Uyghur activist Rushan Abbas hopes that attendees of her upcoming virtual talk at Chevrei Tzedek Congregation will help spread information about what is happening to the Uyghur people in China.
On April 11, Abbas, the founder and executive director of Campaign for Uyghurs, will speak about the Chinese persecution of the Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic group in China’s Xinjiang region, at Chevrei Tzedek’s event, “The Uyghurs and the Global Response to Genocide.”
“It’s really for anyone who is interested and cares about world events and in particular about people who are persecuted anywhere in the world,” said Jennifer Zunikoff of Reisterstown, a Chevrei Tzedek member who worked to coordinate the event. “This is certainly a horror, a tragedy that everybody in the world should be knowing about.”
Zunikoff contacted Abbas in the months leading up to the pandemic to learn more about the Uyghur people and what she could do to help. During the conversation, Zunikoff floated the idea of organizing an event at Chevrei Tzedek to give Abbas the chance to speak on what her people are facing.
“When you look at the Geneva Conventions’ description of genocide,” Abbas said, “there [are] five acts. If one happens, you can call it genocide, but currently all five are happening in the case of the Uyghur people.”
More than 3 million Uyghurs are currently being held in what Abbas describes as concentration camps, she said, while millions more are being used as slave labor. Western companies, she said, are profiting from Uyghur slave labor.
Beijing claims it is fighting Islamic extremism, and that these facilities are vocational training centers, Abbas said, but she noted that many of the Uyghurs placed in these facilities have already been educated and trained as doctors, professors, journalists, business people, actors and university presidents.
Massive crematoriums have been built next to these camps, Abbas stated, despite cremation not being an accepted practice.
Abbas believes that her own sister has been detained by the Chinese government as retaliation for her activism.
For Uyghurs who have not been sent to one of these facilities, Abbas compared their lives to George Orwell’s “1984,” with over 1 million Han Chinese government officials sent to live in Uyghur homes and monitor their daily lives. Uyghur women in this situation are at risk of sexual abuse, she said.
Local religious practices are branded as illegal, Abbas said; refusing to eat pork or other food that is not Halal, or using the traditional greeting “salam alaikum,” can be grounds for being sent to the camps.
The government also subjects Uyghurs to forced abortions, sterilizations and marriages, Abbas stated. Non-Muslim, Han Chinese men are encouraged by the state to marry Uyghur women with promises of jobs, housing or money. Uyghur women who refuse to marry them are suspected of Islamic radicalization and sent to the camps, she said.
Additionally, more than 800,000 Uyghur children have been taken to state-run orphanages, Abbas stated, despite many of them having parents who want them back.
Abbas said that the Chinese government’s persecution of the Uyghur people stems in part from economic and geopolitical concerns. China’s massive infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative, has China investing in everything from trains and highways to ports and pipelines in foreign countries, Abbas stated, with much of the project flowing through Uyghur land in the region of Xinjiang.
Calling the project a form of colonization, Abbas views it as a means to acquire greater power in foreign nations, and Chinese government policy as a threat to the freedom of both her people and those in western countries. When members of the NBA have spoken out against China’s actions towards Hong Kong protesters, she noted, it has resulted in profuse apologies to Beijing.
Beijing is generating propaganda about the Uyghur people and what is taking place, Abbas said. She hopes attendees of the Chevrei Tzedek event will share what is happening, contact their representatives in support of the The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act and support stripping Beijing of its right to host the 2022 Winter Olympics.
“We always say ‘Never again,’” Zunikoff said. “But the truth is, it seems like it’s always again. It’s again and again and again, to the same groups, to different groups. And we absolutely cannot, as individuals and communities, … not do something.”