The Uyghur genocide is one of the most pressing humanitarian horrors of our time. The campaign to end it has seen politicians and advocates from a range of backgrounds join together, both in the UK and internationally. Yet, in this broad coalition, some of the most vocal people fighting against anti-Muslim hatred are missing.
Most leftist discourse about the Uyghur genocide is largely dominated by arguments around western imperialism. As a result, other factors in the Chinese government’s onslaught are overlooked: namely its Islamophobia. That should motivate many more human rights advocates to fight for Uyghur rights.
The Chinese government’s criminalisation of practicing Islam, both culturally and religiously, is widely known. Its campaign against the Uyghurs – a Turkic Muslim people native to the Uyghur region (also known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region) – has also been widely reported. In China, growing a beard, owning a Quran, or praying can result in arrests and internment.
This attempted erasure has led to as many as three million Uyghurs being detained in concentration camps, where they face food and sleep deprivation, torture and systematic sexual violence. There are increasingly credible reports of forced organ harvesting too. At the epicentre of this genocide is Uyghur women, who are tormented by birth control measures such as forced abortions, forced marriages and mass forced sterilisation – a factor which led to the independent Uyghur Tribunal judgment of “genocide” last December.
Additionally, it is well noted that the west’s “War on Terror” was weaponised by the Chinese government to target “three evils”: “terrorism, separatism and religious extremism”. Sean Roberts, an expert on this area of research, stated that “the narrative of the GWOT [Global War on Terror] allowed the Chinese state to locate the source of Uyghurs’ failure to assimilate and their lack of loyalty to a trait within their culture: Islam.”
But there is a failure by some prominent leftist anti-Islamophobia voices in Britain to acknowledge the undeniable connection between the Uyghur genocide and Islamophobia. I believe this is based on their extensive obsession with ideological purity. This leads them to accept and justify a form of Islamophobia similar to western policies they rightly condemn.
This has been happening under the radar for years. No Cold War organiser Fiona Edwards, recently stated that: “No ‘genocide’ of the Uyghurs is taking place in China.” The group – which has links with Jeremy Corbyn, and Diane Abbott is a signatory as well – has regularly held events with Uyghur genocide denier Jingjing Li (November 2020, March 2021, and June 2021). Jingjing Li has said that “allegations” of the Uyghur genocide in the Uyghur region are “false reports” and “far from the truth”.
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In December 2020, Abbott took part in an online event organised by No Cold War, which hosted Jingjing Li and Danny Haiphong, a New York-based activist. The latter had earlier written: “I didn’t see concentration camps for Uyghurs in Xinjiang. In fact, it is difficult to walk more than a mile without running into a mosque. As more progress is made in Xinjiang, the more sinister and numerous the American Empire’s lies become.” Abbott later apologised for appearing at the event.
Another prominent activist in this space is rapper Lowkey. He has previously said he “doesn’t consider what’s happening to the Uyghurs as genocide”. Just a few weeks, the National Union of Students (NUS) were willing to provide a platform to Lowkey to speak at their annual conference, before removing him after widespread outrage. The group Palestine Action expressed solidarity – along with many others – with Lowkey after he was removed from the NUS event. Lowkey also appeared on a podcast recently, where he advanced the theory that think tanks such as the Henry Jackson Society created “stories” to manufacture concern about the Chinese government’s human rights abuses.
Sadly, in my view, these are only some recent examples of the blatant hypocrisy on display by “anti-racist” activists and organisations. If Uyghur Muslims are excluded from their advocacy, their support for human rights is conditional.
This is about the denial of grave atrocities being perpetrated by a world superpower under our noses. Standing by the Uyghurs is not only a moral obligation, but crucial to upholding the very foundations of left-wing values.
Jaya Pathak is co-executive director of Yet Again UK, co-chair of Students For Uyghurs, and an executive at the Labour Campaign for International Development