We are all Uyghur too
(Photo credit: https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/115/hr565)
Je Suis Charlie? United We Stand, #BostonStrong, even, BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo. We Americans are a sympathetic, but sometimes selectively sympathetic people. To me, the most common limitations to our sympathy are limitations to our identity formation, limited education, and the reality of power dynamics domestically and internationally.
Limitations to Identify Construction
It’s my opinion that if we look at what I call the Big 5 in Identity Construction -Race, Ethnicity, Nationality, Religion, and Gender- the more closely we identify with the dominant demographic group, the less likely we are to understand or sympathize with the non-dominant groups. Or, to put it another way: Uyghurs (also spelled Uighur, Uigur, and Uygur) are a stateless, Central Asian ethnic group who practice Islam. Since most Americans are not Central Asian, nor Muslim, and have never met a Uighar then it is harder to notice or sympathize with their plight; it is far easier to ignore.
It is harder to notice because, after all, who’s going to tell us? Our education system favors American history -which is understandable up to a point, but I personally studied US History in 5th, 7th, 8th, 11th, and 12th grades. And that doesn’t include state history in 4th grade that certainly overlapped with US History. And when our social studies classes do study other nations and nation-states, it does so with a Western European bias. After all, not only are most Americans of Western European descent, but Western Europe has been the dominant part of the world for centuries prior to American hegemony and has influenced American culture far more than, well, Central Asia for example.
So, if not our education system, what about the news? We have print news, radio news, TV news… surely, we’d hear about a looming genocide in our news, right? No, of course not. The 24-hour news culture is obsessed with the Swamp Soap Opera in Washington, DC, business news and imagined wealth from Wall Street, NY and LA pop culture… more seriously, there are stories of #MeToo, #LivesMatter, #NFLKneelers, crime, school shootings, and stories of local interest that eat up our attention span and clog our access to news outside of America, let alone news about a small stateless group of people in the middle of Central Asian.
Really, its an issue of Power Dynamics. Textbooks, for example, are an expression of political and economic power. How else would you explain pages after pages about the Texas Republic, when Texas was not part of the US, in a US History textbook? Do we have pages after pages on the Hawaiian Kingdom? Pages after pages on the Shay and Whiskey Rebellions in the populous states of MA and PA, but rarely even a mention of Dorr’s Rebellion in the littlest state in the Union, Rhode Island? While most Americans are of Western European descent, Americans are certainly aware of India and China, as there are 1 billion people in each country and the US does considerable business with both countries. Heck, both countries have the nuke too, right? The Uyghurs have no worldly significant population (15 million), no nuke and, heck, don’t even have a nation-state…
So, if you’re still in school, you can be forgiven; if you’re an average guy like Joe the Plummer or Rosie Riveter, you can be forgiven for not knowing about the Uyghurs detention and incarceration. After all, the corporate media chooses what news to cover, right? But if you’re a teacher, perhaps you can help change the paradigm of neotribalistic news coverage, if you’re involved in your religious community or a church leader, perhaps you can speak up and speak out. If you’re a politician in Washington, perhaps, just perhaps, you could live up to the ideals of this country. This country which proudly remembers ending the Second World War and stopping German Nazism… and has done little to stop every genocide since. On February 19, 2005, I wrote this in the Providence Journal:
And not much has changed since. The Darfur Genocide, the Yazidi Genocide, the Second Assyrian Genocide, the Rohingya Genocide, and now the beginnings of a Uighar Genocide. If you’re a member of Congress who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations or House Foreign Affairs Committee, how dare you deposit your paycheck, how dare you run for re-election?
Because Uyghurs look differently than you, pray differently than you, it’s not an issue to bring to the attention of American people?
We have a subcommittee that is literally called the Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Terrorism led by Republican Jim Risch of Idaho and Democrat Tim Kaine of VA. Where are our Senators on the Uyghurs internment camps? The House Foreign Affairs Committee is led by Republican Ed Royce (CA-39) and Elliot Engle (NY—16). The Committee has a subcommittee named Asia and the Pacific led by Republican Ted Yoho (FL-3) and Brad Sherman (CA-30)… And where are they on this crisis; where are our Representatives on the Uyghurs internment camps?
