Uyghur Muslims in China

Are Muslims in Xinjiang under threat or training?

According to Western media, millions of Uyghur Muslims in China are being forced to change their ideas. There are strict jails where Chinese Muslims are being held with other criminals. In response to these allegations, China affirms that in Xinjiang it has established centres where Muslims are voluntarily receiving education and training.

Xinjiang is a region in the northwest of China. It is called ‘autonomous’ in the official documents. Among the 33 administrative units of China, Xinjiang is the largest in terms of area making up over 17 per cent of the Chinese landmass. Tibet and Inner Mongolia are the second and the third largest. These three administrative units span over 42 per cent of China. Xinjiang has 10 million people whereas Tibet’s population is just three million. Among the three, Inner Mongolia is population-wise the largest with over 25 million people. Even if you combine the population of all three peripheral regions it is less than 50 million.

This means that just over three per cent of Chinese citizens live on the 42 per cent of its land. If you compare that with Pakistan, around five percent of Pakistani’s live in Balochistan which is around 44 percent of the landmass. The main problem is that in Xinjiang, before the Chinese Revolution of 1949, most of the people were of Uyghur origin. During the past 70 years or so, there has been a massive influx of the Han Chinese people from other parts of China. The result is that now less than half of the population in Xinjiang is Uyghur.

In 2019, out of the 20 million population of Xinjiang hardly 10 million are of Uyghur ethnicity. According to the official Chinese version, during the past three years voluntary education has been imparted to the Muslim population of Xinjiang so that their extremist tendencies may be rectified. The claim by the Western media that over 10 million people are being held, sounds incredible. How can any country detain that many people.

One cannot drive everyone with the same stick in the name of eliminating extremism, fundamentalism, and

terrorism. Everybody has a right to follow his or her creed provided they don’t impose their faith on others, and don’t use violence. This is the best way forward.

The Western media is also claiming that officials keep an eye on every movement and aspect of the lives of those in the detention centres. Again, if you see through the social media of today, almost every aspect of peoples’ lives in any region of the world can be under a watch. Another allegation is that in these detention centres the people under training are allocated a place for their mattress and every now and then they are supposed to make queues and sit only on their specified seats. During the training they have to confine themselves to their allocated areas.

Most of the people who join extremists or terrorists are the ones who do not have a profession or vacation. While even a doctor or an engineer can be an extremist, statistical data favour the unemployed. In Pakistan, following the military operations started in the FATA and Swat, the authorities felt a need for centres where the extremists might receive professional and vocational training.

Apparently, there is nothing objectionable or wrong in this process. We must condemn those who encourage terrorists and appreciate; efforts to eliminate or at least reduce extremism. According to Western media, within a week in 2017 over 15,000 people were arrested and sent to detention camps. They were to be released once they could prove they were ‘reformed’. They were asked to renounce their past as illegal activities. That done, committees set up by the Communist Party review each case and decide who to keep or release.

The official Chinese version is that these measures are meant to protect the local people. That is the reason, it is said, there has been no major terrorist attack in the region over last three years. According to the Chinese line of argument it is imperative to be vigilant against terrorists and prevent local people from converting to their ideology. Among the Uyghur people who have ‘disappeared’, a big name is that of geography professor Tashpolat Tayyip who once headed the Xinjiang University. In 2017, he disappeared suddenly and the Chinese officials didn’t utter a single word about him.

There were rumours that he had a soft corner for the ‘separatists’ who wanted to create a new country in Xinjiang. That was apparently the reason the Chinese authorities abducted him. Another rumour was that Professor Tayyip had been sentenced to death after a secret trial. There were similar reports about some other writers, teachers, and lawyers who were targeted in the same manner. Interestingly, Prof Tayyib had become a member of the Chinese Communist Party in 2010.

Citing these charges, the USA has imposed a ban on 28 Chinese companies. The US officials have also announced that they would not tolerate mistreatment of Uyghur Muslims; and any Chinese official involved in this matter would be denied American visa. Such officials may include office bearers of the government of China, the Communist Party, and other related departments. The US has repeatedly accused the Chinese government of not only mistreating the Uyghur Muslim population but also the Kazakh and Kyrgyz people in the Xinjiang region.

That’s how the US accuses China of human rights violations. China calls it a domestic matter and terms all such charges ‘interference’ in its affairs. The US has supported some of the worst dictatorships in recent history all over the world. Most of those military dictators who repressed their own people and suppressed all dissent were dear to America — be it Chile’s General Pinochet or Pakistan’s General Zia — because they worked for American interests.

Even now the US tolerates human rights violations by its allies India and Saudi Arabia but if something happens in China or Russia, the US condemnation is always at hand. Meanwhile, China needs to acknowledge that no region can be forced to show allegiance to an establishment its people don’t like. Terrorism needs to be eliminated but one must not use state terrorism in pursuit of this goal, as India or Israel do. China needs to promote and protect local cultures, languages, and religions in areas like Tibet and Xinjiang.

Just like Pakistan, China is a multiethnic country with many communities which cannot be forced to change their identities. In the Soviet Union, the Communist Party tried for 70 years to force religion out of people’s minds and failed. China, too, cannot do it. One cannot drive everyone with the same stick in the name of eliminating extremism, fundamentalism, and terrorism. Everybody has a right to follow his or her creed provided they don’t impose their faith on others, and don’t use violence. This is the best way forward. 

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Uyghur Muslims in China's Xinjiang: Under threat or training?