Uighurs: Strangers In Their Own Homes

‘Internment camps’: are they the best way to fight religious extremism, at the risk of limiting personal freedoms afforded under human rights law?

According to the Uighur American Association, there are approximately 15 million Uighurs living in Xinjiang, China. In China, the majority population in China are the Han Chinese, and as the Uighurs are Muslim, severe discrimination is a norm.  The Uighurs are a Turkic ethnic group making up about 45% of  Xinjiang, and live primarily in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in China. Within this autonomous region, there have been recent reports exposing ‘internment camps’, with the region being called a total surveillance state.

These camps have also been considered a form of mass detention, and also a form of re-education. For years, Xinjiang has seen episodes of violence followed by crackdowns. Recently, the Committee on Racial Discrimination criticised the “broad definition of terrorism and vague references to extremism and unclear definition of separatism in Chinese legislation” and the autonomous region had been turned “into something that resembles a massive internment camp.” The Committee estimates there are around 10,000 to over a million Uighurs being detained. As mentioned, China has been accused of mass imprisonment. In these camps, inmates are apparently forced to swear their loyalty to President Xi Jinping and shout Communist Party slogans. There have also been reports of Uighurs being poorly fed and subjected to widespread torture; not to mention the reports of inmates forced to drink alcohol and eat pork — both of which are forbidden in Islam.

The detention is supposedly for religious extremism, however, the latest UN statement comes during a time where religious tensions are worsening. All claims of discrimination from the camps to anything that has happened historically has been rejected by Beijing, saying that the current anti-China sentiment has been behind most of the criticism. China’s response to the Committee’s report admitted that the camps were for “resettlement and re-education” in response to religious extremism.

However, is putting an entire ethnic group in a detention-like situation the best idea for religious extremism, as China claims? Probably not. There have been links drawn to the Nazi regime, owing to the constant surveillance and nature of the camps. Not to mention the religious opposition, wherein a recording from the Chinese Communist Party compared Islam to an “infectious disease.” The treatment of the Uighurs can be considered inhumane, and if people are going to compare it to the Nazi regime… is saying something.

The camps within Xinjiang also raise the argument of whether or not the Uighurs can be considered internally displaced people. Under regulations created approximately two years ago, travel was restricted for the Uighurs who were forced to hand over their passports to police. The BBC released a report implying they had to ask permission to retrieve their passports and there have been reports of passports being denied — which blocks a fundamental human right, the right to the freedom of movement. While the Chinese government may see the camps as a possible solution for reducing extremism (wherein people might travel overseas to train), it generalises an entire group. Not all Muslims are terrorists so taking away freedom of movement impacts on the innocent too.

It is not just freedom of movement being restricted. It is also the multitude of other human rights abuses caused by the camps. As the camps are considered a series of re-education, you could probably call them indoctrination camps. Former inmates have reported that they were forced to renounce their own faith, criticise their beliefs, and recite songs all day. This is no way to combat religious extremism. Like other minorities, you cannot just put them all in a camp, force them to do something and hope for the best. With religion, it is impossible to tell someone to stop believing in their gods and other central tenets of their faith. People do not just stop believing in something because they are told not to — rather, it is a gradual process. Restricting freedoms and putting the Uighurs in prison-like camps probably make them more reliant on their faith to get them through, which is ironic as it is the opposite of the camps were intended for.

Instead of trying to re-educate people who do not want to change their religion to align themselves with the beliefs of the majority of the country, China should look at creating something like what the Inuits have in Canada. In Canada, the Inuits have Nunavut which is still a state of Canada. They have representation in local politics and are a self-ruling state. They also have representatives for national parliament. Admittedly, the situation is not the same; the Uighurs are not native to China and thus not indigenous to China. Although, it is the last thing China might want to do – they have rejected the idea of a separate state for a long time now – it might be something worth looking into.

By having an autonomous region in Xinjiang, the Uighurs are already halfway there – they have their own small region where they can live. Constantly using fear, camps and surveillance are not the best deterrents to stop extremism. Instead, if the Chinese government were to provide the Uighurs with a sense of control over their own small state it would most likely lessen the possibility of outbursts related to extremism because there is nothing to fight against. A solution like this one means there will not be human rights abuses and the Uighurs will be allowed to practice their faith and live their lives much like the rest of the Chinese.

If the Chinese government makes this region of Xinjiang autonomous, that is, without all the controls and camps as a possible solution, they also do not have to invest so much into surveillance both physically and through cameras. If the government still sees the need for surveillance they can, but in the more autonomous state that is not necessary. The Uighurs need somewhere they can feel safe and call home, not a place where they are watched and feel like they are strangers in their own country.