early three years after we first became aware of the policies of mass incarceration, surveillance and cultural erasure in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (also known as East Turkistan), the plight of the Uyghurs is suddenly on the agenda in the rhetoric of Western governments and media. We should be under no illusions about the local and international politics underlying this shift. Even so – speaking as an academic with long-term engagement with Uyghur culture who has worked to raise awareness of human rights abuses in Xinjiang – I welcome these developments, if only for the pressure that is now being brought to bear on the transnational companies that have been profiting from Uyghur forced labor.

As the noise around the issue grows, my twitter feed has felt more than usually surreal, as US and UK commentators from different sides of the political spectrum debate whether the abuses are entirely fabricated by rightwing Republicans, or if claims of genocide cheapen the memory of the Holocaust. It’s important at this time not to allow partisan politics to distract from the very real suffering of the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, but to reflect instead on aspects of the context and the parallels which are not being foregrounded in these debates. If we are talking about the mass incarceration of minorities, are there parallels to be drawn with the treatment of African Americans in the US judicial system? What about the parallels with more recent instances of genocidal actions against Muslims in Bosnia or Myanmar (see Jasmina Tesanovic and Penny Green in this Forum), or the demonization of Muslim resistance in the contested territories of Palestine and Kashmir (see Nitasha Kaul in this Forum)? Like many other conflicts involving Muslim minorities, notably Palestine and Kashmir, the roots of this problem are also territorial. Just as we find in these other contexts, the rhetoric of Islamic extremism in Xinjiang serves to obfuscate and obscure this reality.

Is it actually about Islam?

It is entirely understandable that many Uyghur activists (predominantly drawn from the secular nationalist elite) prefer to downplay the links between their own plight and that of other struggling Muslim minorities around the globe. It’s not about Islam, say many of my Uyghur acquaintances, it’s about China’s destruction of Uyghur culture and identity. By downplaying these links, they can align themselves more easily with the prevailing rhetoric of China’s cultural genocide, and America is after all a powerful ally. But this stance sidelines the experience of the many deeply religious Uyghur refugees who have fled the region and are now living precarious lives, predominantly in Turkey. We should not ignore the many ways in which religious persecution and Islamophobia underpin this crisis, and the degree to which this particular brand of Chinese Islamophobia is linked to forms developed in the West and circulating the globe.

Certainly, Chinese government representatives have said repeatedly that Islam is the problem. They claim that the campaigns in Xinjiang are needed to identify and root out what it calls the “three evils” of “terrorism, separatism and religious extremism”. Official sources claim that the internment camps are actually “vocational training centers” where detainees undergo forms of re-education intended to combat extremist Islamic ideology, which has poisoned the minds of people and led to widespread violence in the Xinjiang region.

What do Chinese government sources mean by “extremism” and “terrorism”?

We know from the leaked internal documents revealed by the New York Times, that Chinese President Xi Jinping himself was closely involved in the orchestration of the “People’s War on Terror” in Xinjiang. Xi actually visited the region in 2014, and his remarks, as revealed by the leaked documents, suggest that what he was particularly alarmed by what he saw among the wider population there: that is the broad revival of Islamic faith and increasingly confident public displays of piety.

Beginning in the 1980s, Xinjiang saw a broad-based Islamic revival, comparable to other parts of China and Central Asia. During my research on Uyghur Islam over the past ten years I spent extended periods of time in rural southern Xinjiang, and I observed the gradual rise of these new sensibilities among Uyghurs (Harris, 2015). Primarily this entailed people returning to a religious lifestyle and was expressed in projects of community mosque building; the adoption of habits of daily prayer, fasting, and forms of Islamic dress; and many debates about how to live a good Muslim life.

Overwhelmingly it is these practices – which are, of course, a normal part of daily life for Muslims worldwide – that have been identified as evidence of “religious extremism.” Xinjiang government guidance identified “75 types of behavior that show religious extremism” which constituted valid reasons to send people to the internment camps. They included praying, eating halal, growing an “abnormal” beard, giving up smoking or drinking, possessing a Qur’an, or listening to religious media.

Image from a 2014 “anti-religious extremism peasant art competition” criticizing modest dress.

We should recall that the criminalization of everyday Muslim practices in Xinjiang has its parallels in the United States. Under the New York Police Department surveillance program, for example, indicators of “radicalization” included regularly attending a mosque, growing a beard, fasting, or wearing a hijab.

Racialized Islamophobia

People sometimes ask of China’s campaigns in Xinjiang: if it’s really about Islam, then why haven’t the Hui, China’s other significant Muslim population, been targeted? After all, Hui communities have also experienced a significant rise in piety in recent decades, as well as interest in reformist styles of Islam. Orthodox-reformist groups like the Tablighi Jamaat have been active in Muslim communities right across China, and yet the Hui have largely escaped association with the twin specters of extremism and terrorism.

Arguably, the Chinese-speaking Hui have been better positioned to adapt themselves to Xi Jinping’s call for the “Sinicization of religion” simply because they are not subject to the racial othering experienced by Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities. Fears of Uyghur and Kazakh religious extremism build on a seam of racism which is in plain view on Chinese-language social media. Onto racialized popular notions of difference, it was easy to impose the discourse of Islamic extremism and terror. Darren Byler’s recent ethnographic work with Han Chinese in Xinjiang shows with devastating clarity how easily government campaigns can build on racist undercurrents to dehumanize whole groups of people and enable acts of state violence against them.

Again, this racialized approach to Islamophobia is a phenomenon all too familiar in Western societies and political systems. The term first came to prominence in a 1997 UK report, which highlighted how Islamophobia in the UK worked systematically in the same way as racism, “by denying people dignity, rights and liberties across a range of political, economic, social and cultural institutions”. As Nisha Kapoor argues in this Forum, the methods of high-tech surveillance now being rolled out in the US and the UK also disproportionately target minorities in ways that bear disturbing resemblances to the Xinjiang model.

The Language of Islamophobia

In Arun Kundnani’s (2012) discussion of the language of radicalization in the West, he notes how this language works to obscure how the actions of governments might actually provoke violence (be it Israel’s policies in Palestine, or structural racism in the US or the UK).  Within the discourse of radicalization, the “root cause” of violence is situated in individual psychological or religious journeys, far removed from social and political circumstances, and the Islamic faith itself is viewed as the precursor for violence. In Xinjiang, we find processes of pathologizing Uyghur faith and identity which echo the language used in the West. Xi Jinping himself used the language of infection by the “virus” of Islamic radicalism, determining the need to quarantine and cure the whole population. In the context of the coronavirus outbreak, we may need to remind ourselves that religious faith and practice are not infectious diseases, and they should not and cannot be “treated” in the same way.

Image from a 2014 “anti-religious extremism peasant art competition” highlighting the dangers of listening to “illegal religious teaching.”

What kind of violence actually occurred in Xinjiang?

Over 2013 and 2014, Chinese media reported close to a hundred violent incidents in Xinjiang. These incidents are represented as “terrorist incidents” by Chinese government and media sources, but in fact, a closer reading of local sources suggests that most of the confrontations were actually sparked by aggressive policing. A handful of incidents in this period did appear to take the form of premeditated, organized violence aimed at (predominantly Han Chinese) civilians: the March 2014 knife attack by a group of Uyghurs in Kunming train station that left 31 dead, and the May 2014 Ürümchi market attack when two cars ploughed through the marketplace killing 43 people. Far more common were local incidents arising from police entering family homes and forcibly removing women’s veils, or small-scale protests outside police stations concerning the detention of family members. In all these cases, most or all of the people who died were Uyghurs.

What we need to understand is how and why these incidents were used to justify such massive, invasive and violent methods of control over the Muslim peoples of Xinjiang. After all, violent incidents involving pre-meditated attacks on civilians also occur regularly in other parts of China. So why was Islam framed as the root cause of violence in Xinjiang? Why, for example, did policy makers not discuss whether reigning in police harassment of civilians might be a good way to stop violent responses? Why did they need to mobilize a Peoples War on Terror in Xinjiang?

Territorial concerns

Xinjiang is a resource-rich territory located on the sensitive frontier with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia. Chinese government officials undoubtedly viewed religious revival as a threat to their rule, to state development projects and expanding influence through the Belt & Road Initiative. Arguably, Xi Jinping’s primary motivation for setting the anti-extremism campaigns in motion was to pacify and fully control the territory in order to use Xinjiang as a central hub for its roll-out of infrastructure networks across Asia.

In this context, it’s worth remembering the self-immolations in Tibet that began in 2008. China also designated these acts as “terrorism”. This was not because of the way these protesters chose to die, nor because their actions might harm anyone except themselves; it was because of the perceived threat it posed to China’s territorial sovereignty over Tibet. The same logic has governed the designation of terrorism in Xinjiang. Emily Yeh, who wrote about the reframing of these Tibetan protest suicides, observed that the linkage between “terror” and “territory” is not coincidental; maintaining bounded spaces of territory requires the constant mobilization of threat in order to justify state actions. Likewise, Talal Asad (2007) has argued in the context of America’s own Global War on Terror, that the discourse of terror enables a redefinition of the space of violence in which the state can make bold interventions, re-ordering and governing everyday social relations in relation to the proclaimed state of crisis.

As Sean Roberts argues in his new book, China’s adoption of the rhetoric of terrorism in Xinjiang was modelled on, and directly linked to the discourse of the US-led Global War on Terror. Just two months after the September 11 attacks on the United States, China announced the existence of a global network of Uyghur terrorists, supported by hostile foreign forces, which posed a major threat to China’s security. This was a clear move to buy international support for its measures of control in Xinjiang.

Chinese government sources have consistently used the same argument to defend its actions in Xinjiang. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, for example, claimed in November 2018, that Xinjiang’s internment camps were “completely in line with the direction the international community has taken to combat terrorism.” The rhetoric of “religious extremism” has also been used to justify the recent shift in birth control policies in Xinjiang: moves which have been widely condemned as genocide by Western commentators. A recent report has revealed plummeting birth rates and a huge rise in the use of IUDs in southern Xinjiang, alongside more direct forms of violence targeting Muslim women (see Mahmut in this Forum). The arguments of some Chinese academics, who claimed that “extremist religious thinking has fueled a resurgence in birth rates in Xinjiang’s southern regions,” enabled these radical state interventions and denial of women’s reproductive rights.

Re-engineering Muslims

We know a lot about the ways in which the “cure” for the ideological “virus” supposedly infecting Uyghurs is being administered in Xinjiang, thanks to the bravery of numerous Uyghurs who have spoken publicly about their own experiences or the disappearance of their loved ones. This work has been painstakingly documented by the Xinjiang Victims database. We know that detainees in the internment camps spend their time reciting patriotic slogans, singing revolutionary songs, and conducting self-criticism. We have heard many accounts of crowded and insanitary conditions, starvation rations, and brutality against detainees. We know that the children of detainees are taken to orphanages and taught that the religion and identity of their parents is backward and dangerous. We know that the Xinjiang authorities have been encouraging ethnic intermarriage, offering cash incentives to Han men to marry Uyghur women.

The re-engineering project extends to the innermost bodily aspects of Uyghur identity, by targeting halal eating practices: serving pork to detainees in the camps and distributing pork to poor Uyghur families as part of poverty relief efforts. These radical efforts to break down core aspects of faith and identity across the broad population are only possible because of the regime of terror enforced by the system of internment camps.

The mass movement of people who have “graduated” from the camps into conditions of forced labor in Xinjiang’s heavily surveilled factories suggests a long-term solution to “the Uyghur problem” which not only renders the Uyghurs powerless but also permits their full exploitation under regimes of global capitalism (see Byler in this Forum). Looking beyond the immediate tragedy for the Uyghurs, there are also concerns that China’s methods of managing its Muslim minorities, and its ability thus far to shrug off international criticism, will provide a blueprint for other governments worldwide (see Kaul in this Forum).

Rachel Harris teaches at SOAS, University of London. Her research focuses on the politics of culture and heritage in China, and the ethnography of religious life among the Uyghurs. She led the Leverhulme Research Project ‘Sounding Islam in China’ (2014-2017; and is now working on a British Academy Sustainable Development Project to revitalize Uyghur language and culture in the diaspora. Her latest monograph, Soundscapes of Uyghur Islam, will be published by Indiana University Press in autumn 2020.