Muslim History Month

Cultural Genocide of Uyghurs in China

The Uyghurs are of a mostly Muslim Turkic ethnicity, who consider themselves as culturally, religiously and ethnically linked to Central Asian nations [1]. The Uyghurs are indigenous people of historical East Turkistan (also known as Xinjiang) – the region that has had a long history of resistance to the Chinese occupation. The very name Xinjiang literally means “new frontier” that clearly indicates that this land had once been free and later conquered by China.

The Uyghurs have never accepted this occupation. Therefore, there were a number of agitations against the Chinese rule that led to establishment of independent Uyghur states for short periods of time. The Chinese, however, managed to set control over the region and China has been trying to assimilate and oppress the Uyghur nation for decades, if not centuries.

By 2017, very few outside of Central Asia had ever heard about the Uyghurs. Despite the fact that this ethnic group accounts for more than 11 million in East Turkistan, about 1 million live outside their homeland, mainly in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkey, with much smaller numbers in Europe, North America and Australia.

In 2017, however, the world became aware of the barbaric treatment of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities by the Chinese authorities in the so-called “re-education” (in fact, concentration) camps – ranging from forced labour, language ban to forced marriages, forced sterilisation and even organ harvesting.

As an Uyghur myself, I focus on the following piece on the cultural aspects of the inhumane treatment of the Uyghurs by the Chinese communist leadership, including but not limited to: language ban, forced denouncing of their Muslim faith, destruction of their cultural heritage (mosques, other historical buildings and graveyards), forced marriages and separation of families.

Cultural Genocide of Uyghurs in China

A person wearing a white mask with tears of blood takes part in a protest march of ethnic Uighurs during a demonstration around the EU institutions in Brussels

In democratic countries, the right to education in a minority language is guaranteed by the state, while in others the authorities often strive to diminish and assimilate their minority groups.  This is unfortunately happening now in one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, where a minority group, my community, has been banned from using its language in schools. In contradiction to their own legislation, they have tried to crack down on expressions of individuality to create a homogenous society.

In education, Mandarin has displaced Uyghur as a language of instruction. In commerce, bookstores have limited the sale of Uyghur language publications. On street signs and university emblems, the Uyghur script has been removed. And in private domains, Uyghurs are pressured to use Mandarin to demonstrate their loyalty to the Chinese government.

The imposed norm of Mandarin for communication also extends to state-run “homes,” such as the above-mentioned re-education camps, where over one million Turkic Muslims are detained and orphanages, where the children of internment camp detainees languish.

These actions constitute an assault by the Chinese authorities on Uyghur communities, to end the continuity of the Uyghur language, and to replace it with Mandarin.

The International Uyghur Language Day, observed annually on 15 June, provides an opportunity to hold the Chinese government accountable for their unjust ambition to take the Uyghur language, a central aspect of Uyghur cultural heritage, out of circulation.

Cultural Genocide of Uyghurs in China

Uyghur musical Instruments

Ethnocide is defined by UNESCO in the Declaration of San José as a situation where “an ethnic group is denied the right to enjoy, develop and transmit its own culture and its own language, whether collectively or individually. This involves an extreme form of massive violation of human rights and, in particular, the right of ethnic groups to respect for their cultural identity.”[2]

Uyghur human rights scholar and activist Zubayra Shamseden is of the opinion that Chinese authorities view Uyghur as adversaries.

The Chinese government has detained thousands of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in their “re-education” camps on ridiculous charges, such as “showing their faith”, “abnormally long beards”, “wearing veils”, “refusing to watch state television” etc.[3]

Within these state-run internment camps, detainees are not allowed to pray, forced to eat pork and drink alcohol. There are reports by former detainees that female inmates are subjected to gender-based violence, including sexual violence.[4]

Furthermore, the Chinese authorities have banned Islamic names to newborn babies, and created a list of banned names, mostly of Arabic origin, such as Mohammad or Usama. They claim that such names are “overly religious” [5] and should not be registered in civil registration offices.

Taking into account all these clearly anti-Islamic narratives and actions by the Chinese government, it is unbelievable how many Muslim-majority countries not only stay silent but praise and support China for its “successful war on terror”, let alone condemnation of Chinese inhumane treatment of their brothers and sisters in East Turkistan. Overall, it is disappointing to see that most Muslim-majority countries support China, in pursuit of their short-term economic interests, and ignore the suffering and starvation of their Uyghur brothers and sisters. The only exception is perhaps Turkey, which has been vocal on the issue on a number of occasions [6] and Qatar, which at least adopted a neutral stance.

China has been systematically destroying thousands of mosques, historical buildings and graveyards in the attempt to end all non-Chinese cultural heritage. According to the Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) out of 24,000 mosques in East Turkistan, less than 15,000 mosques remained standing – with more than half damaged to some extent [7] despite the Chinese claims that it was committed to protecting and respecting religious beliefs. Since 2017, 30 percent of mosques had been demolished and 30 per cent damaged to certain extents, including the removal of architectural features, such as minarets or domes from them. They have also destroyed Muslim graveyards, where generations of Uyghur families are laid to rest.

Uyghur women do not marry Han men due to cultural and ethnic differences. Therefore, authorities force Uyghur women to marry Han men by using different methods. Vanessa Frangville, a China studies professor at the University Libre of Brussels, said China’s intermarriage is a part of “ethnic blending theory” that has been developed by Hu Angang and Hu Lianhe from Tsinghua University since early 2000s. The theory calls for measures such as co-residence, intermarriages and mixed-ethnic schooling as a way to enforce a more united Chinese identity [8].

Another inhumane treatment meted out to my community is sending off children of arbitrarily detained Uyghurs to state-run orphanages, where their cultural identity is being erased, for they do not speak any Uyghur, do not read Uyghur books and where they are forced to embrace the Chinese culture, language and lifestyle.

To be able to celebrate Muslim history, my community has to be able to preserve its culture and heritage. We are at the verge of extermination and our basic human rights denied, while the world looks the other way.

Uyghurs are facing a cultural genocide, and this Muslim History month while celebrating Muslim history and culture across the globe, lets acknowledge and address this.

[1] The Uighers and the Chinese State: A long History of discord 

[2] Jeff Benvenuto, What Does Genocide Produce? The Semantic Field of Genocide, Cultural Genocide, and Ethnocide in Indigenous Rights Discourse

[3]China Uighurs: Xinjiang ban on long beards and veils

[4] Ellen Ioanes, Rape, medical experiments, and forced abortions: One woman describes horrors of Xinjiang concentration camps,  

[5] Gerry Shih, China bans list of Islamic names in restive Xinjiang region

[6] Qatar becomes first Muslim country to withdraw support over China’s treatment of Uighur

[7] Helen Davidson,Thousands of Xinjiang mosques destroyed or damaged, report finds

[8] Asim Kashgarian, China Video Ad Calls for 100 Uighur Women to ‘Urgently’ Marry Han Men 

(The views expressed in this article are the author’s own. Content can be used with due credit to the author and to Zariya: Women’s Alliance for Dignity and Equality)

Farkhat Ibragimov

Farkhat Ibragimov was born in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and belongs to the Uyghur community of Kyrgyzstan. In 2000 he graduated from the Bishkek Humanities University, where he received a diploma in International Relations, received a Master’s degree in International Area Studies from the University of Tsukuba and in 2011  successfully completed the LLM course at the University of Turin, Italy.

Farkhat is particularly interested in human rights protection and the role and place of UN institutions in contemporary global affairs. As a representative of an ethnic minority, he is well aware of the challenges faced by ethnic minorities, who are in most cases unaware of their fundamental human rights. In this context, apart from his regular full-time job at the EU Delegation to Kyrgyzstan, he has been cooperating with the World Uyghur Congress since 2015 to promote and raise awareness of the current human rights situation in East Turkistan ( Xinjiang).

Farkhat has been selected to participate in various Human Rights-related trainings and summer schools, and is currentlypursuing an MA degree in Islam and Global Affairs at the Hamad Bin Khalifa University.