Another Scene in the Fight Against Islamophobia

Another Scene in the Fight Against Islamophobia

By: Darren Byler

In early March 2018 the influential Uyghur poet Tahir Hamut gave a series of readings in Seattle. Unlike in years past when Uyghur celebrities had come to the city, only a handful of Uyghurs—Turkic Muslims native to what has become Northwest China—came to hear Tahir speak. This was not because they did not know he was in town or because they did not care, it was because they were afraid to be seen in public with a man who had been framed as a dissident by the Chinese state. They were afraid because since the beginning of 2017 Chinese authorities have sent more than 500,000 Uyghurs to fortified “re-education” camps in the Uyghur homeland of Northwest China. Most of the Uyghurs that have disappeared in these prison camps without trials or legal representation have been accused of studying unauthorized or “foreign” forms of Islam or cultivating Uyghur ethno-nationalism. Since the beginning of the “People’s War on Terror” in 2014 both of these forms of “illegal” activity have been framed as “terrorism” by the Chinese state. As a result of these conflations many Uyghurs have been detained simply because they have a relative that has traveled abroad and been exposed to Uyghur ethno-nationalism or they have listened to digital recordings from Islamic teachers based in Turkey. Because the Uyghur community is watched even outside of China, most Uyghurs are deeply concerned that what they do in public will result in the imprisonment of their family members. This is why Uyghurs in the Pacific Northwest stayed home when Tahir came to visit.

Tahir was one of the last Uyghurs of influence to leave China as the mass detentions of Uyghur leaders and “terror” suspects began. When he arrived in August 2017 he provided the Wall Street Journal with evidence of the camps and the policing technologies that were used to send more than five percent of the Uyghur population into detention. Because he spoke publicly about what was happening to his fellow urban poets in Ürümchi and rural farmers from his hometown near the city of Kashgar, Tahir’s younger brother and his wife’s three brothers were arrested. Tahir’s poetry collections were seized as evidence of his betrayal of the Chinese state.

Uyghur poet Tahir Hamut sheds a tear as he describes the mass incarceration of Chinese Muslims in a recent Wall Street Journal video.

The fear among the Uyghur community in the diaspora is symptomatic of the long reach of the Chinese security apparatus. Many Chinese Muslims, particularly if they are Uyghur, and at times if they are Kazakh or Hui, have told me that since the beginning of the “People’s War,” the overseas Chinese community has begun to treat them with suspicion. This is particularly the case if one of their family members has been detained by the state.

The case of a young international college student in the Pacific Northwest is instructive in this regard. During her junior year, the student—a young woman who did not self-identify as Muslim but who was officially identified by the state as a Chinese Muslim minority—returned to China to visit her boyfriend. Soon after she arrived she was detained and sent to a reeducation camp under suspicion of being involved in “terrorist” activities. The police said she had used a VPN to circumvent the “Great Firewall” that prevents access to unauthorized Internet sites outside of China. The student said she was simply trying to upload her homework to the Canvas server of her college back in North America.

Back in the Pacific Northwest the student’s mother did all she could to attempt to get the release of her daughter. She contacted her friends in the Chinese American community, many of whom had connections with the Chinese embassy. At first they seemed willing to help her. But after a week of reaching out to them, they began to refuse to answer her calls. It was as if they believed that her daughter was indeed guilty of “terrorist” activities.

A surveillance camera at a Uyghur mosque installed above a poster describing rewards for reporting unauthorized forms of religious practice.

As Junaid Rana and others have shown, since the US initiated the global “War on Terror” Islamophobia has been given new currency throughout the world. China is no exception to this new form of racialization. Chinese state media representations of Islamic “terrorism” as a kind of incurable disease that must be quarantined and eradicated is very rarely countered by Chinese language counternarratives that describe the way Uyghur autonomy has been blocked and Islamic education circumscribed. The forms of dispossession and structural racism that confront Muslim minorities in China are disregarded as unintended casualties in China’s rise as a world power and the technological sophistication of its immense internal security apparatus.

Uyghur villagers swear oaths of loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party during weekly flag-raising ceremonies in 2017.

Over the past year I have seen deepening isolation and alienation among Chinese Muslim minority colleagues and students across North America. As with many stateless peoples, often they struggle to articulate the trauma that arises when processes of social elimination are directed at those they love. It is hard for their voices to be heard when they explain how extreme the mass incarceration system has become for friends and family back in China. Many well-meaning China-based or China-focused scholars in the humanities and social sciences feel compelled to rationalize the state violence that is being directed toward Chinese Muslims, as though the state’s claims regarding the Uyghur terror threat are not wildly inaccurate. This failure to listen to and amplify the voices of the oppressed has resulted in a lack of effective solidarity with Uyghurs and other Chinese Muslims.

In addition to this misrecognition, indifference and suspicion among their peers and mentors, many Chinese Muslim faculty members and students in North America and Europe feel guilty for being the direct cause of the detention of their parents. After all it is because they have traveled abroad and thus have had access to unauthorized forms of religious and political thought that their relatives have been taken. These students and researchers need allies and accomplices in their struggle.

Now is the time for anthropologists, particularly those of us who work in China or with the Asian diaspora, to reach out to Uyghur, Kazakh and Hui colleagues and students and show them that we care.

Darren Byler is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Washington, where he studies the way the ideas and infrastructures of global terrorism and global urbanism affect the lives and representations of Uyghurs and Han migrants in Chinese Central Asia (Xinjiang). In addition, he has published Uyghur-English literary co-translations in Guernica, Paper Republic and Banango Street. He also curates the art and politics repository The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia.