As millions of Muslims around the world celebrate the beginning of Hajj, Uyghur Turks continue to face state-led discrimination.
As we celebrate the beginning of Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that unites millions of Muslims from all walks of life to worship God and complete one of Islam’s five pillars, we must remember one particular population that has been barred from embarking on the sacred journey: the Uyghur Turks (pronounced “Oy-ghur,” not “Weegur”) who hail from East Turkestan, a nation that has been under Chinese occupation since 1949.
The number of Uyghurs worldwide is an estimated 35 million, a number that is highly contested by the Chinese state and more than three times the estimated global population of Palestinians whose suffering is recognized worldwide.
The region, approximately three times the size of California, is also referred to as China’s other Tibet and is formally known as Xinjiang, meaning ‘New Territory’ in Chinese.
Since the occupation, millions of Uyghurs have been massacred, imprisoned, tortured and trapped in their own homeland by the communist regime.
Formally, the Chinese government only allows Muslims above the age of 60 to embark on the Hajj pilgrimage. Unfortunately, even then, the pilgrims are subject to strict background checks and passport regulations and only a handful can complete the journey.
Last year, an Uyghur man whom news sources claimed to be Chinese, biked 8,150 kilometers from East Turkestan to Mecca in order to navigate around China’s prohibition for him to embark on the pilgrimage.
However, escaping China is becoming increasingly difficult.
Starting last year, the Chinese government has confiscated millions of Uyghur passports to prevent Uyghurs from leaving the country. It has also forced students studying abroad to return to China by threatening families with imprisonment and pressuring other governments to detain and deport students back to China.
Barring Uyghurs from performing Hajj is not the only way the Chinese state has cracked down on the religious practices of this group. China has prohibited the Uyghurs from wearing the burqa, growing beards, fasting during Ramadan, and naming their babies Islamic names.
Uyghur scholars and Imams have been executed or sentenced to life imprisonment; and Imams are forced to dance in the public square and chant slogans praising the Chinese state. Uyghur restaurant owners are forced to sell alcohol, cigarettes and pork despite its prohibition in Islam.
This Ramadan, China required government cadres to live in Uyghur homes to ensure that families do not pray or fast. Mosques have been converted to propaganda centers, with the Mihrab or prayer niche, containing the Chinese flag and the Muslim call to prayer being changed from praising God to praising China.
This is all being done in a so-called attempt to “crackdown on Islamic extremism.” The Chinese state knows that religion is a deeply embedded part of the Uyghur identity and gives dignity and strength to the Uyghur people. By suppressing faith, China hopes to weaken the Uyghurs and mitigate their attempts to reclaim East Turkestan’s spacious and mineral rich land, which currently provides approximately 1/3 of China’s mineral wealth.
However, the religious crackdown on Uyghurs goes beyond what the public has heard. There is an unseen religious crackdown in Chinese prisons, as told by Adil A, a former Uyghur political prisoner who I interviewed last year.
Adil was beaten until he was unconscious when he appeared to perform ablution while showering. He was forced to wear a 25-kilogram cement block around his neck for a month after accidentally saying something that seemed like the Muslim call to prayer in his sleep, and was forced to take annual questionnaires probing his view on religion, whereby his responses determined how much torture he received.
Adil recalled that prison officials would cause Uyghur prisoners to contract AIDS. The family of the infected prisoner, according to Adil, would then be asked to sign a letter confirming that their child had contracted the disease. Ostensibly this is used to humiliate and ostracize the family.
This is all just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much hidden behind Chinese borders, and we are continuing to fail the Uyghur people.
We have failed to understand that the Uyghurs, often labelled separatists, are occupied, which means they have been massacred, tortured, and forcibly assimilated into the Chinese state.
They have existed for thousands of years and have lived with centuries of independence before Chinese rule. They are Turkic, which means they are not Chinese. They are also not an ethnic minority when placing them in relation to their own land. And most significantly, they have been silenced – China prevents journalists from entering East Turkestan, and even when journalists manage to do so, Uyghurs are forced to lie about their situation. Those in the diaspora are also reluctant to tell their stories and often remain anonymous for fear of reprisal by the Chinese government.
The Uyghurs are yearning to be understood and known as more than just a subject of religious persecution; they are yearning to be heard as an occupied and oppressed nation. But will we take the extra step to recognise and help one of the most persecuted populations on earth?