The Persecution of China’s Muslim Uyghurs

By Matt Moir of Religion & Politics

It was broad daylight in a busy part of Beijing when a local doctor—a friend of mine—rear-ended the car in front of hers. Though it wasn’t a major accident, she was frightened to step outside of her BMW to survey the aftermath of the collision. The 41-year-old pathologist says, “I wasn’t hurt and I don’t think I hit the other car hard enough to hurt anyone in their car. But there was no way I was getting out.”

What spooked her wasn’t any potential damage to her vehicle, or the honking cars negotiating the Chinese capital’s notoriously busy streets. It was the occupants of the car she hit. “I could tell they were Uyghurs, and they can be very violent,” she explains. “I thought they might attack me.”

Her prejudice, while seeming extreme, has sadly become commonplace among Beijing’s 20 million residents and across China. Uyghurs are a Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim ethnic group from Xinjiang province in western China. Many Uyghurs migrate to big Chinese cities in search of work opportunities, but they often face mistrust and oppression.

In much of the rest of the world, Uyghurs are considered socially and politically alienated victims of state suppression. But across large cities in China, they are seen as hot-tempered criminals who, for one’s own safety, should be avoided at all costs.

The doctor, who spoke to me from her home in a southeastern suburb of Beijing, told me she had a negative experience with “Xinjiang people” before the car accident: When she was a university student, she was pickpocketed by a group of Uyghur children. “I can still remember them laughing. I was scared,” she says.

That day on the roadside, she stayed in her car and called her husband. While she was on the phone, the other car drove away.

Simmering Ethnic and Religious tensions in Xinjiang between Uyghur Muslims and Han Chinese have made the region one of the Chinese Communist Party’s biggest domestic challenges.

Over the past several years, there have been numerous riots and other violent incidents in the province that have left hundreds dead and many more wounded. In July 2009, at least 1,000 ethnic Uyghurs clashed with police in a riot in Xinjiang. In 2014, there was a Uyghur-led mass knife-attack in a train station that killed 31 people, and injured another 140. More recently, Uyghurs reportedly have been seen fighting alongside the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda offshoot, in Syria.

Xinjiang is roughly the size of Iran and borders several Muslim-majority countries, including Afghanistan and Pakistan. The province is at the forefront of what the Chinese government labels the “three evil forces” of extremism, terrorism, and separatism, and authorities have vowed to take firm measures to defeat those so-called evils. In 2012, a top Communist official in Xinjiang promised to use “iron fists” to stamp out terrorist threats, and that extremists should have “no place to hide.”

Human rights organizations, on the other hand, say that heavy-handed government responses to isolated acts of violence are exacerbating the problems between Xinjiang’s Uyghur and Han communities, who represent roughly 45 and 40 percent of the province’s population, respectively. According to Human Rights Watch, “Pervasive ethnic discrimination, severe religious repression, and increasing cultural suppression justified by the government in the name of the ‘fight against separatism, religious extremism, and terrorism’ continue to fuel rising tensions” in Xinjiang.

Uyghur activists and numerous other experts believe that the discrimination faced by Uyghurs isn’t confined to Xinjiang’s borders, however. They say that a xenophobic Chinese government, with the help of propagandistic media, has created a climate of fear and intolerance for the thousands of Uyghurs who leave Xinjiang every year for other parts of China.

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