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  • Writer's pictureShipra Swaraj

Uyghur Muslims in China: A 21st Century Cultural Genocide That Must Be Stopped

Rebiya Kadeer, center, former head of the World Uyghur Congress, during a protest in Brussels, in 2018.
Rebiya Kadeer, former head of the World Uyghur Congress, during a protest in Brussels. (Francisco Seco / AP Photo)

In 1949, George Orwell published a novel named 1994 in which he imagined a dystopian society that was in absolute control of a totalitarian government.

We enjoyed the fictional imagination of the author till the time the pain and suffering of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province of Northwest China was a great unknown.

The relevance of this novel in Uyghurs' story of torture and abuse is remarkable since the civilians in both stories are closely monitored and are under heavy surveillance with the central mission of maintaining peace and security.

The Uyghurs - A Background

The Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group predominantly residing in the Xinjiang region of the People's Republic of China. As estimated, about 12 million Uyghurs live in China. Furthermore, they belong to the Karluk branch of the Turkic language family and are primarily Central and East Asian, sharing the same origin and culture.

It is said that Uyghurs were followers of Tengrism, which is an ancient religion practiced in central Asia, Buddhism, a religion that originated 2,500 years ago in India, and Chinese traditional religions, but they were forced to adopt Islam during the 10th century and were identified as Muslims by 16th century.

The 10th century is considered a low point in history. During which major political upheavals were witnessed in China, and Uyghurs were Islamized. A Chinese white paper claims the same; however, some scholars are calling it an excuse for conveniently cracking down on Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Xinjiang region in China.
Xinjiang region in China. (BBC)


The Uyghurs are currently in the limelight due to their religious repression and enforced suppression by the communist government of China in Xinjiang province. It is alleged that more than one million Uyghur Muslims have been arbitrarily detained in China's concentration camps in the Xinjiang region.

The widespread abuses also include forced sterilization, systematic rape and torture of Uyghur women, forced labor, forced re-education, political indoctrination, and occasional violent extremism.

The Chinese government has restricted the lives of Uyghurs through extreme surveillance. A report says the concentration and prison camps built for Uyghurs and other Turkic ethnic groups are the largest in the world since World War 2.

However, China's ambassador has denied these accusations and said it’s been combating separatism and Islamic militancy in the region.

Uyghurs are neither Mexican labors looking to work in America nor Palestinians whose land has been taken away or even Rohingyas who are displaced. They are fighting for the right to live as per conservative Sunni religious views.

Although the systematic persecution of Uyghurs and the silence of the world is 'the price of doing business with China,’ another version of the story says it's actually a fight, Atheism vs Theism.

More than 90% of Chinese are atheists, and this is one prime reason for China being the world’s second-largest economy, followed by the USA. Religion gives our lives meaning and purpose, but simultaneously it also affects and influences our decision-making capacity and process in many ways.

China has been blessed with disciplined and sincere citizens that obey the government’s rules and instructions wholeheartedly which is possible only if civilians place their nation above anything else, including religion which is very unlikely to happen in Uyghurs’ case due to their staunch belief in their religion.

It appears as China is simply asking them to live as per China's law which is communism, no religious way of life.

Satellite images of Uyghur detainment camps in Xinjiang.
Satellite images of Uyghur detainment camps in Xinjiang. (Google / BBC)

Worldwide Opinion

While most European countries have criticized China’s Xinjiang policies for Uyghurs, many countries see it as an effort to combat terrorism and extremism.

Several countries, including Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, UK, USA, France, Switzerland, Ireland, etc., signed a letter addressing the president of UN Human Rights Council and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights calling China out for not upholding domestic laws and international commitments as being a member of the Human Rights Council.

They have emphasized the need for immediate refraining of China from the making of arbitrary internment camps and putting restrictions on the freedom of movement of Uighurs, and other minority communities in Xinjiang.

Nevertheless, it's noteworthy that the countries who came out in China's support were mostly African or Middle Eastern Nations, including several Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, UAE, Kuwait, Algeria, Bahrain, etc. and some of those non-Muslim countries whose human rights records are considered as the worst in the world like North Korea, Russia, etc.

The Irony

It's distressing how Islamic countries seem to have overlooked China's mass atrocities against Uyghurs. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the president of Turkey, once considered the savior of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, has become repressive towards Uyghur refugees in Turkey.

Pakistan, who has always claimed to be the defender of Islamic beliefs taking a very hypocritical stance, deported Uyghur refugees back to China when they tried to escape.

Those countries which quickly slammed Myanmar for its poor treatment of Rohingyas don't have enough courage to raise their voice against China.

The barbaric ethnic cleansing of Uyghurs is outrageous, but the negligible stance of the Muslim world is just appalling. Evidently, the Muslim world has chosen China over Uyghur Muslims.

However, it came out as a shock how the Taliban neglected the cry of Uyghurs for help and befriended China, assuring Beijing about not hosting Uyghur Islamic militants from Xinjiang. Now, Uyghurs in Afghanistan are terrified Taliban might deport them to China, let alone helping those residing in China.

Another interesting aspect of this story is even when China is facing worldwide condemnation for its alleged persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has completely abandoned Uyghurs and failed to make any move against China’s discriminatory policies against Uyghur Muslims. Now, OIC is being criticized as much as China itself.

Despite support from many Western nations, the indifference shown by Muslim countries remain a huge stumbling block.
Despite support from many Western nations, the indifference shown by Muslim countries remain a huge stumbling block. (AFP / File photo)


The disturbing content we see on the internet that suggests the cruelty of the Chinese government against Uyghurs depicts the advanced stage of the problem. We cannot avoid the fact Uyghurs still refuse to condemn Uyghurs' Islamic violence. They have spilled lots of innocent Chinese blood in the last twenty years.

Nobody can deny the massive violence that occurred in July 2009 in Ürümqi, the capital city of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), in Northwestern China. It began as a mere protest but soon took the form of a violent attack that mainly targeted the local Han people.

Additionally, the Western world’s support is not entirely innocent. It's noticeable that condemnation of China by countries/media is by those who have an ax to grind with China. It seems like they are using it to put China in a bad light.

If we look back through history, we will find that the Western support in centuries is never without terms and conditions. Besides, they think every part should practice western liberal democracy. They represent themselves as a model to be followed, which somehow offends China. Therefore, it deems like a fair shot to settle the score with China.

It may be considered a downfall of humanity how China is brutally repressing Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang or how many countries chose to be silent choosing China’s money over Uyghurs’ lives or how the western world’s political diplomacy to put China down with their fake concern remain unaffected by the anguish Uyghurs experience every day and night.


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Sources: BBC, Al Jazeera, Human Rights Watch, World Uyghur Congress, CRUX, Vox.


Shipra Swaraj is a Political Science graduate from Patna University, in India. She is also a content writer and activist at the International Youths Organization for Peace and Sustainability.

Inputs and Edits by Aswin Raghav R.


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