Plight of the Uyghurs: The Muslim World Looks On

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Published January 26, 2021

By BurhanulHaq Brula

Today, it is very easy to criticize nations and their leaders and policies when it comes to their dealings with Muslims. Nevertheless, it appears that this has become difficult for some.The Uyghurs of Xinjiang, a Western Chinese province, are ethnically a Turkic people who still refer to their land as “East Turkestan.” The vast majority of Uyghurs are also Muslim, and they are being persecuted by the Chinese state in camps much akin to the gulags of Stalin’s Russia. However, the response of the Muslim world — silence, or in some cases support of China’s persecution —is just as deplorable as the actions of the Chinese Communist Party.

Oppressed by the State

Xinjiang is home to roughly 12 million Uyghurs who speak a Turkic dialect unique to that region. Xinjiang was annexed by the Chinese government in 1949, but many Uyghurs, as mentioned, continue to refer to their homeland as East Turkestan. Xinjiang contains abundant oil and mineral resources that are crucial to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a massive project which aims to re-establish a new “Silk Road”  connecting China to Asia, Africa, and Europe through several corridors, aimed at increasing trade and stimulating economic growth.

In August 2018, a United Nations human rights panel announced that they had several reliable reports that there were roughly two million Uyghurs who were forced into “political camps for indoctrination.” Although China originally denied these allegations, satellite imagery showing what were clearly prison-like camps led the government to concede that they had created “re-education centers” for the Uyghurs. The Chinese government claimed that they were necessary to stop the spread of radical Islamic terrorism, pointing to previous terrorist attacks in 2013 and 2014 for which Uyghur separatists had claimed responsibility. However, in response to the crimes of a few individuals, the Chinese government  decided to punish the entire Uyghur-Muslim population.

In 2017, the Xinjiang government passed laws banning long beards and veils for women. Thousands of mosques in the region were demolished or converted to bars, wedding halls, or pig pens. According to an article inThe Economist, Uyghur families are forced to spy on other families and report anything suspicious to authorities. On other occasions, the Chinese government sends “guests” to live in the homes of Uyghur families and report any “suspicious” activity, which includes reading the Qur’an, fasting in Ramadan, or praying. If anyone is found to be engaging in such activity, they are likely to be shipped to an internment camp. Moreover, Dr. Adrian Zenz, a senior fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C., found that more than 10,000 children in the county of Yarkand in Xinjiang, mostly Uyghur children, had one or both parents sent to internment camps. The actual number of Uyghur children with one or both parents detained in camps is unknown.

Dr. Zenz also reports that when parents are sent to the camps, the children are put in orphanages or boarding schools, and in 2019, there were nearly 900,000 Uyghur children in boarding facilities, compared to 500,000 just two years earlier. Reports of forced sterilization of Uyghur women are gaining attention and in some areas of Xinjiang, Uyghur birthrates were 60 percent lower in 2018 than in 2015. Many Uyghur women are forced to marry ethnically Han Chinese men to be spared from internment in the camps.

In an interview featured in The Economist, Zumrat Dawut detailed the horrors of her experience as a Uyghur in China. She was forced into an internment camp because she had received calls from family members overseas. Ms. Dawut recalled how her children were regularly questioned by officials at their school on whether she used Islamic greetings, read the Qur’an, or talked about Prophet Muhammad (s). Uyghur children are forced to learn Han Chinese customs and culture while being taught that their religion should be abandoned in favor of “Xi Jinping Thought.” In the camp, any mention of God earns an immediate brutal beating.

Shameful, Sinful Silence

China’s systematic internment and persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang is one of the greatest violations of human rights in our current times. However, what is perhaps even more disgraceful is the deafening silence of the Muslim world on the state of the Uyghurs.

In July of 2019, a group of 22 countries—which were all European except Australia, Canada, and Japan—signed a one-page letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council condemning the Chinese government for the “large scale arbitrary detentions of Uyghurs.” Not one Muslim country signed the statement. It is even more shameful that just days later, 37 countries signed a statement defending China’s “remarkable achievements” in protecting their country against “terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism.” The Muslim-majority countries that signed this statement included Algeria, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. Two months later, the United States formally condemned China’s “horrific” repression of the Uyghur Muslims. It would take almost another year for the United States to impose sanctions on Chinese companies suspected of utilizing forced Uyghur labor.However, that is unlikely to deter China from continuing its abhorrent policies towards the Uyghurs.

Turkey has been one of the few Muslim-majority countries to strongly condemn China’s actions, calling them a “great shame for humanity” and stating that China’s “torture and political brainwashing” must come to an end. Turkey has also provided a haven for an estimated 50,000 Uyghurs in spite of its recent economic woes, making it the largest refuge for the Chinese Uyghurs.

Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan refused to condemn China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, citing China’s economic ties to Pakistan. Other Muslim countries with strong economic ties to China, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, have forcibly deported Uyghurs back to China and put them at risk of being placed into internment camps, according to a BBC report.

It is abundantly clear that the Muslim world has not only turned a blind eye to the plight of the Uyghurs, but even supported the Chinese government’s abominations against them. This makes the Muslim world complicit in the persecution of their own fellow Muslims, an utterly disgraceful blot on the Ummah. Albert Einstein once said that “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.” This statement cannot be more applicable than it is today, and it is completely aligned with Islamic principles. Those who believed that so-called Muslim governments would raise their voices about  the oppression that the Uyghurs are enduring were proved wrong. It is now imperative for Muslims living in the United States as well as in Muslim-majority countries to fulfill their religious obligation and protest, urging  their governments to act against China’s cruelty. To watch as Muslims are persecuted is nothing less than being complicit in oppression. Silence on these matters is not just shameful, it is sinful.

Avatar photo BurhanulHaq BrulaAuthor Burhanulhaq Brula is a first-year student at the University of Pennsylvania.

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