On the situation of the Uyghurs: “Don’t lose hope”

For decades, the situation of Uyghur and other Turkic Muslim Muslims in China has been deteriorating. In the slipstream of world events, the Beijing leadership has established a repressive surveillance regime there that the world has hardly seen since the death of Stalin. Especially since the assumption of power in 2014 by state and party leader Xi Jinping, all measures of repression, surveillance and cultural annihilation have been radicalised.

We spoke to Haiyuer Kuerban about this. He is a representative of the World Uyghur Congress, an association of exiled Uyghurs based in Munich. We talked to him about the current situation of his people, the use of the terror narrative by Beijing’s foreign policy and the behaviour of Muslim governments. Our interview was conducted before the data leak of the #XinjiangPoliceFiles, but thus acquires even greater relevance.

Islamic Newspaper: In view of the current world situation, the situation of the Uyghurs in your homeland has taken a back seat to other issues. Can you tell us about the conditions in the Uyghur areas?

Haiyuer Kuerban: The current, devastating policy of oppression began in 2014 when Xi Jinping came to power. Since then, the policy against the Uyghur and other Turkic populations has taken on a new character. For example, a new type of repression has been implemented since 2016 at the latest. As part of this, more than 1,400 internment camps have been set up, in which at least 1.8 to 3 million Uyghurs are imprisoned without any trial. There, people are subjected to daily brain manipulation, torture, but also sterilisation and killing. Young children whose parents have been imprisoned have been deprived of their custody and must be assimilated in the so-called “children’s camps” under state care and without parents. A creeping genocide is taking place here.

Parallel to the campaign of massive waves of arrests, millions of state employees and security forces have also been mobilised to stay with Uyghur families and investigate their daily lives. In addition, visible security and surveillance measures such as checkpoints and facial recognition cameras were placed every hundred metres on the streets, turning the region into an open prison.

Admittedly, following enormous criticism from the international community, the Chinese government removed former regional party secretary Chen Quanguo, who had uncompromisingly implemented Xi Jinping’s ruthless policies. His successor Ma Xingrui, however, has not changed it at all, but institutionalised it. He continues this form of repression in full force. Thus, we see a drastic increase in long prison sentences since 2019, but also the transfer of camp inmates to forced labour. Only a fraction of the interned people has been released, but they have to live in the residential areas under the strictest surveillance and conditions.

Islamic Newspaper: Is the Chinese repression directed exclusively against Muslims of Turkish origin or also against the other Muslim populations in China?

Haiyuer Kuerban: Well, you must see that the Chinese Communist Party has the sole power to rule. Outside of that, it accepts no other control and no other political voice. In this perspective, oppression is directed against everyone who lives in China. But: the already given exclusion from political participation, power distribution and economic development hits those population groups that do not belong to the majority Han population (over 90 percent) doubly hard. This is due to their small share of the population and the fact that they have completely different cultural habits, speak different languages and practise different religions and values.

The Turkic Muslim populations have been fighting with the Chinese dynasties for power and influence long before the communist takeover in these areas. They have long been seen as a central threat. Looking further back into more than 1,000 years of history, it is evident that Turkic populations – including Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, but also others – were once very influential. And that they often had conflicts or confrontations with the Chinese empire. These disputes or even wars have left deep wounds in the collective memory on both sides. Therefore, the Muslims of Turkish origin were considered a threat per se by the Han majority population. For a long time, the goal was to defeat them and solve this “problem” once and for all. This way of thinking was simply adopted by communist rule. In this respect, the repression can be seen, on the one hand, in the communist ideology, which does not allow any other participation in power. And on the other hand, it perpetuates the religious and ethnic differences.

Islamic Newspaper: An interested audience has certainly seen through media the repression of your people and other Muslims in your homeland. Less reported is the erasure of cultural heritage as well as the omnipresent surveillance by the state. How do repression, cultural annihilation and the surveillance state affect the lives of Uyghurs?

Haiyuer Kuerban: That is a good question. There is hardly any insight into the internal perspective of the communist rulers, because there is complete lack of transparency. But we can deduce some things from their implementation. They want to maintain a unified system in China, not only in the political sense, but in ideology and culture. Their ideology sees cultural diversity as a potential source of conflict. This means, for example, that if people speak different languages, they have different values. Different values could lead to potential conflicts because differences with the party’s views could arise. This is the motivation behind the Communist Party’s policy of massive and systematic assimilation not only in the homeland of Muslim Uyghurs and other Muslims of Turkic origin, but also in other parts of the country such as Tibet. This affects people who speak so-called minority languages such as Uighur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz and others. They are being removed step by step from everyday use.

Islamic Newspaper: Parallel to this, there has also been a targeted settlement of purely Chinese populations in your homeland for decades…

Haiyuer Kuerban: Exactly. This is part of the colonial policy of the Communist Party. Before that, the Han Chinese population in East Turkestan was very small. At the beginning of 1949 – the year from which East Turkestan was colonised – it was just three percent. Thanks to massive state-sponsored immigration policies, millions of Chinese people have come to East Turkestan, where they are politically, economically and socially favoured. This allows the government to rely on this population group and control the country for a long time. This can be taken as evidence that the Party regarded the region as foreign territory that could not be brought under control without internal settlement. The party, and the military, called for people to settle there. Later, this was done as part of targeted economic and political promotion. Voluntary Chinese settlers were lured with great incentives. They were given free plots of land and housing and could take advantage of concessionary government subsidies. Finally, they were given the most influential positions in politics and state-owned enterprises.

Islamic Newspaper: Since the beginning of the “global war on terror,” Beijing has invoked defence against terror as justification for the repression of Uighur Muslims. What function does the terror narrative have for China at home and abroad?

Haiyuer Kuerban: That is a good question. The Chinese government has benefited the most from the so-called war on terror. Before the terrible September 11 attack, not a single word was said about terror or anything like that. The country and its policies never used these terms, nor were its potential dangers mentioned anywhere. But suddenly, after America used this term, the Chinese government, almost overnight, drastically changed its narrative that it was now also a victim of terrorism, without providing any evidence. It then drastically increased its oppression of the Muslim Uyghurs under the guise of this alleged fight against terrorism. At the very time when the world community was interpreting everything Islamic in the context of suspected terrorism, almost everything Beijing did was waved through. An escalation of state barbarism took place during this period. For the government, it was a “golden era” of repression.

Islamic Newspaper: This is not only about foreign propaganda or justification, but it also has very concrete consequences. For years, we have been hearing about the deportation of exiled Uyghurs from Muslim countries like Egypt, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia…

Haiyuer Kuerban: Yes, it is a terrible development that especially the brother countries of the Uyghurs, particularly the Central Asian governments, massively supported Chinese policy in the past. They have banned and persecuted Uyghur exile movements in their territories and deported those seeking protection to China to certain death or oppression. A particular example of this would be Pakistan. This Muslim country, which stands up for the rights of Muslims all over the world, has a very different view on the Uyghur issue and maintains the most important regional partnership with China. Around the world, the Chinese government has shamelessly exploited the narrative of alleged terrorists when it comes to persecuting Uyghurs seeking protection. It has never been able to produce concrete evidence of this. Fugitives in Indonesia, Malaysia, but also in Egypt and Saudi Arabia as well as other Muslim brother countries were deported to the harshest persecution in China.

Islamic Newspaper: In this context, there was a recent meeting of OIC foreign ministers in Islamabad with the participation of Chinese chief diplomat Wang Yi. While the OIC states, as expected, spoke of Palestine and Kashmir in their final declaration, nothing was heard about the situation of the Uyghurs. Some voices spoke of collaboration in this regard. Do you share this view?

Haiyuer Kuerban: Yes, that is obviously the case. This is complicity on the part of the Muslim rulers. We must distinguish that they do not represent the Muslim world, feelings and political attitudes of the broad Muslim population at all, because they themselves are autocrats or dictators. These so-called Muslim representatives came together here with a fanatical opponent of Islam who has partially destroyed over 16,000 Muslim places of worship in East Turkestan alone between 2016 and 2020, as evidenced by satellite imagery and government documents. There, religious symbols and behaviour such as the headscarf are subject to draconian punishments.

It is important to mention here that reports on the devastating situation of the Uyghurs by Amnesty International, by Human Rights Watch as well as many others documented how these people ended up in the internment camps. These reports tell of people who had the Koran or other religious literature at home, who were obviously recognisable as religious with beards or headscarves, or who travelled to Muslim countries such as Malaysia, Turkey or Egypt. Worse still are those who have completed the pilgrimage, or who suddenly no longer smoke or drink. Such people, who may therefore have religious values from the Communist Party’s point of view, are locked up in these terrible places.

There they must renounce God and say before every meal: “This meal was not given to me by God, but by the Communist Party. Long live the Communist Party! I am Chinese. I refuse religion. I believe in nothing but Communism.” The few eyewitnesses to these horrific crimes tell of this practice. Also, that the Chinese government is apparently collecting and burning masses of religious literature, including the Holy Quran, in public places. And that it has called on people to take part in a drinking competition during the holy month of fasting, of all times. This is to prove to their city that they are staying away from Islam altogether.

China’s President Xi Jinping has said in no uncertain terms that Islam is a cancer. It is cynical of these supposed representatives of the Muslim world that Chinese oppression is not mentioned on what is an important platform for the Muslim community, which is also supposed to serve solidarity and goodwill.

Islamische Zeitung: What can Muslims and others in Germany do who want to stand in solidarity with the Uyghurs?

Haiyuer Kuerban: Thank you for this question. Rationally speaking, the current situation looks hopeless. But one must not forget that we live in a dynamic world and that injustice does not exist forever. For example, a good three months ago, people did not believe that Russia would invade Ukraine and commit terrible things against its people. No one would have thought that communist dictators – in East Germany or the Soviet Union – would one day be overthrown.

First, we must not lose our faith that the injustice of the Communist Party in East Turkestan and against the Muslim population such as Uyghurs and other Muslims of Turkic origin cannot be sustained forever. It is very important that supporters do not lose hope. On the other hand, we live in a constitutional state here. That gives us enormous power, which we must recognise and use. Through social mobilisation and resistance, within the framework of the law, people can mobilise their politicians to do the right thing and defend the basic values here. They can do this by doing their utmost to stop the massive repression and ongoing genocide in China.

Your readers who want to support the Uyghurs can also approach the politicians in their constituency and motivate them to bring the issue into the political discussion; in other words, to raise public awareness. But also, to initiate concrete political action. There are further possibilities by supporting the public relations work of Uyghur organisations – in Germany and elsewhere – with participation in rallies or with their own expertise. It does not necessarily have to be financial support, although that is also very important. Public relations work under the umbrella of the World Uyghur Congress needs enormous resources, including financial ones. We are very grateful if we are also supported in this respect.

Islamic Newspaper: Dear Mr Haiyuer Kuerban, thank you for the interview.

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