Even more specifically: If you’re Congressman Dana Rohrabacher who introduced the Save Christians from Genocide Act, or Congressmen Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Anna Eshoo (D-CA) who introduced the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief Accountability Act for the Christian Genocide… then you are hypocrites and grandstanders, not leaders. And what Americans need are leaders in Congress, leaders in the State Department, leaders in the White House who stand up for the stateless people of the world, stand up for human rights, and stand up for the Uyghurs people.
Uighars, Uyghurs or Uygurs
The Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group in Central Asia. Ironically, most Uyghurs live in a section of China called the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China. Like many populations of Central Eurasia, they are genetically related to both Caucasoid and East Asian populations. There are about 15 million Uyghurs in China, 80% of whom live in the Tarim Basin of Xinjiang. In fact, the Uyghurs city of Ürümqi is the largest city in western China as well as all of Central Asia, 3.5 million people.
Outside of China, according to the World Uyghur Congress, the Uyghur population is believed to number 1.0–1.6 million; which may be part of the reason that the world is ignoring the Uighars. The main diasporic community of Uyghurs are in Kazakhstan (200,000), with much, much smaller communities in Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, and in Turkey. The largest Uyghurs population in the West is believed to be in Australia and number about 10,000. Canada has about 2000 Uighars. Uyghurs are a small stateless ethnic group, with few allies on the World Stage. Uyghurs are also predominantly Muslim, eliciting little sympathy from the Western Christian world. Look at the Darfur Muslims and Rohingya Muslims. In fact, the only Muslim genocide that the West (albeit belatedly) stopped was the Bosnia Genocide, perhaps because they were European Caucasians? Apparently “Never Again” meant, never again if you’re Jewish or European?
According to a 2018 report by The Economist, Uyghurs in Xinjiang suffer under a “fully-fledged police state” with extensive controls and restrictions upon their religious, cultural and social life. Chinese officials refer to Uyghurs as terrorists, justify their repression as anti-terrorism surveillance. And, to be fair, there have been Uighar successionist movements, and acts of violence against the Chinese government apparatus in Xinjiang. Laying aside the “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” argument; do the actions of some members of a population justify the repression of an entire people? Are all Italians in the Mafia, all Germans are Nazis, all Irishmen are in the IRA, and -of course- all Mexicans are “drug-dealers, murderers, and rapists.” When, oh when, are we as Americans and as human beings going to break out of this tribal mentality? When are we going to protect the rights of those who don’t look like us, as much as we defend and demand rights for those who do look like us?
Because, what? The Uyghurs terrorists? Uyghurs extremism? Well, in the Xinjiang Autonomous Uyghur Province of the People’s Republic of China, “Religious extremism” is defined as owning books about Uyghurs or quitting smoking or drinking. Government cameras have been installed in the homes of private citizens. Between 120,000 and one million Uyghurs are detained in mass detention camps, termed “re-education camps,” aimed at changing the political thinking of detainees, their identities, and their religious beliefs. Some of these facilities keep prisoners detained around the clock, while others release their inmates at night to return home. The New York Times has reported inmates are required to “sing hymns praising the Chinese Communist Party and write ‘self-criticism’ essays,” and that prisoners are also subjected to physical and verbal abuse by prison guards. The families of inmates are monitored, and women have been detained due to actions by their sons or husbands…
A student of mine asked me this week, I just finished listening to your podcast about the [first] Uyghurs, but I still don’t think I know who they are… I’ll tell you, they are just like you and me. They are parents and children, they are husbands and wives, they are farmers and businessmen, they pray and they go to school.
First, the PROC came for Chang Ki-Shek and the Nationalists,
And the US did nothing because it was busy in Europe and Korea;
Then the PROC came for the Tibetans,
And the US did nothing because there are few Buddhists and fewer Tibetan-Americans;
Then the PROC came for the Uyghurs,
And the US does nothing because there are few Muslims and fewer Uyghurs-Americans;
And then the PROC may drive your company out of business through corporate technology theft, low labor costs, and currency manipulation….
And you think we should care about you and your job?
Native Americans who were here already and the descendants of enslaved West Africans know a lot about persecution. But so do those who chose to immigrate to the United States. We are a nation of castoffs, of people persecuted and looking for a better world. If we can say Never Again about the Holocaust, we can say no to Uyghur concentration camps too. If, in the face of Sovietization, our president said Eich bin ein Berliner, then today in the face of Hanification, our leaders can say “We are all Uighars too!”
Je Suis Urumqi!