Unlike other persecuted groups, Uyghur Muslims rarely become a topic of discussion among Muslims. Even though the reality is that Uyghurs are facing the worst kind of persecution at the hands of Communist regime of China in East Turkistan or Xinjiang province. They are actually facing a cultural and demographic genocide, but unfortunately, their plight remains hidden from the outside world because of total Chinese embargo on reporting about their province.
There are about 12 million Uyghurs, mostly Muslim, living in Xinjiang, which is officially known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). The Uyghurs speak their own language, which is similar to Turkish, and see themselves as culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations. Other ethnic groups including Han Chinese, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Mongols, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Tatars also live in the area.
Because of its location along the ancient Silk Road, Xinjiang has a long history of cross-migration by different minority groups.
The Uyghur-dominated region expands to about 1.6 million sq km (617,763 sq miles) comparable to Iran in terms of land area. It is situated in the Tarim Basin. It is the largest region of China and makes up about a sixth of the country’s entire land area. It is rich in oil and natural gas.
Uyghurs are said to have converted to Islam in the middle of the 16th century. By the end of the 16th century, almost all Uyghurs had become Muslims. And with conversion, their cultural rituals got rinsed in Islam.
In 1933, an independent East Turkestan was briefly declared by the then-majority Uyghurs, but its borders were unsettled and its army was soon defeated by nationalist Chinese led by Chiang Kai-shek.
A second East Turkestan republic was declared in 1944 with Soviet backing. But in 1949, China’s new Communist rulers who had defeated Chiang in the civil war annexed the region with the nod of Joseph Stalin, the then Soviet leader, ending the Uyghurs’ dream of an independent homeland.
Beijing insists it has an ancient claim to Xinjiang — dating back to 206BC — and considers it an “inseparable part of the Chinese nation”.
Uyghurs disagree, saying that borders in the region have been drawn and redrawn for centuries, depending on the dominant power, including the Mongols and the Turkic Karakhanid. Overseas Uighurs also say that their religion, language and cultural practices clearly distinguish Xinjiang from the rest of China.
Since 1949, when Mao Zedong’s communist army took control of Xinjiang, out-migration has increased substantially, with Uighurs leaving the region to escape political and religious repression, leading to a gradual decline of their once majority population.
Other waves of migration occurred during the great famines of the 1950s and 60s, followed by Mao’s bloody Cultural Revolution, which saw many intellectuals purged or summarily executed.
On October 1, 1955, PRC leader Mao Zedong designated Xinjiang a “Uyghur Autonomous Region”, creating a regionwide Uyghur identity that overtook Uyghurs’ traditionally local and oasis-based identities.
Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups eventually escaped to neighbouring Central Asian countries, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Others fled to Afghanistan and Turkey.
Following renewed political tensions in recent years, thousands of refugees escaped to Europe, while more than 1,000 eventually made it across the Atlantic to the United States. The Uyghur population in the US has since increased to at least 9,000 in 2015.
Meanwhile, millions of Han Chinese started resettling in Xinjiang with Beijing’s encouragement, and they now make up the second-largest ethnic group in the region, diluting the dominance of the Uyghur population in their own homeland and creating new sources of tension.
In Xinjiang, there are around 1.28 crore Uyghurs, while their second largest population lives in Kazakhstan — around 2.23 lakh people.
In recent years, whenever Uyghurs asserted to maintain their separate Islam-inspired cultural identity, Chinese communist regime has resorted to harsh crackdown to subdue Uyghurs into submission. Chinese government thinks that Islam is behind Uyghurs’ rebellion against the People’s Republic of China. Interestingly, Chinese communists have never said that Buddhism is behind the independence movement of Tibet.
The tensions in the province have been building over time, sometimes erupting into violence.
In the 1990s, there were attacks linked to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a group advocating for violence to create an independent state of East Turkestan to replace Xinjiang.
In February 1997, hundreds of peaceful protesters were allegedly shot to death by Chinese soldiers in what Uighurs now call the Gulja massacre, referring to the city near the border with Kazakhstan.
In 2009 about 200 people died in clashes in Xinjiang, which the Chinese blamed on Uyghurs who wanted their own state. In recent years, occasional massive security crackdowns have been launched against Uyghurs, even without any apparent provocation.
Xinjiang is now covered by a pervasive network of surveillance, including police, checkpoints, and cameras that scan everything from number plates to individual faces. According to Human Rights Watch, police are also using a mobile app to monitor people’s behaviour, such as how much electricity they are using and how often they use their front door.
Since 2017, when President Xi Jinping issued an order saying all religions in China should be Chinese in orientation, it is also called sinification, there have been further crackdowns. Human rights campaigners say China is trying to eradicate Uyghur culture.
Human rights observers have also accused Beijing of rolling out birth-control policies targeting Uighurs and other minority groups, aiming to cut 2.6-4.5 million births within 20 years.
In early 2017, shortly before the mass arrests and re-education programmes were rolled out by Beijing, Zhu Hailun, then head of the Xinjiang Communist Party Political and Legal Affairs Commission, was quoted as saying that with the “powerful fist” of the Chinese government, “all separatist activities and all terrorists shall be smashed to pieces” in Xinjiang.
In a report in June, Amnesty International described life in Xinjiang as a “dystopian hellscape”, with former detainees revealing torture and other rights abuses committed “in an effort to forcibly instill a secular, homogeneous Chinese nation” according to the ideals of the country’s Communist Party.
Surveillance in Xinjiang is also pervasive with countless camera monitors installed in big cities, such as the capital, Urumqi, making it impossible for journalists to speak to Uighurs, without them risking possible arrest.
A 2019 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the government was using a mobile application to store data of Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims, in order to monitor their movement through facial recognition.
There have also been reports of the government banning Muslims from fasting during Ramadan, or women wearing veils and men growing their beards long. Muslims were also reportedly forced to eat pork, which is prohibited in Islam.
In 2020, an investigation conducted by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), using satellite imagery and ground reporting, also revealed “thousands of mosques” in the region have either been damaged or destroyed in just three years.
Despite this continuous cultural, demographic and physical genocide of Uyghurs, as well as other minorities like Christians, and their incarceration in so-called re-education camps, the stand of Muslims countries has been unfathomable. Pakistan, who is an ally of China because of many geo-strategic interests but also a state that takes stand on every cause of Muslims worldwide, has not only been silent, it has endorsed the treatment of Uyghurs at the hands of Chinese Communist Party as valid and acceptable. Pakistan even supported China on the issue of Uyghurs at the United Nations. Besides, countries like Sri Lanka, Nepal, Turkmenistan, Belarus and Tajikistan back China over its policies in Xinjiang. Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia even deported those Uyghurs who have taken shelter in these countries and who China wanted back.
In March this year, the ruling AKP party (of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan) of Turkey stalled a parliamentary resolution demanding condemnation of the massacre of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. President Erdogan eyes world leadership of Muslims, yet a strongman like him keeps his eyes shut on the persecution of Uyghur Muslims.
But, will the world also keep watching ethnic cleansing of Uyghurs?