East Turkestan was abandoned to Chinese rule in 1949 with the military support of Stalin’s Russia, though it did briefly gain its independence in 1933. Since the foundation of the present-day People’s Republic of China, the number of East Turkestanis who were killed, especially after 1965 or lost their lives due to starvation, famine, unfavorable living conditions, torture and maltreatment has reached to approximately 35 million.
Even though East Turkestan was accepted as an autonomous zone in 1955, it is a historical fact that the local community has not been able to exercise their rights that come with the status. The region has critical importance for China strategically, geopolitically and economically. One third of China’s natural gas and oil reserves is in this region. The country’s underground treasures such as gold, coal and uranium as well as China’s foremost agricultural products like cotton also grow here. The geopolitical importance of East Turkestan, which constitutes one sixth of Chinese territory, is mainly based on its position as a neighbor to eight different countries and a door opening China to the West.
For all these reasons, China wants to establish complete control over the region. The ethnic cleansing and assimilation policy aimed at the Uyghur Turks for almost half a century is also associated with this aim. All sorts of inhumane methods from massacres to disappearances and to young girls being banished to the most uncharted parts of China have been employed to this end. People in the region are arrested for flimsy reasons; they are tortured and executed while some are abandoned to death in prisons and the rest are never heard of again.
On the other hand, a large number of Chinese are being placed in the region in order to change the demographic structure of East Turkestan and turn Uyghur Turks into a minority group. As a result of this policy, the Uyghur population, which stood at 87% in 1947, has now dropped to a 47%: conversely, while 6% of the population of the region was Chinese in 1949, it now stands at 41% and this number is increasing in favor of the Chinese population.
One of the most classic tools of assimilation is the destruction of the self-identity of the local community. In accordance with this purpose, it is no secret that the Chinese state is leading a policy that will change or eliminate all aspects of the Uygur Turks’ identity from religion, language and culture to customs, traditions and lifestyle.
Recently, news about Uyghur Turks being forbidden to fast during Ramadan, being beaten for reading the Qur’an and sent to prison after accusations of being a terrorist simply because they wanted to be educated in the Qur’an are very common. It is prohibited to have religious books present at home. In addition, state officials, workers and students in East Turkestan cannot exercise their freedom of worship.
It is also reported that it is a part of daily life that Uyghur people are attacked on the streets, beaten, pushed around and subjected to slander and humiliation by the Chinese community or the security forces.
For the Uyghur people, everything is subject to permission. They can go from one village to another only if permitted by local authorities with documentation. To be able to receive medical treatment at a hospital, a Uyghur has to obtain a document from the police proving that he or she is not engaging in any terrorist activity. And to a large extent, East Turkestanis are not entitled to political and social rights, equality, the right to vote and be elected to office, to launch a foundation, to get an education or to property, and they are denied the freedoms of thought, expression, travel and assembly. In the news, China mostly stands out with its leading policies based on pressure and oppression, practices inherited from the era of Mao and Stalin. The fear of radicalism that has engulfed the world is known to cause great panic in the Chinese state; hence a series of recent legislations passed in China aims to take measures against radicalism and for this purpose, every method is considered permissible.
China’s fear of radicalism is understandable, but the way to put an end to this fear is not via taking precautions throughout Muslim communities. China is making a significant mistake here. The danger of radicalism can be eliminated only if the true Islam based on the Qur’an as the religion of love, respect, compassion and peace is taught to Muslim societies with a thorough educational campaign that is not based on pressure and imposition but based on love. When this method is pursued, China will win over our brothers in East Turkestan as well as their hearts and minds, and will mark a new era for its own welfare and happiness. This policy, instead of one pushing our East Turkestani brothers aside and disregarding them through assimilation, will lead to a China that becomes stronger with their material and spiritual support. This, as a result, will bring peace and harmony to the Chinese people, and the Chinese people, who themselves have been living under the pressure of the materialist philosophy for a long time, will begin to see Uyghur Turks as their own brothers leading to an atmosphere full of love. And this will not go amiss for China.
Even under pressure, our East Turkestani brothers also have some responsibilities. Their situation is of course worrisome, but they shouldn’t forget that their lands belong to a society of communist origins. The violence imposed by communism is outrageous and terrifying; however it is a mentality and therefore our East Turkestani brothers must approach this horrifying ideological system not with anger, but with a sense of understanding, as they have the crucial means to change this ideology for a far better one. They have the Holy Qur’an as the guidance of love and peace for the whole world. Even though they are in hardship, they must engage in a spiritual struggle to show and preach the extraordinary spirit in this Book of love to the Chinese people that have moved to their land. It is clear that they have limited means and they are under pressure about living Islam. However nothing can stand in the way of preaching the love of the spirit of the Qur’an or in helping people feel its spirituality. They must remember that a majority of the Chinese people has forgotten many spiritual and moral values under the pressure of the horrific communist system and they should try to win them over through an educational campaign. Anger towards a community and living in a state of constant denial only brings a consistent policy of enmity and according to Islam, this is not a solution. The solution is to maintain a stance that will keep the spirit of Islam alive and the person to take an example from is no doubt our Prophet Mohammad (saas) who himself overcame oppression and persecution to and saw the message of the Qur’an triumph.