Being Muslim means you’re never safe from China
For most people, traveling abroad can lead to exciting opportunities and exposure to new cultures. For Muslims from China, traveling abroad can put friends and family at home at risk. In December 2015, Abduhaliq Aziz, a young Muslim from the ancient city of Kashgar, moved to Cairo to study at the renowned Al-Azhar University. Shortly thereafter, Chinese authorities retaliated by detaining Aziz’s parents. Several years after Ablikim Yusuf, a Uyghur Muslim, moved to Pakistan for work, he received a message over WeChat: his brother was in a reeducation camp. Last summer, Qatari authorities nearly deported Yusuf to China while he was transiting through Doha airport; only public outrage and U.S. diplomacy allowed him to settle in Virginia.
At least Aziz and Yusuf are free. Millions of Muslims back in China aren’t so fortunate.
Since 2017, the Chinese government has detained an estimated 1.8 million Uyghur, Kazakh, and other Muslims in concentration camps across the northwestern region of Xinjiang. Leaked government documents show that many of these individuals were targeted because of their religious practices, such as growing a beard or wearing a veil, not because they posed a security risk. As part of this sinification campaign, nearly half a million Muslim children have been separated from their families and placed in boarding schools, where they are taught to obey the party and reject Islam.
The Chinese government’s persecution of its Muslim population is unique not just because of its scale and ruthlessness, but also because of the lengths to which it goes to pursue Muslims outside its borders. The government has submitted extradition requests to Turkey, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Malaysia, and other countries for Muslims who fled China. In 2017, Egyptian authorities rounded up dozens of Uyghur students and deported them to China. When it can’t seize individuals who have fled abroad, the government often detains their families back in China. In a particularly cruel move, in 2018 Dr. Gulshan Abbas was disappeared in an attempt to silence her sister, Rushan Abbas, an outspoken Uyghur-American activist based in Virginia.
Chinese agents have also harassed Uyghur Muslims who have become citizens or permanent residents in other countries, especially those vocal in criticizing the Communist Party’s human rights record. Uyghurs in the United States, Europe, Canada, and Australia have reported receiving threatening phone calls to obtain personal information or being tracked by Chinese diplomats.
Contrary to the Communist Party’s propaganda, the Chinese government’s war on faith is not simply a domestic issue. It affects Muslims around the world, from Istanbul to Indiana. It affects our fellow citizens, our colleagues, our neighbors, and our families.
In our 2020 Annual Report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended that the U.S. government continue and increase efforts to counter Chinese influence operations designed to suppress religious freedom advocacy. The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, which Congress recently passed and President Donald Trump signed, makes important progress by requiring the FBI and State Department to report on Chinese attempts to intimidate U.S. citizens, ethnic Uyghurs, and Chinese nationals in the United States. U.S. diplomats should inform other governments — particularly those in Muslim-majority countries — of the threat to their citizens and encourage them to take steps to protect them.
In addition, we urge the State Department to work with other countries to prevent the refoulment to China of Muslims and others fleeing religious persecution. A priority should be lobbying against any extradition treaty with China without clear allowances for political asylum. We are especially concerned about the ambiguity of a draft extradition treaty between Turkey and China. The ratification and interpretation of this treaty could spell the difference between freedom and oppression for the approximately 50,000 Uyghur Muslims who reside in Turkey.
Finally, the United States needs to increase its presence at international and regional forums. While sometimes rightly derided as “talking shops,” these meetings have the power to set the agenda and influence public advocacy. For example, last March, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation issued a statement commending — not condemning — China’s treatment of its Muslim community. China reportedly sent more than a dozen diplomats to the meeting in Abu Dhabi, while the United States sent none. We need to ensure that never happens again.
Nury Turkel is a Commissioner on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Gary Bauer is a Commissioner on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
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