For the past several months, the plight of the Uighur Muslims (pronounced wē-ˌgu̇r) has been covered extensively in national and international news. Under the guise of counterterrorism, the Chinese government has been holding the Uighur in detention camps. While the detention of the Uighur is in and of itself a human rights violation, the torture and inhumane treatment that they experience in these camps has been the greatest cause for concern for human rights activists. Undeniably, the detainment and treatment of the Uighur is concerning, but the counterterrorism measures taken by the Chinese government are just as concerning; not only are they arguably ineffective for decreasing the likelihood of terrorist attacks, but they also could inadvertently lead to an increase in radicalization.
The Uighur are a Muslim, Turkish-speaking minority group who make up less than 1 percent of the Chinese population, or around 11 million people. Xinjiang, the province in which the majority of the Uighur live, was annexed in 1949 and has been under China’s control since. While the Uighur have historically been subject to discrimination by the Chinese government, this discrimination increased when the Chinese government formally identified the Uighur as a threat to security in China. It is irresponsible to claim that all Uighur are a security threat, but the claim that they can be is not unfounded; the Turkistan Islamic Movement, an extremist Islamic group founded by Uighur militants, has carried out more than 200 terrorist attacks in China with the goal of creating an independent state for the Uighur. While this does not justify the Chinese government’s discrimination against the Uighur, it does justify taking necessary precautions to decrease the occurrence of such attacks.
While counterterrorism measures are not only desirable, but also necessary, the effectiveness of the methods used by the Chinese government is questionable. After the vast number of attacks carried out by Uighur fighters, it is understandable that the Chinese government should take the appropriate measures to deter future attacks from happening. However, the methods that have been implemented are not only violating innocent people’s basic human rights, but they may also have the reverse effect. There are examples that have occurred elsewhere that can be used to highlight this. First, Tajik officer Gulmorod Khalimov, who made headlines after he left the Tajik army to join ISIS. He explained that he made this decision after he was exposed to anti-Muslim rhetoric during his anti-terrorism course training in the United States, illustrating that a harmful or negative rhetoric about Muslims, similar to the one currently being propagated in China, can lead to and encourage radicalization. Second, when David Cameron, previous British Prime Minister, announced his plans for cracking down on extremists in Britain, the Muslim Council of Britain argued that this would only push people further towards radicalization, noting that the “problem is the constant talk of legislation, harassment, and monitoring… [which] is what’s leading young people towards radicalism.” This is another instance that exemplifies the faulty approach taken by the Chinese government; when stringent measures are taken, such as monitoring and detainment in the case of the Uighur, there can be the unexpected outcome of increased extremism.
The Chinese government claims that they have detained the Uighur to prevent terrorism and extremism, but the methods used are neither humane nor effective. While there need to be measures taken to guarantee the safety of the citizens of China, there are other methods that can be utilized that do not involve the violation of innocent people’s basic human rights. If the Chinese government does indeed want to address terrorism, an approach that does not involve stigmatizing a whole ethnic group and religion is the only way to effectively do so.
As the Covid-19 pandemic is taking the whole world by a storm of chaos and confusion, it is directly affecting various aspects of people’s lives. People around the world are trying to get used to this new normal and cope up with the challenges and changes in daily life caused by this global crisis. Since we are facing an outbreak like none other, it has directly affected and changed how we live, work, communicate, and carry out our daily lives. Religion is a very important part of most people’s lives and affects their everyday routine as well as physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual beings. The freedom to have, follow, and practice a religion is a fundamental human right, and I will explore how the novel coronavirus crisis is impacting and interfering with the religious rights of people.
Since the pandemic has affected most places in the world, religious institutions and houses of worship are no exception. Churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples have been closed for all kinds of gatherings due to the social distancing protocols set through by the CDC as a response to Covid-19. In these unprecedented times, billions of people are resorting to religion as a first resort for comfort and solace. When all else looks unsettling, people of faith are turning closer to religion and spiritual observance throughout the world. But the pandemic has also interfered with traditional ways of practicing religion through the closure of the places of worship and withdrawal of gatherings of this sort. As a Muslim myself, I would like to share my observation and experience of the influence of this pandemic on the religious experiences of Muslims around the world.
Islam is the second largest and fastest growing religion in the world with more than 1.9 billion followers, thus a significant population of the world is facing challenges in exercising their religious rights and rituals. During the initial phase of the outbreak, the first immediate effect on Muslims was the cancellation of the Friday communal prayer. People were ordered to pray in their homes in order to avoid close contact with each other. This congregational prayer is of great significance to Muslims as they come together in mosques to listen to the weekly sermon, pray together, and fulfill this obligatory ritual. Therefore, its dismissal was a big deal for the Muslim communities worldwide and also led to conflicts in some areas. For example, worshippers in Pakistan clashed with police personnel trying to enforce the lockdown at the time of the prayer. Similarly, some mosques in Bangladesh continued to operate despite government restrictions and a massive prayer gathering with tens of thousands of devotees was held without permission from the authorities. The pictures of the event were shared on social media, where it was greatly criticized and sparked an outcry from people in favor of the lockdown. People in Indonesia were divided over Friday prayers and coronavirus fears, resulting in some praying at home and others gathered in mosques. Religious leaders in the U.S. also faced a dilemma in making the best decision for their followers, facing disagreements on whether or not to cancel Friday prayers. In the second week of March, Muslim organizations including the Islamic Medical Association of North America and the Islamic Society of North America gave a joint statement suspending Friday prayers and recommending necessary precautions to the Muslim community.
Protecting human life is one of the fundamental objectives of Islamic Shari’ah. This concept takes precedence over all other objectives of Islamic faith as life represents the foundation of our existence. Therefore, at times, preservation of human life and human rights is far more significant than the continuity of even essential practices of devotion.
People are finding alternate ways to keep practicing religion while also practicing social distancing. Online platforms are being widely used to share information, resources, and ways to get closer to religion as well as interact with other people of faith for support. To lift up the spirits of the Muslim community amid this pandemic, the call to prayer, Adhan, was chanted from loudspeakers in the heart of Europe in early April. Nearly 100 mosques in Germany and the Netherlands rang out with the sound of Adhan as a gesture of support for Muslims. A lot of mosques in Muslims countries have added a line at the end of every call to prayer, asking people to pray at home.
Adhan recited from mosques to fight against COVID-19 in Germany. Source: Yeni Safak, Creative Commons
Islam’s holiest site in Mecca, known as the Kaaba, which is always packed with tens of thousands of pilgrims year-round, was emptied due to Covid-19 concerns earlier this March. Muslims around the world were shocked, shuddered, and deeply saddened to see the holy place deserted for the first time in millennia. The images of the empty Kaaba inside Mecca’s Grand Mosque were extensively spread over social media as Muslims showed their concern and disappointment on this unprecedented yet imperative move. Every year, nearly 2.5 million pilgrims visit the holy sites of Mecca and Medina for a week-long ritual known as Hajj; one of the five pillars of Islam and obligatory for every able-bodied Muslim once in their lifetime. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia stopped Umrah, a non-mandatory pilgrimage, in late February due to the pandemic. As the unfavorable situation still persists, the cancellation of Hajj, which starts in late July, is also being considered. This is one of the largest human gatherings in the world, and its potential cancellation will affect millions of people and businesses around the world.
The Islamic month of Ramadan started a few days ago and it is one of the most important, sacred, and celebrated time of the year for Muslims. It is marked by fasting from sunrise to sunset, charitable giving to the less fortunate, spiritual renewal, praying and reading the Quran, abstaining from worldly pleasures to reconnect with the self and with God, and coming together as a community to celebrate. Muslims around the world are having a Ramadan like no other this year. The mosques are empty, the daily nightly prayer Tarawih is canceled, people are observing the holy month by praying in their homes and sharing meals with immediate families instead of large community feasts. People are trying to find alternate ways to have the Ramadan experience by holding virtual Iftar meetups, online sermons and halaqa sessions, and donating through online platforms amidst these social-distancing times. On one hand, lockdown in Ramadan has also allowed people to spiritually indulge themselves without worldly distractions like work and school and to modify their daily schedules accordingly. It has given some relief to those who are fasting to catch up on lost sleep from late night prayers and waking up in the middle of the night for the pre-fast meal suhoor. On the other hand, the cancellation of open Iftars organized by mosques and charitable organizations that allowed sharing a meal for everybody has taken a toll on the less fortunate who rely on these meals during Ramadan. Since the world is already facing an economic crisis and a lot of people are in an uncertain situation financially, this time of festive observance is becoming harder for those who are unable to provide for their families and take part in all the celebrations. Since the month of Ramadan teaches empathy and encourages acts of compassion and generosity, Muslims around the world are stepping up to help their brothers and sisters in this time of need. The act of fasting teaches patience, self-discipline, sacrifice, and empathy and these virtues are more important than ever for all of us to practice in these difficult times.
The end of Ramadan is commemorated with a celebration called Eid, which is also referred to as a gift for those who fasted the whole month. For us, the day of Eid is marked by wearing new clothes, going to the communal Eid prayer in the morning, celebrating with the community, and sharing meals and presents with family and friends afterwards. This year, it is expected to have a similar fate as Ramadan if the state of emergency continues, resulting in all the festivities being called off.
Coronavirus has also changed how funeral services and burials are carried out across the world. Islam has specific guidelines and rituals to perform for the deceased including washing/bathing the dead body, putting it into a coffin, and offering the collective prayer before a procession of friends and family takes the body for burial. According to the CDC guidelines, gatherings are not supposed to exceed 10 people and the body of the infected person should not be touched. Muslim scholars in the US have proposed alternative ways to carry out these procedures such as limiting the handling of the body to the specific staff of the graveyard or funeral home with the use of proper personal protective equipment (PPE). They have also suggested doing tayammum instead of bathing the dead body, which is characterized by wiping the face and hands of the deceased after touching a sandy surface. Additionally, family and friends are not allowed to be physically present during the burial or the prayer. Attendance at funerals is considered a collective obligation that must be carried out by a sufficient number of people, but changes are being made to ensure the safety of everyone. My mother’s uncle passed away from coronavirus last week in Boston, Massachusetts and his family was not allowed to see him at all. Instead, the funeral was live streamed and the prayer was held in the presence of only four people, one of them being the imam who led the prayer.
It is important to note that not only is this Covid-19 situation affecting religious experiences, but some of these rituals have also contributed to the spread of the virus. For example, a gathering of 16,000 worshippers at a Malaysian mosque became the largest known viral vector of the pandemic in Southeast Asia, spreading the coronavirus to half a dozen countries. Similarly, the pilgrimage of Shia sect Muslims to the holy cities of Iran led to the spread of the virus through Central and South Asia. The pilgrims reportedly caught the virus in the holy city of Qom, which was the epicenter of covid-19 in Iran and caused it to spread in their home countries upon return. Even though Pakistan shares its border with China, the novel coronavirus was introduced into the country through pilgrims returning from Iran. Similar cases have been seen around the world where coronavirus infections have been linked to religious gatherings, such as church services in South Korea and North Carolina, Jewish Purim celebrations, and Muslim prayer gatherings.
To conclude, religion is both a source of solace as well as a possibility of risk during a pandemic. People of faith around the world are struggling to keep a balance between religious practices and safety precautions. It is in the best interest of everyone to follow the social distancing guidelines whenever possible and find peace in their own beliefs, whatever they may be.
I recently wrote a blog post commending Saudi Arabia on advancements made with women’s rights. However, to follow up, I think it is important to note what Saudi Arabia still gets wrong in terms of human rights. While there are many ongoing human rights violations, the following discourse will focus specifically on the oppression of religious minorities, namely Shia Muslims, and the lack of freedom of speech. I am writing this post not to join the voices that criticize for the sake of criticizing, but rather because I think it is important for Muslims to be vocal about their expectations for countries that claim to be representing Islam.
Shia Muslims are a minority sect in Islam, making up around 10 percent of all Muslims. Because of this, they are often subject to oppression and discrimination by Sunni Muslims. Despite the fact that harmful rhetoric against Shia Muslims exists in most, if not all, Sunni-majority countries, it is especially disturbing in Saudi Arabia considering that the hatred and intolerance towards Shia Muslims has become institutionalized. For example, the Saudi Arabian government has allowed officials and religious scholars to belittle Shia Muslims and their beliefs. This is not only concerning because of the harmful language used, but also because these officials and scholars have influence over both the government and the general public, and thus play significant roles in shaping policy and public opinion. One government official known for spreading hateful rhetoric about Shia Muslims was Former Grand Mufti Abdel Aziz bin Baz, who was quoted saying, “The Shia are Muslims and our brothers? Whoever says this is ignorant, ignorant about rejectionists for their evil is great.” This is one example of many, but it illustrates the hateful rhetoric that Shia Muslims are often victims of.
