Uighur Muslims are indigenous to Xinjiang, a region in northwest China that borders Mongolia to the northeast. Uighur ethnicity resembles and overlaps with that of its Central Asian neighbours, such as Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and other countries populated with predominantly Turkic peoples. The region is still called East Turkistan by Uighur Muslims. In line with this nationalist imagining, Uighur Muslims also have their own language, Uighur, formerly known as Eastern Turki. Some within the Uighurs have sought to reclaim their independence, claiming indigenousness and persecution as bases for secession from China. In response, China promoted the mass movement of Han Chinese into Xinjiang, following a policy they had conducted in Tibet, which has effectively reduced Uighurs into a minority on their native land, preempting any possibility of independence.
The Uighurs are a stigmatised minority on two fronts: ethnicity and religion. China's relentless campaign to erase the identity of the Uighurs carries and the world continues to remain silent. China's main English newspaper, Global Times, reported on Saturday that after a meeting with representatives from eight Islamic associations, government officials "agreed to guide Islam to be compatible with socialism [sic] and implement measures to Sinicize the religion". Practicing Islam has been made forbidden in parts of China, with individuals caught praying, fasting, growing a beard or wearing a hijab, facing the threat of arrest. Islamic crescents and domes have been stripped from mosques, and religious schools and Arabic classes have been banned and children barred from participating in Muslim activities. In 2015, China restricted Uighur Muslim students, teachers and other civil servants in Xinjiang from observing the fast during the month of Ramadan, which extended beyond the public sphere by way of police intimidation and surveillance within households during the holy month. This ban was accompanied, according to Human Rights Watch, by routine state vetting of Uighur imams, close surveillance of mosques, the removal of religious teachers and students from schools, restrictions placed on Uighur Muslims to communicate with family or friends living overseas, and the screening of literature assigned to students in schools in Xinjiang.
“I think these raids illustrate that the party-state very much intends to continue its programme of centralisation and standardisation of religious practices under the Communist Party’s supervision,” said David Stroup, an expert on Chinese ethnic politics at the University of Oklahoma.
Xinjiang has rapidly developed into an open-air prison for Uighurs in recent years but there has been further repression, the creation of camps designed to "cure" Uighurs from their faith and suppress their distinct identity as Uighur people.
In August 2018, a United Nations human rights panel reported that nearly 1.1 million Uighur Muslims were being held in concentration camps in Xinjiang - the autonomous region in western China, home to approximately 11 million Uighurs. Gay McDougall, who sits on the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, claimed that the imprisoned population could be as high as 2 million. The number of Uighur Muslims being arrested, uprooted from their families and lives, and imprisoned in “re-education” camps - for no other reason than being Uighur and Muslim, to be re-made into secular Chinese subjects. Inmates at those internment camps are forced to renounce and criticize their own Islamic beliefs and sing Communist Party propaganda songs for hours each day. They are compelled to shave their beards and were forced to eat pork and drink alcohol. The state also operates orphanages for Uighur children taken from their parents, in a process to disconnect them from their ethnic heritage, converting future generations of Uighur children into loyal citizens who embrace Han Chinese traditions and customs.
It is clear that economic factors deter diplomatic protest or humanitarian intervention from the rest of the world. nations fear the economic consequences and possible retaliation they would foreseeably receive if they challenged or sanctioned China for its ethnic cleansing of the Uighur people. China is an economic superpower, and the world relies on it heavily for trade. In addition the global so-called "war on terror" permits China to persecute Uighurs under the cover of countering Islamic terrorism. Around the world politicians are weaponising Islamophobia to drive racist, populist visions. China is capitalising on this global trend to use Islamophobia to push forward its own populist policies and targetting an indigenous people seeking self-determination from state-sponsored Han dominance.
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