“Spirit-murder” of Uyghurs is monstrous by any standard

July 30th, 2020

The following article has been published in the Australian Jewish News by ECAJ co-CEO Peter Wertheim.

China’s north-western Autonomous Region, known officially as Xinjiang, holds vast natural resources and is strategically located, having borders with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia.

The Uyghurs are the largest of the predominantly Muslim ethnic minority groups who together comprise the majority of the region’s 25 million people. They refer to the region as “East Turkestan”, reflecting the closeness of their cultural and religious ties to other Turkic-speaking Muslim communities outside China, and the fact that a separate East Turkestan republic was established briefly in the 1930s and again in the 1940s.

Suspecting the loyalties of the Turkic Muslim communities, the Chinese government has for decades provided economic incentives to China’s ethnic majority Han population to move to the region, so that they now dominate the cities and are given the best jobs and political positions ahead of the local communities. China has followed similar policies in neighbouring Tibet.

The tensions that the Chinese government’s policies have created with these communities are not only ethnically-based.  An animus against religion is rooted in the government’s communist ideology. The Uyghurs’ profound belief in an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent God is an intolerable threat to the government’s claim to be the steward of an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent State. Earthly rulers of a totalitarian persuasion seem to react badly when reminded that they are ultimately answerable to a Higher Power.

The Uyghurs have reacted to years of ethnic discrimination, economic marginalisation and restrictions on religious and cultural practices with political protests and public displays of religious devotion. At times this has erupted into violence, including ethnic riots in 2009, a terrorist attack on an outdoor market that killed 39 people in May 2014, and a suicide bombing outside a train station several weeks later that injured about 80 people, one fatally.

These events produced the brutal policies which have developed into the Chinese government’s current offensive against the Uyghur population.  In truth, however, the vast majority of Uyghurs adhere to moderate traditions of Islam.  According to leaked Chinese government documents, it was the revival of public piety that most alarmed the regime, and explains why it now views virtually the entire Uyghur population, including the elderly and children, as suspect, and has treated more than one million of them as enemies of the State.

Uyghurs are under constant police surveillance, in their private homes and wherever they go, to watch for signs of “religious extremism” that include owning books about Uyghurs, growing a beard, having a prayer rug, “praying too much”, or quitting smoking or drinking.  Mosques and cemeteries have been demolished.  There are reports of Uyghurs being forcibly sterilised and children being separated from their communities.

According to US State Department estimates, more than a million Uyghurs have been herded into detention camps for “re-education” and “vocational training”. These are Orwellian euphemisms for coercing a change in their political thinking, their identities, and their religious beliefs. Inmates are required to sing hymns praising the Chinese Communist Party and write ‘self-criticism’ essays, are forced to eat pork and are subjected to physical and verbal abuse by prison guards.

Drone footage said to be from the region shows dozens of people bound and blindfolded with their shaved heads bowed, being led on to trains by armed guards, reportedly headed for one of the camps. For some, this evokes memories of mass transports of Jews during the Shoah.  However, the aim of these measures does not appear to be to exterminate the Uyghurs physically, but rather to re-engineer their thoughts and refashion their souls. Whether or not this collective “spirit-murder” amounts to genocide, it is monstrous by any standard.

There is something else which calls the Jewish people to speak and to act on this issue, and it goes to the core of our identity.  It is the profound conviction that freedom and dignity are the God-given birthright of each and every individual, and not privileges to be conferred or withdrawn at the whim of the State.

Just how starkly the current government in China stands in opposition to this principle was driven home in a ‘thank you’ message the ECAJ received last Friday from a young person of Uyghur background following the release of our statement about the Uyghurs.

Like many other young Uyghurs who have left the region in recent years to further their studies, this person lost all contact with family members at home several years ago.  It was especially moving to learn that this person had studied and been supported in Israel:

It was very hard to concentrate to study and even not possible to have a normal mentality, since I don’t know what happened to my family. But thanks to the support and help of my supervisors and friends in Israel, I was able to get through the hardest time in my life and successfully finished my study.  Shabbat shalom.

Nothing could demonstrate more eloquently how the values of ethical monotheism, first introduced into the world by Judaism, remain as vital and disruptive today as when Moses confronted Pharaoh with them more than three millennia ago.

Peter Wertheim AM is co-CEO of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry