The United Nations are calling on China to release up to 1 million ethnic Uighur detained in re-education camps in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. In a country with over 56 ethnic groups recognized by the government, most are minorities compared to the ethnic Han group, which form over 90% of the population. Home to over 10 million ethnic Uighur Muslims, the Western province of Xinjiang has been characterised by discriminatory checks by border police and a heavy police presence. Suspect Uighurs are arrested arbitrarily and arrested indefinitely without charge, which is a grave violation of international law. Arrests occur under the pretext of combating terrorism and religious extremism. But extensive surveillance of the region has essentially rendered it into a police state, with reports of drones disguised as birds and the scanning of mobile phones at widespread police checkpoint stations.
The UN has also asked for the number of Uighurs involuntarily held in all extra-legal detention facilities. Estimates of those detained range from tens of thousands to upwards of a million. Citizens are on lock down and the number of police strongholds is only increasing. In order to travel, Uighurs must present documents to the police and apply for permission to leave the country, vulnerable to arbitrary inspection and general mistrust by the authorities. Uighurs abroad have also been brought back to China against their will and held indefinitely or exiled. People are forbidden to contact family members who have been detained and families have been severed in the process.
The Communist Party of China has solidified its grip over Xinjiang’s Uighurs who are culturally and linguistically different than the majority Han Chinese population, suggesting an attempt to suppress an entire ethno-religious group. But Beijing defends its actions, claiming that it is protecting China from a separatist movement and a militant Islam that could turn the country into ‘China’s Syria’. It claims that re-education camps exist to reform religious extremists and correct political thought of those threatening to destroy the unity of China. Upshots of violence by Uighur militants included attacks on government officials and civilians during the 2009 riots in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. But government clampdown on Uighur culture and economic hardships are considered major grievances and reasons of radicalisation in a region plagued with decades of ethnic violence.
Fear of Uighur identity being destroyed has only grown after reports of bans on Islamic headcaps and robes surfaced. Re-education camps serve to eradicate religious practises such as recitation of the Quran and observation of the 5 daily prayers and refusal to comply is met with punishment and deprivation of food. Chinese authorities deny the use of torture in camps but nonetheless reports of indoctrination and disappearances of Uighurs are widespread. Mosques have been torn down, with Kashgar’s iconic Id Kah mosque devoid of worshippers and calls to prayer forbidden. The Chinese government perceives outside criticism as foreign interference, but the systemic attempt to suppress the minority Uighur Muslims and homogenise the population is indicative of ethnic cleansing.
Sister Samia Majid is an Imams Online Writer. She is a third year English and History university student, and British Muslim who enjoy dissecting politics and it’s relation to Islam.