Uyghur Muslims Betrayed by Fellow Muslims – What is to be Done?
Reuters recently reported that YouTube had blocked videos posted by Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights’ channel, a human rights group in the Republic of Kazakhstan — the largest country in Central Asia bounded on the north by Russia, on the east by China — that exposed the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) slow-motion genocide of Uyghur Muslims. YouTube took such actions against Atajurt “for ostensibly violating the company’s terms of service.”
The group, credited by international organizations like Human Rights Watch for drawing attention to human rights violations in Xinjiang, has come under fire from Kazakh authorities since its founding in 2017.
Serikzhan Bilash, a Xinjiang-born Kazakh activist who co-founded the channel and has been arrested multiple times for his activism, said government advisors told him five years ago to stop using the word “genocide” to describe the situation in Xinjiang — an order he assumed came from pressure from China’s government on Kazakhstan.
“They’re just facts,” Bilash said to Reuters in a phone interview, referring to the content of Atajurt’s videos. “The people giving the testimonies are talking about their loved ones.”
In the predominantly Muslim country — 70 percent of the population is Muslim and 26 percent Christian — Kazakhstan’s government has steadily increased its control over religious expression in the country, which means increased surveillance, raids on church meetings and arrests, and above all, cracking down on Uyghur Muslims and relocating them to the concentration camps in Xinjiang, China.
The most recent deportation happened last week when the government of Kazakhstan, under pressure from Beijing, extradited to China a 38-year-old ethnic Uyghur, Ershidin Israil. Israil was wanted by the CCP for speaking up on torture and death in Chinese jails, placing his life in jeopardy. Kazakhastan claims it to took such measures in order to contain the threat of militant Islamists in their country.
Why are the Uyghurs Persecuted?
The Uyghurs have long sought some form of self-determination in their homeland. During the 1990s, like the Tibetans, the Uyghurs were often repressed by the CCP in the name of combating “separatism,” which was nothing else but an excuse for oppressing ethnic and religious minorities in China. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, with declaration of global “war on terror,” Beijing shifted its discourse about suppressing Uyghur dissent, claiming that it was combating an international terrorist threat linked to al-Qaeda, a justification that was endorsed by the international community.
The Bush administration initially rejected the Chinese rationalization, but its policy dramatically changed during the summer of 2002 when America placed an unknown group of Uyghur would-be militants in Afghanistan, called the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), on the U.S. Terrorist Exclusion List — they were few in number, inconsequential to the “war on terror.” Subsequently, the U.S. also assisted China in having the UN place ETIM on the all-important UN “consolidated list” of terrorist groups in September 2002. Most analysts at the time saw these actions as a quid pro quo with China in exchange for its acquiescence to the impending U.S. invasion of Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein — the Uyghurs were removed from the U.S. Terror list in 2020.
There were, nevertheless, episodes of continual conflict that led to the so-called “re-education” camps for Uyghurs:
- In 2009, the tensions between the Chinese Communists and Uyghurs exploded into ethnic riots in the regional capital city of Urumqi, resulting in the heaviest crackdown on suspected Uyghur disloyalty yet.
- In 2014, the CCP declared a“people’s war on terror” that was in reality nothing less than a war on the Uyghurs. Thereafter, Beijing began building an expansive electronic surveillance network to track Uyghur Muslims, started beta-testing “re-education” classes for political indoctrination, and criminalized many cultural practices important to their identity as signs of “extremism.”
- In 2017, “the war on terror” was put into full motion through the mass internment of large numbers of the Uyghurs.
BBC investigative reporters have revealed that there are approximately two million Uyghurs — it was originally perceived to be one million — have been removed from their homes and families and imprisoned in a vast network of concentration camps in China. Once there, there are sterilized, the women are sold for rape, stripped of their faith and values, and then deployed as slave-type labor.
