Uighur Muslims are an ethnic and religious minority who are indigenous to Xinjiang, an autonomous region in northwest China. Xinjiang declared independence in the early 20th century but was annexed by communist China in 1949 and remains under its control. The Chinese government has continued to deny Uighur Muslims civil and political rights, contributing to an air of fear in the region. In the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, China saw the opportunity to seize upon the “War on Terror” promoted by the Bush administration. The new wave of international Islamophobia allowed Beijing to target the religious identity of Uighur Muslims under the pretext of fighting terrorism and to stop their pushes for independence.
In recent years, the persecution of the Uighur Muslims has intensified, with the Chinese government developing interlocking policies to destroy Uighur culture and religious identity. In August of this year, the United Nations reported that up to one million Uighur Muslims were forced into grounds which were said to resemble huge internment camps in Xingjian. The Chinese government has called Islam a “mental illness” and is committed to ridding it by a system that some have described as ethnic cleansing. Daniel Mark, the chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), called the actions of the Chinese government “an attempt to assimilate a besieged and ethnic minority.”
The new wave of international Islamophobia allowed Beijing to target the religious identity of Uighur Muslims under the pretext of fighting terrorism and to stop their pushes for independence.
It is estimated that 10 to 20 percent of the Uighur Muslim population in Xinjiang are currently in internment camps where the government hopes to “cure” them of Islam. In these camps, Uighur Muslims are forced to eat pork and drink alcohol, both of which are restricted by Islam, in an attempt to eradicate elements of the Uighur culture and religion. Those who resist while inside are allegedly tortured, and there have been reports of deaths and disappearances.
In an investigation carried out by the Wall Street Journal, photo analysis showed that camps had been growing in the last few months. Following the mass deportation of Uighur people to the internment camps, their children are allegedly taken to state-run orphanages where they undergo a programme of cultural brainwashing and assimilation. A worker at one of the Xinjiang orphanages described the conditions in these facilities as terrible and that the children are “… locked up like farm animals in a shed.” This indoctrination has spread into schools where teachers are urging children to spy on their parents and to report on them, if their parents are practicing Islam.
Disturbing as they are, the internment camps are not the only element of persecution facing Uighur Muslims. In 2016, the Chinese government launched a system of “home stays,” in which government officials move in with families in Xinjiang to carry out surveillance on them. Human Rights Watch has highlighted these programmes as severe violations of rights to privacy, family life, and the cultural rights of ethnic minorities.
The Chinese government has attempted to defend their actions. A nationalist tabloid in China, the Global Times, published an article arguing that the government has achieved calm in Xinjiang by targeting dangerous extremists and, for this reason, they are actually promoting human rights.
“Some observers see irony in the US defending the Uighurs, considering that 22 members of the minority were detained in Guantanamo Bay without charges for years.”
Along with this, the government has denied the existence of the internment centres. Hu Lianhe, from China’s United Front Work Department, told the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that “… there is no such thing as re-education centres in Xinjiang.” He further explained that some criminals underwent “…vocational education and employment training.” However, as was pointed out in a report by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination published in August of this year, that these “criminals” never received a fair trial or a chance to rebut the charges put to them.
“In these camps, Uighur Muslims are forced to eat pork and drink alcohol, both of which are restricted by Islam, in an attempt to eradicate elements of the Uighur culture and religion.”
There has been a general silence from the international community regarding the acts of the Chinese government. However, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has raised concerns about the growing inequality experienced by minorities. They noted that China has turned Xinjian into a “no rights zone.” Gay McDougall, Committee Co-Rapporteur, highlighted that Muslims were being “treated as enemies of the state based on nothing more than their ethno-religious identity.”
Amnesty International has called on China to end its repression against the Uighur Muslims. Nicholas Beqelin, Amnesty International’s East Asia director, stated that the “Chinese government must not be allowed to continue this vicious campaign against ethnic minorities.”
Kelley Currie, an official at the United States United Nations mission, has called on the Chinese government to end its policies in Xinjiang. While the US government could impose sanctions on senior Chinese officials for human rights abuses under the Global Magnitsky Act, nothing has been done thus far. Some observers see irony in the US defending the Uighurs, considering that 22 members of the minority were detained in Guantanamo Bay without charges for years. Taken together with President Donald Trump’s rhetoric against Muslims and his attempts to enact a “Muslim” ban, it is unclear what credibility the United States has in labeling Islamophobia, and what it would do to combat it.