How the Uyghur diaspora is responding to persecution in China

A special edition, produced by the students of Old Dominion University.

Salaam, friends! 👋 I’m journalist Aysha Khan, and you’re reading what is normally my monthly roundup of the latest news stories about Muslims in the U.S. This time, however, I’m handing over this special edition to a group of students at Virginia’s Old Dominion University. As part of their Muslims and Media course with Dr. Kristian Petersen, they’re compiling a few thematic issues of Creeping Sharia. This first reading list serves as a primer on the experiences of Uyghurs in America and China.


The Uyghurs (also spelled Uighur, and typically pronounced WEE-gurr or oy-ghurr) are a Muslim-majority Turkic ethnic group. For over 1,000 years, they have lived in an area of Central Asia which many Uyghurs call East Turkistan, and which China refers to as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Claiming it is trying to curb Islamic extremism and Uyghur separatism with voluntary “vocational training centers,” the Chinese government has imprisoned between 1-3 million Uyghurs in its far-west province. That makes it the largest mass internment of an ethnic-religious minority since World War II. China has taken extreme measures to stamp out any semblance of the Uyghur culture and Islamic faith, and is aggressively working to dilute the population with Han Chinese people and traditions.

Those in the region live in a police state, facing constant threat of surveillance, disappearances, imprisonment and even torture for arbitrary reasons. These could include an affiliation to someone abroad who is speaking out against what the government is doing there, trying to obtain a passport, growing a beard or fasting during Ramadan.

Now, Uyghurs living in the diaspora are preserving their language and culture, seeking justice for their families in China, and are giving a voice to their people. The articles compiled below provide a better understanding of what is happening to many Uyghurs and how Uyghurs in the U.S. are responding.

Aydin Anwar discusses covering concentration camps in China.

A NowThis News video interviewing Uyghur American Aydin Anwar, the outreach manager for the Save Uyghur Campaign, offers a quick crash course on the situation. Anwar, who says over 90 of her relatives have gone missing in Xinjiang, has become a valuable source of activism and information regarding the camps. Here, she discusses the heavy surveillance, arbitrary imprisonment and torture employed by the government to stamp out Uyghur culture, history, or faith.

The China Cables: Read the Communist Party’s leaked operating manuals for mass internment and arrest by algorithm.

Last year, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists obtained a trove of leaked documents that include a 2017 classified list of guidelines, personally approved by the region’s top security chief, that instructs officials on how to run the camps holding Uighurs. The manual instructs officials on maintaining secrecy, forced indoctrination, controlling disease outbreaks and even how often to allow detainees to use the toilet. The documents direct officials to arrest Uighurs with foreign citizenship and track those who have moved abroad, among other harrowing details.

The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act passed U.S. House in a 407-1 vote.

This report outlines a bipartisan bill that would require the Trump administration to condemn the Chinese government’s abuses in Xinjiang, call for the closure of mass detention camps and sanction high-ranking Chinese officials known to be engineering the abuse. Passed in the Democrat-controlled House, an amended version of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act still has to be approved by the Senate before being sent to Trump. The Uyghur Human Rights Project, an advocacy group based in D.C., celebrated the win, which advocates have long fought for. This article was published by the independent U.S. government-funded non-profit broadcaster Radio Free Asia, which in 2017 broke the news that Uyghurs were being interned en masse in Xinjiang.

What is it like to report on rights abuses against your own family?

“This is not just my job; it is a duty to my people.” If not for the dozen reporters and editors working for RFA’s Uyghur Service, the only Uyghur-language journalism organization independent of Chinese government influence, we might never have known about the abuses taking place in Xinjiang. As the Washington Post put it, the team has “confounded the massive propaganda machine of the Communist Party of China,” revealing secrets that have later been corroborated by satellite photography, foreign academics and journalists, and a massive leak of Chinese government documents. But it comes at a cost. RFA’s reporters live in unsought exile, and the Communist Party has threatened and taken away their relatives back home—while explicitly referencing RFA’s reporting. Read more in the NYT.

This Uighur American man’s aunt was jailed days after he met with Mike Pompeo to discuss China’s crackdown.

From his home in the U.S., activist Ferkat Jawdat has actively been pursuing justice and freedom for Uyghurs in China, including his own mother. Following a concerning trend that activism abroad affects individuals in China, last year Jawdat discovered that members of his family were moved from internment camps to prisons after he met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Jawdat recognized that his actions have resulted in retaliation on his family, but he refuses to allow his activism to be silenced by China’s ruthless tactics. Other Uyghur activists—such as attorney Nury Turkel, who has not been able to speak to his family in China for years—have explained that many Uyghurs abroad must deal with the challenge of losing communication with their families in order to protect them. Learn more in the NYT.

How Uyghurs in America are trying to keep their language alive.

In 2017, Irade Kashgary and her mother Sureyya started Ana Care and Education, a school for Uyghur children in Fairfax, Virginia. Every Sunday the school has 60 children come and learn about their native language and culture, as well as offering classes on Islam. Students at Ana Care say they are lucky to be able to attend a school where they can learn their native language, because back at home learning Uyghur is illegal. This piece give a snapshot of how some Uyghur American students feel about learning more about their culture. Learn more about the school here and here.

She survived a Chinese internment camp and made it to Virginia. Will the U.S. let her stay?

After surviving interrogations, internment and an unwanted sterilization, Zumrat Dawut and her family have applied for U.S. asylum after fleeing from Xinjiang to her husband’s native Pakistan to Virginia, where they now live in a basement apartment. But their case put the Trump administration in a difficult position, seeking a trade deal with Beijing while calling out its human rights abuses.

Americans must search their conscience, and the word Uyghur.

Last year, a group of Uyghur activists attended an NBA preseason game wearing t-shirts that spelled out “Google Uyghurs,” urging to inform themselves about the mistreatment of Uyghurs, and started various chants. One chant mocked LeBron James for saying that Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey, who supported the Hong Kong protestors, was “either misinformed or not really educated on the situation.” The activists were asked to hide their signs but refused to do so, arguing that saying “google Uyghurs” is not a political act.

Meet the Uyghur rock star on the Voice of China.

After losing his entire family in Xinjiang, rocker Perhat Khaliq now gives them voice through his music. He is dedicated to reviving traditional styles of music and has drawn an international fanbase and, consequently, more attention to Uyghur cause. In 2014, his emotional performance on The Voice of China caused a stir among viewers. This essay is hosted on UC Boulder researcher Darren Byler’s site The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia, which he uses to highlight the work of Uyghur artists and scholars.


👌 SHOUT OUT

This month I’m highlighting the Xinjiang Victims Database, created by independent scholar Gene Bunin, a writer and translator who has been researching the Uyghur language in Xinjiang since 2008. The database has collected close to 8,000 testimonies from friends and relatives of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities currently detained in Xinjiang. You can donate to the effort here.

Above is the entry created by a Boston-based Uyghur woman I’ve interviewed previously, whose historian father has been arrested for allegedly inciting terrorism.

🗣 TALK TO ME

A great big thank you to Dr. Petersen’s students for compiling this reading list. Keep an eye out for another themed issue by his Muslims and Media students.

As always, please send me your comments, questions and corrections! And if you’re a scholar, researcher or journalist interested in collaborating on a special edition of Creeping Sharia like this one, you know where to reach me.

Otherwise, see you in a few days with a roundup of stories from March, inshaAllah. 👋 

— Aysha