Muslim Countries’ Compliance
What is ultimately scandalous is not so much that most Islamic countries have turned a blind eye to what has become the greatest repression of innocent Muslims in the twenty-first century, but are actively complying with such crimes:
- In Egypt, rights groups have documented hundreds of detentions — and at least 20 deportations — of Uyghurs In 2017, the majority of them students at the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo.
- In Pakistan, where Pakistanis, have historically been at the forefront of advocacy and action against the oppression of Muslims, real or imagined — this is what guided Pakistan to oppose Soviet designs on Afghanistan — Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan has publicly refused to condemn the CCP, even going so far to defend China’s genocide of the Uyghurs.
- In Saudi Arabia between 2018 and 2020, at least one Uyghur Muslim was allegedly detained and deported after performing the Umrah pilgrimage in Islam’s holiest cities. Another was arrested after a pilgrimage and faces deportation.
- In the United Arab Emirates in 2018, Ahmad Talip, a Uyghur Muslim, had worked for a logistics firm in Abu Dhabi for five years before setting up his own company in the Emirati capital. One day he was shopping in Dubai with his pregnant wife, Amannisa Abdullah, for his future baby; he was abruptly detained by police and then transferred to a prison in Abu Dabhi and eventually extradited to China without any explanation to him or his wife — Amannisa gave birth to her daughter, Amina, was born a month later in Turkey.
Altogether, dozens of Muslim-majority countries continue to cooperate with the CCP to deport ethnic Uyghurs back to China, thereby demonstrating their complicity in Communist China’s “use of transnational repression” against the mainly Muslim group, according to a new report published by the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs and the Uyghur Human Rights Project.
Ali Motahari, a former member of the Iranian Parliament, not too long ago stirred a lot of controversy among conservative political figures close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei when he tweeted that the Iranian government has kept silent about the situation of Muslims in China because it needs China’s economic support — this is reflective those Muslim countries who are in compliance with the Uyghur genocide in China.
While many nations in the U.S.-led West have publicly condemned the ongoing mistreatment of the Uyghurs, there has not been much action to help their situation. Let us also not forget how Hong Kong, once a vibrant democracy, has now been fully subjected to the authoritarian rule of General Secretary Xi Jinping.
Since taking office, U.S. President Joe Biden initially took a step forward towards helping the Uyghurs but then took one back. While Washington imposed sanctions on Chinese officials directly implicated in the genocide, when confronted about the issue, Biden has given vague denunciations of Chinese human-rights violations. At a CNN town hall event in March, he seemed to rationalize the crimes committed by the CCP by speaking of the Chinese desire for “national unity,” and that others must recognize that each nation has its own culture and observes “different norms.” As senior editor of the Jewish News Syndicate Jonathan S. Tobin stated: “[It was] a signal that he recognized the right of Xi [Jinping] to do as he likes within the borders of China, even if that meant genocide.”
One way to fight the aforementioned atrocities by the Chinese Communists is for the U.S.-led West to pull out of — not boycott — the 2020 Summer Olympics to be held in Beijing. Republican Senator Rick Scot (Florida) had made a direct request to the the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to move the Olympic Games to a nation that values human rights, but the IOC has yet to respond.
Nevertheless, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, Customs and Border Protection have accelerated over the past year, according to customs data, since the Trump administration issued multiple orders banning cotton and tomato products and other items from China’s Xinjiang region. The Biden administration this past week blacklisted products made from them. A Senate panel also passed bipartisan legislation called the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act that could expand import bans to cover other products.
This is all a step in the right direction, but naturally not enough. All things being equal, the Islamic world has to hop on board in defence of their brethren if the CCP is going to be stopped altogether.
Mario Alexis Portella is a priest of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Florence, Italy. He has a doctorate in canon law and civil law from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome; he also holds a M. A. in Medieval History from Fordham University, as well as a B.A. in Government & Politics from St. John’s University. He is also author of Islam: Religion of Peace? – The Violation of Natural Rights and Western Cover-Up.