concentration camps. With the help of satellite images one can see watchtowers and barbed wire, creating an atmosphere of fear and violence. It has been said that, “the night-time roundups resemble KGB tactics, while involuntary medical injections recall the dark history of forced sterilization”. Both of these parties also enforced the separation of parents and children. The children that have been taken away from their parents are raised by state-run institutes.

What the Uyghur Muslims are currently facing in China is inhumane and truly sickening. The recent leaks have exposed thousands and thousands of photographs documenting abuse. States and international organisations need to do more than they currently are, or else these echoes of 20th century history will continue.

Image: Uyghur human rights demonstration protest near the White House (Source: Elvert Barnes via CC BY-SA 2.0)

About Nawal Abdisamad

Nawal Abdisamad recently graduated from a Russel Group University in International Relations with an Upper second class. She is interested in international law, human security, foreign policy, and US politics. Nawal has worked as a charity officer, BBC interviewer, and teaching assistant.