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Ninety-eight Uyghur people from the Xinjiang province in northwestern China were detained at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport on Tuesday for allegedly traveling with fake Kyrgyz passports. Many of those detained were Muslims making the pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia for what is known as the Hajj – a mandatory part of Islam that must be completed at least once during a person’s lifetime. Many Uyghur people in China cannot afford to obtain legitimate passports, which can cost nearly $3,000. On top of the costs, it is nearly impossible for Uyghur people to leave Xinjiang due to strict regulations imposed by the Chinese government.
Xinjiang, also known as China’s “Wild West,” is the largest province in China and has a long history of ethnic conflict. The region was brought under Chinese control in the 1700s. It was an essential post on the historic Silk Road and remains a current trade route to the Central Asian countries to the west.
The Turkic-speaking Uyghurs make up the largest ethnic group in Xinjiang. The majority practice a moderate form of Sunni Islam and their Middle Eastern or even Slavic physical features make them look strikingly different from the Han Chinese, who make up 92% of China. They consider the northwestern region of China their homeland, yet they face mass amounts of discrimination and mistreatment from the Chinese government on a regular basis.
The motivation behind the government’s discrimination of the Uyghur people stems from a fear of Islamic extremism in China. Mass paranoia over Islam has lead to situations like the government imposing limitations on the number of Uyghurs who can receive passports to embark on the Hajj. Chinese authorities claim that a Uyghur group called the “East Turkestan Islamic Movement” has been behind deadly attacks in Xinjiang, although actual proof of the group’s existence is questionable at best. Discrimination against the Uyghurs intensified after Islamic State members publicly killed a Chinese hostage in Syria last November, and it has been steadily escalating since protests against the repressive Chinese government became commonplace in the 1990s.
The government claims it is in the process of installing programs in Xinjiang that will improve the lives of the Uyghurs. It plans, for example, to incorporate more bilingual classes for school-aged children, allegedly to “improve job prospects” for them in the future and to encourage Uyghur people to speak Mandarin. However, these plans more closely resemble the beginning stages of an ethnic cleansing, rather than attempts to help the Uyghurs – the government has even started to offer cash and housing subsidies to Uyghurs who promise to intermarry with Han Chinese.
Many Uyghur people have predictably become suspicious that the government is trying to suppress their culture. As a testament to this, no government efforts have been made to encourage Han Chinese people in Xinjiang to learn the Uyghur language or to integrate them into Uyghur culture.
“China wants Uyghurs everywhere to know that the state is always watching them,” stated Memet Toxti, former deputy chairman of the World Uyghur Congress. In textbook big-brother fashion, many mosques are now required to have cameras installed, and earlier this month, Chinese authorities sentenced a Uyghur man to seven years in prison for reportedly watching a “politically sensitive” movie on Muslim migration on the grounds that they believed the man was plotting to go abroad “to wage jihad.” Furthermore, in 2014 the government mandated that all Uyghur people carry a “convenience contact card” that contains the phone number of each person’s landlord and their local police station when traveling.
Throughout all of this, Chinese authorities have insisted that their policies toward the Uyghur people are absolutely not repressive. At the same time the government claims that its crackdown on the Uyghur people has lead to the dissolution of 200 terrorist groups since 2014 – a claim that is, of course, difficult to either confirm or deny, as journalists in China are heavily discouraged from reporting on such matters. The government’s policy of “stability at all costs” has lead to its blind belief that repression of Islam is the optimal way to combat violence in Xinjiang, when it is highly disputable whether or not Uyghur people had even begun adhering to radical Islam in the first place. If anything, these policies have done the opposite of what was initially intended.
Repression and marginalization of Muslim minorities are the exact reason for the emergence of terrorist groups like the Islamic State. The Chinese government, however, seems to have yet to pick up on this concept.
Photo courtesy of BBC