A Great Leap Backward: The Persecution of the Uyghurs

July 2, 2015

Picture by Malcolm Brown, licensed under CC BY 2.0
Picture by Malcolm Brown, licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Chinese government has feared that its Uyghur population, which is primarily Muslim, would pose an internal threat to the nation by continuing its calls for independence, in addition to being “susceptible to extremist ideology.” Thus, the government decided that it needed to launch a campaign to restrict the religious practices of this minority as means of integrating them into the broader nationalist rhetoric employed by the government.

As a result, China recently banned the practice of Ramadan, burqas, hijabs, beards, and even the possession of the Quran in heavily populated Muslim areas. The police conduct constant random house checks, in which they look for books or clothing that indicate “conservative” religious values; detain women for wearing any head covering; and force Muslims to eat during Ramadan or face possible arrest.  

Further, the government taunts Muslims by demanding that all restaurants owned by Muslims must openly display and sell cigarettes and alcohol, as well as making them work on Fridays so they cannot attend prayer. Finally, the Chinese government has outright branded Islam as an extremist ideology, which has allowed it to justify mass trials, media and cellular blackouts, and even firing live ammunition at Uyghur protestors.

However, China’s repressive and targeted policies have backfired. Most Uyghurs have resisted the government’s efforts to dismantle their faith, as they believe that the state is actively harming them and excluding them from the political process. They are casting aside any semblances of national identity that they may have initially held and are calling for independence more fervently than ever before. They are refusing to engage with political institutions, as they see these processes as rigged and inefficacious and believe that interacting with them will only lend legitimacy to the government they do not recognize. This has all culminated into the Uyghur community further isolating themselves and undermining any goals the Chinese government had to try and integrate this group.

Further, this has made the message of extremist groups more powerful to a small minority of the Uyghur population. While a vast majority of the population still condemns acts of violence, some are seeing violence as the only means of having their voice heard. Many are finding it difficult to convince the youth to reject the calls of extremist groups when the only other option available to them is a repressive government aiming to eliminate their religious freedoms. Thus, terrorist attacks and the spread of extremist ideology has exponentially increased in China ever since these policies were implemented.

China is an example to all countries of the negative repercussions that follow when such discriminatory policies are employed. In order to engage Muslims, the institutions and laws provided to them must aim to serve their community as a means of building trust. Forcing a group to choose between their national and religious identities is a choice that only sows distrust and excludes that community from interacting with broader society and political institutions that are so necessary to combat extremism.  With July 4th nearing, all Americans should take some time to reconsider the central tenet of religious freedom that this nation was founded upon.  We should not endorse state-sanctioned oppression of faiths, as that only serves to undermine the sacrifices of millions of Americans who fought for that right.




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