The institutionalization of hatred against Shia Muslims is most clear in the Saudi Arabian justice and education systems. The justice system is highly discriminatory against Shia Muslims, namely in the criminalization of their religious practices and beliefs. Further, the government has made it illegal to build Shia mosques outside of Shia-majority cities. The education system is perhaps the worst of all, though, because it perpetuates the cycle of discrimination against Shia Muslims by indoctrinating young Saudi children with anti-Shia sentiments. For example, textbooks used in elementary and middle schools stigmatize Shia beliefs and practices and go as far as to claim that Shia Muslims are disbelievers, suggesting that Shia should not be considered Muslims. While criticizing their beliefs and practices is problematic in and of itself, saying that Shia are not Muslims is impermissible, both ethically and religiously, and only serves to cause further hatred and intolerance.
Freedom of Speech
The most blatant example of a human rights violation against the people of Saudi Arabia is the lack of freedom of speech, which has especially detrimental ramifications for individuals advocating for human rights. For example, in 2018, several women’s rights activists were arrested and charged with treason solely for their work in activism. This came at the same time that Prince Mohammed bin Salman had lifted the ban on women driving, and ironically, many of the women who were arrested had been advocating for women’s right to drive. Thus, while lifting the ban was a positive move forward, the imprisonment of these women makes the intentions behind Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s decision to lift the ban confusing; it is difficult to deduce whether Prince Mohammed bin Salman is truly concerned with women’s rights, or if this was a step taken to make Saudi Arabia appear that it is being reformed and moving towards modernization. His intentions can be further called into question considering the extent to which these women’s rights have been violated; not only were these women arrested and detained, but it is known that they were also electrically shocked and whipped during interrogations, which amounts to cruel and inhumane treatment. To this day, some of these women are still imprisoned, unlikely to be released without international intervention. However, it is important to note that this was not an isolated event. While Saudi Arabia has always used arrests and detentions to deal with dissidents, the number of detentions significantly increased after Prince Mohammed bin Salman took power in 2017; over 60 individuals identified as dissidents have been arrested and held.
Muslims around the world strongly oppose Islamophobia and the oppression of Muslims, which is a great thing. However, Muslims tend to be silent about Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations, which is troubling. While many Muslims do call out these violations, many others either turn a blind eye, or even worse, find justifications for these violations. However, this is a double standard; if Muslims around the world truly care about their own rights, it follows that they must care about the rights of all of those who are oppressed, especially when Muslim majority countries are responsible for causing this oppression.
A $1.4bn observatory called the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is slated to be built on Maunakea, a mountain on Hawaii’s Big Island, this year. This telescope would be the largest in the Northern Hemisphere and would provide images more than 10x sharper than those from the Hubble Space Telescope, allowing astronomers to explore even deeper into space. Yet, while the construction of a new telescope on a tall mountain might seem like a neutral endeavor, it is rife with issues of justice.
The construction of TMT was initially stopped in 2015 when Native Hawaiians and allies blocked the road to construction crews for months until the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court officially stopped construction that December. Then in 2019, developers were given the go-ahead to once again begin construction. In response, protesters (or as they prefer to be called protectors) turned out to block the road, with the protest coming to a head in July, when 38 kūpuna (revered elders) were arrested and Hawaii’s governor, David Ige, signed an emergency proclamation giving law enforcement more control over the area and allowed them to bring in National Guard troops. However, the protectors did not back down and have been camped at the road ever since.
In December, protectors at the Mauna Kea Access Road removed barricades and shifted their camps to the side of the road for the first time, opening the access road to all traffic except construction equipment as part of a deal with Mayor Kim. In return, the Mayor promised, “that no attempt will be made to move TMT construction equipment up the mountain for a minimum of two months.” Protectors hope this time can be used to influence decisionmaking in other arenas. While this update does look promising, in January the trial for the first group of protectors arrested began and has so far highlighted the opposing viewpoints of this protest. According to Deputy Attorney General Darrell Wong “These defendants may have characterized their actions as kapu aloha and peaceful, but nonetheless it involved a plan, an organized plan, something that was calculated and basically something that was unjustified.” Yet the protectors and their attorney view their actions as a response to the government blocking the activists from practicing their religion and culture, which is protected under the law.
The protectors are not anti-science, as some TMT supporters have claimed. They are not opposed to the scientific advancements brought by such a telescope but they are opposed to its chosen location. Maunakea is a sacred mountain that is said to connect native Hawaiians to the cosmos. According to the Maunakea Visitor Information Station, the mountain is the dwelling place of the goddess Poli’ahu, it is associated with the Hawaiian deities Lilinoe and Waiau, and the summit is considered the realm of the gods.
