By Amaial Mullick
In a world where Muslim lives are seen as dispensable, we remain silent on the largest civilian mass internment since the Holocaust. 

Over the past few years, headlines have come and gone: “Uyghur”, a word unbeknownst to many, now rolls off our tongues as their tragedy becomes the evening news. The ethnic genocide occuring in China has yet to spark universal outrage, even within the “Islamic World” – we can attribute this phenomenon to internalised Islamophobia, China’s status within the international field and the dehumanization of Muslim lives. Over the last few decades, an ideological crusade has been waged on Islam, fueled by the War on Terror. Islam has been deemed a force opposing liberal values and propagating suppression. As an off-shoot of this post-9/11 reality, Muslim lives have become dispensable. 

Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group in China whose lineage differs from their Han counterparts. Uyghurs trace their lineage to the Second East Turkistan Republic (modern day Xinjiang and Kazakhstan) which was acquired by China in 1949 – the legality of which has been disputed for decades. Through these disputes of incorporation, separatist movements have formed and faced severe suppression by state-sponsored policing. China is home to 12 million Uyghurs, the majority of which reside in Xinjiang and identify as Muslim. Incidents of public unrest and civilian attacks have periodically taken place over the last decade – fueled by tensions between state control of religious expression and Uyghur recognition of their indigenous identity. Deeply intertwined with the current state-sponsored attack on Uyghurs is China’s historic repression of religious freedom. The persecution of Falun Gong practitioners has been an ongoing humanitarian crisis for decades. Propelled by global Islamophobia, the CPC has initiated mass surveillance and control tactics within the Xinjiang region since 2014. Their agenda, rooted in the erasure of Uyghur culture, is an attempt to homogenize the population. 

As headlines drizzle through, reports of detainment, abuse, and exploitation have become commonplace. The Chinese government has masked the extent of persecution under a guise of garden variety Islamophobia. By carving out the narrative that their intentions lie within “re-education” and “prevention of terrorism”, there is a failure to mention the arbitrary nature of Uyghur incarceration. As the rhetoric against Uyghur Muslims became increasingly threatening, the violence became increasingly organized. Due to lack of transparency by the Chinese officials it is speculated that between 2 to 3 million Uyghurs have been incarcerated without trial, with millions in the population continuously surveilled for signs of “religious extremism”. Within the walls of the re-education camps, detainees are subject to physical, psychological and sexual abuse. The process of indoctrination forces them to denounce their religion, sing hymns to the Communist Party, and endure starvation and sterilization all in the hopes of mass brain-washing. The CPC has long prioritised Chinese cultural unity at the expense of minority lives. Satellite images expose a reality eerily parallel to that of concentration camps erected during the Holocaust. Rows of detainees, stripped of their selfhood, bridled with terror.

Those outside the walls find themselves warped within an Orwellian dystopia. Uyghurs live under constant surveillance and fear of the government. The state has infiltrated every element of public and private spheres by restricting movement, forcing Uyghurs to identify themselves amongst the population and monitoring communication for signs of potential radicalism. Citizens who were once average members of their communities must now comply with region wide security checkpoints. Through the use of identification cards and facial recognition technology, their movement is tracked throughout the country. State authorized home visits note their behaviour with presence of prayer mats and Islamic scriptures are deemed signs of fanaticism. So much as growing a beard or speaking to a foreign relative is grounds for detention. The state’s mass-detention and surveillance is part of a large ongoing ploy to suppress political dissent and religious expression. The greatest asset for the CPC has been their ability to weaponize data. Every act with which a citizen engages, buying a car, riding the bus, making an online purchase – collects and stores their personal data as a tool for population control. 

While the Chinese Communist Party has attempted to minimize their actions through public streams, leaked government documents that surfaced in 2019 exposed a calculated mass detention scheme. Deemed the “China Cables”, these highly classified documents dating back to 2017 outline operational mechanics regarding China’s internment. The authenticity of the China Cables has been ratified by several leading experts in an investigation carried out by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Included is a detailed memo systemizing “how to” detain an ethnic minority population, and a guide to answering the perennial question – “where is my family”? A number of the documents specified the exploitation of data through digital applications. Since 2016, Chinese authorities have been targeting users of the Zapya app – a file-sharing platform which encourages users to download Islamic scriptures and distribute them amongst loved ones. One of the documents highlights the possession and dissemination of religious material through Zapya, a potential crime. This model of predictive policing is directed at identifying Muslims and branding their behaviour as extremist. Citizens remained unaware that their digital trail would later justify their detention. 

Documents (English Download) 

Despite the documents’ consistency with eye-witness testimonies, states within the Islamic World have been silent in response to this large-scale operation. As Uyghur refugees recount their experience through mass media, satellite images fortify human rights abuse, and evidence continues to arise – so called “champions of Muslim rights” are idle. The facade of a brotherhood built upon faith is unearthed as cherry-picking their battles. A reality where caricatures of religious figures demand outrage but cultural and theological assaults are pardoned. Muslims have been cast as the “folk devil” of our time, and their oppression a repercussion of their faith. Exiled Uyghurs attempted to file a complaint with the International Criminal Court in July of this year. A dossier was presented containing evidence of China’s extradition of Uyghurs from outside the country, and forcefully detaining citizens in Xinjiang. ICC prosecutors rejected the plea on the grounds that China is not a signatory of the institution. According to reports China plans to expand their repression of Islam beyond Xinjiang, threatening communities across the country. What happens when Muslims do not submit to denouncing their religion and identity? The inevitable, alluded by current progression, is an end we have seen before – an end we fear. 

PDF Downloads of the China Cables:

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