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Professing Faith: The ‘reeducation’ of Uyghur Muslims in China

Gregory Elder, a Redlands resident, is professor emeritus of history and humanities at Moreno Valley College and a Roman Catholic priest. This photo is from about 2017. (Courtesy Photo)

I remember one semester teaching my students about the Holocaust of the Jews and the Nazi extermination of so many millions of people. The young people listened to the stories of the death camps with considerable horror. One question dominated them – how could the rest of the world let this happen? At first I could give them nothing but a sad smile. It is far easier than you might guess to look the other way.

We find another and more modern horror in the media today in the case of the Uyghur Muslims in the People’s Republic of China, most of whom live in the far western part of China in a province now known as Xinjiang. As you read these words, over 1 million of these Muslim Uyghur people are herded into concentration camps for “reeducation.” The government has been clamping down on the Uyghur since at least 2009, when a deadly riot broke out involving both Uyghur and forces loyal to the government.

In 2014, the Beijing government became far more active in terms of police searches and monitoring the Uyghur. Books and literature about Uyghur culture, prayer rugs, turbans and growing a beard have all been forbidden. Police are told to be on the lookout for anyone who has been known to give up drinking, because alcohol is strictly forbidden by the Quran.

Although the central government for a long time denied rounding the Uyghur into concentration camps, photographs from space make it clear that there are at least 85 such camps in existence. Treatment in the camps is reported to be brutal with inmates being subjected to physical and verbal abuse in highly unsanitary conditions. But the main goal is the forcing of Communist ideology onto the believers, and class discussions of significant Communist texts. The residents are forced to stay in the camps until they are completely indoctrinated. At least 10,000 children have been taken from their homes and placed in preschool prison camps to wipe their heritage from their minds.

One might ask why the Chinese government has taken such strong steps. One reason they have admitted is to prevent any rise in Islamic fundamentalism. A second reason is that China fears that ethnic groups associated with one territory or culture that might be disloyal event to the point of demanding freedom. The slaughter of Tibet comes to mind in this regard. There is, of course, the deeply ingrained detestation of religion in general by socialist and communist regimes, which goes back to Marx’s 1848 “Communist Manifesto.” Roman Catholics in China who refuse to show loyalty to the state-run church are not having a very nice time these days, either.

The Uyghur have a long and complicated history. The first written reference to them appears in the 5th century AD in the time of the Tang Dynasty. They are a Turkic people, who had gradually migrated from central Asia into China over the centuries along the Silk Road trade route. There a number of small Uyghur states developed along the trade route. Sometime in the 10th century a powerful state emerged in central Asia known of as the Uyghur Khanate, but it is not clear if these people were identical with the other ethnic Uyghur groups.

By the 11th century Islam began to permeate the peoples of central Asia, and by the 14th century most of the Uyghur had embraced Islam and by the 17th century it had become a defining part of their culture. The following centuries are chock full of conflicts. In 1949, Chairman Mao declared the People’s Republic of China and subsequently annexed what is now called Xinjiang, the largest homeland of the Uyghur peoples. The Uyghur peoples themselves are divided on matters of politics, some favoring a separate Turkic Uyghur state and others looking to some kind of pan-Islamic unification. Both of these views are absolutely opposed by Beijing. It is worth noting that in the official histories of the People’s Republic, places such as Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong and elsewhere are always referred to as being unified by China, never conquered.

Whatever else it may be, the Xinjiang province is rich in minerals and oil. This makes the province desirable for the development of the Chinese economy. Chinese President Xi Jinping has set a goal to make China one of the greatest powers on the planet by year 2049. This does not bode well for the continued cultural existence of the Uyghur peoples. Today, there are about 12 million Uyghur in China, 3.6 million in Russia and about 5,000 in the United States.

While the Chinese government formerly denied the existence of these camps, it now asserts that these camps are educational and entirely voluntary. However, a leaked document shown to BBC and other news agencies describes how the camps are to be run as high-security prisons, with 24-hour monitoring and extremely severe disciplinary regulations.

Ben Emmerson, a British human rights lawyer, told BBC, “It is very difficult to view that as anything other than a mass brainwashing scheme designed and directed at an entire ethnic community. It’s a total transformation that is designed specifically to wipe the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang as a separate cultural group off the face of the Earth.”

The moral and spiritual situation of the Uyghur people in their own homeland is perhaps best summed up in one of their own ancient proverbs, “A house with children is a bazaar (market), a house without children is a mazar (tomb).”

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