The construction of TMT would negatively impact the sacred land and the telescope would increase activities on the mountain, further degrading the environment. The mountain top is already home to 13 other telescopes and since multiple alternative sites were found by the board of directors behind TMT to be “excellent for carrying out the core science” of the observatory, it at first seems off that TMT supporters seem so committed to this location. However, if we take a step back to look at the issue it is easy to see the link between this current protest and the history of ill-treatment to native Hawaiians and the continued desecration of their native lands.
A Brief History of US Interference in Hawaii
The history of Hawaii was absent from all of my education. It had always been just the 50th state and an island vacation spot until I lived in American Samoa and decided to learn more about the history of US intervention in Polynesia. It was then that I learned about the fraught history of Hawaii, a history that I honestly should have known and could have at least guessed at if I had taken a moment to. Just as North America was colonized, so too was Hawaii and many continue to consider the island to be occupied by the US.
In 1887, King David Kalakaua was forced, at gunpoint, to sign a new constitution for the Kingdom of Hawaii, which stripped the monarch of the majority of his authority. The new constitution had been written by a group of white businessmen, many of whom were connected to the sugar and pineapple plantations on the island, who wanted the Kingdom to become part of the US. When the King died, his sister Lili’uokalani succeeded him and attempted to restore power to the monarchy. This action angered the same white businessmen and they formed a 13-member Committee of Safety which forced Queen Lili’uokalani to abdicate her throne. The Committee then proclaimed itself the Provisional Government of Hawaii.
President Harrison signed a treaty of annexation with the Provisional Government, but before it could be ratified, President Cleveland was elected and the treaty was withdrawn. President Cleveland also appointed a special investigator to investigate the events in Hawaii, who found that there had been a coup. He then ordered Queen Lili’uokalani to be restored to power, but the Provisional Government refused and declared Hawaii a republic in 1894. Soon after the US government officially recognized it as a republic. In 1895, Native Hawaiians staged mass protests and eventually took up arms to stop the annexation, but the protest was suppressed and the leaders, along with Queen Lili’uokalani, were jailed. In 1898, Congress passed the “Newlands Resolution” officially annexing Hawaii and, in 1959, it became the 50th state.
Theoretically, sacred land disputes should not exist because of existing protections of religion in the US. The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right for people to practice their own religion, with the first clause providing that “Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise” of religion and the second prohibiting Congress from making laws “respecting an establishment of religion”. Since sacred lands are part of the “religious” practices of many Native Americans they should be protected. Unfortunately, this has not been the case in the courts. In Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association, a group of Native Americans from the Yurok, Karuk, and Tolowa tribes objected to proposed road construction within the Six Rivers National Forest because it would destroy land that they held sacred. The district, appellate, and Supreme courts all agreed that the activity would indeed violate their religious needs, yet the Supreme Court ruled against them. The Court ruled that in this case, while the activity would adversely affect their religion and destroy the sacred location, the government was not prohibiting the practice of their religion and therefore construction could continue (Bowman, 1989).
The establishment clause of the First Amendment, prohibiting government endorsement of religions, has also proven detrimental to the fight for the protection of sacred lands. According to the Supreme Court ruling in Lemon v. Kurtzman, government actions must be secular in nature, or at least neutral, and must avoid “excessive entanglement in religion”. In practice, this has resulted in the protection of sacred lands by the government being ruled unconstitutional. Based on this decision, courts found that the National Parks Service’s 1995 Final Climbing Management Plan (FCMP) for Devil’s Tower National Monument violated the establishment clause because it placed a mandatory ban on climbing during June out of respect for local tribal religious practices (Bonham, 2002). In response, the ban was changed to a voluntary one and the case was dismissed, however, some in the climbing community still oppose the ban in any form arguing that they have a right to climb the Tower. While this might appear at least as a partial win for the tribes, what it illustrates is that protecting native sacred land sites is considered a governmental endorsement of religion by the courts and would, therefore, violate the establishment clause.
In short, the courts have continuously failed to protect sacred lands and to adequately protect the practice of indigenous belief systems and cultural practices. A point to think about in light of this failure is that the US Constitution and legal system are not culturally neutral. It is rooted in European legal traditions and Christain morality and theology. Just as culture shapes how individuals see the world, it also shapes how the legal system sees the world and responds to disputes. The Anglo-American legal tradition is capable of recognizing the “sacred” when it takes the form of a church structure, a sermon or a piece of art; but a mountain, a lake, a river? These places are empty until people make their mark. Therefore these sacred land disputes are not merely conflicts between individual rights and government or corporate power but are conflicts between different cultures and different ways of seeing and experiencing the world.
In the case of Mauna Kea, the mountain is holy and an integral element of native Hawaiian religion and culture, a culture that the US systematically tried to wipe out. The land in and of itself is sacred and deeply connected to the people and that should be respected. While the building of a telescope may seem neutral, it is not. It is the destruction and desecration of the mountain and cannot be separated from the history of colonization and occupation of the island. In the end, no telescope is worth dehumanizing others. Mauna Kea shows that science does not happen in a vacuum. It must critically examine who is benefitting from the information and at what cost.
As Kealoha Pisciotta, one of the protest leaders, put it, “For Native Hawaiians, there is a question of our right to self-determination as defined by international law, but I think it’s so much bigger than that,” said Pisciotta. “It’s about us learning to live and be interdependent.”
This Sunday September 29, a protest and awareness gathering was conducted at Linn Park by the Birmingham Islamic Society to advocate for the rights of Kashmiris. The attendees dressed in red to show their support for the victims who vocalized their concerns and shared their stories. Some local Birmingham families have not been able to get in touch with their family members back home for almost two months now. All forms of telecommunication have been blocked in the region, cutting them off from the rest of the world.
The Kashmir region in South Asia, once known as the “Heaven on Earth” due to its naturally beautiful valleys and landscapes, has been a disputed territory since the partition of India and Pakistan under the British rule in 1947. The countries have been at war three times on the conflict of claiming the region and rule it in parts. The UN’s Security Council Resolution of January 20, 1948 proposed a commission of three UN representatives to be selected by India, Pakistan, and Kashmir to mediate the situation, but the delay in the formation and implementation of the commission caused situations to change, and it ultimately failed to reach a conclusion or to devise a practical solution to the crisis. Control of the region has been disputed since then.
On August 5th earlier this year, the Indian government revoked the special status of the Indian-occupied region of Kashmir under Article 370 of its constitution. The only Muslim majority region of the country had the right to its own constitution and autonomy to make internal decisions under the article due to its special status, and annulling it has stripped them of these rights. Additionally, nearly 10,000 armed troops were sent to the area to impose a curfew in the region, evacuate tourists, shut off internet and other communication, and imprison their leaders.
As of October 1st, it has been 58 days since the lockdown of the territory. About eight million residents have been held hostages in their homes at gunpoint. The general public is not allowed to leave their homes and carry out their businesses, the schools and workplaces are closed, people are confined in their homes and neighborhoods, and the region is completely blacked out from the rest of the world. People with families and friends in the region are worried about their safety and are unable to contact them. The area has been flooded with armed troops and there is an overall sense of terror in the environment. This is a sheer violation of human rights being carried out for about two months now, but the world is silent.
The press has been trying to get into the disputed region to directly hear the views of victims. In video-recorded interviews, victims allege the Indian Army of subjecting them to extreme physical torture and mental persecution. Abid Khan, a 26-year-old Kashmiri, claims to have been grabbed by soldiers from his home in Hirpora and taken to a military camp where he was assaulted. His detailed account of the incident includes extreme physical and sexual abuse at the hands of four soldiers. Others reported being hung upside down, beaten with bamboo sticks, being electrocuted, and forced to drink large amounts of noxious liquid.
In the last week, I’ve spent time speaking with people living and working in #Kashmir – journalists, human rights lawyers and students. I wanted to hear directly from girls living in Kashmir right now. It took a lot of work from a lot of people to get their stories because of the communications blackout. Kashmiris are cut off from the world and unable to make their voices heard. Here is what three girls told me, in their own words: “The best way to describe the situation in Kashmir right now is absolute silence. We have no way of finding out what’s happening to us. All we could hear is the steps of troops outside our windows. It was really scary.” “I feel purposeless and depressed because I can’t go to school. I missed my exams on August 12 and I feel my future is insecure now. I want to be a writer and grow to be an independent, successful Kashmiri woman. But it seems to be getting more difficult as this continues.” “People speaking out for us adds to our hope. I am longing for the day when Kashmir will be free of the misery we’ve been going through for decades.” I am deeply concerned about reports of 4,000 people, including children, arbitrarily arrested & jailed, about students who haven’t been able to attend school for more than 40 days, about girls who are afraid to leave their homes. I am asking leaders, at #UNGA and beyond, to work towards peace in Kashmir, listen to Kashmiri voices and help children go safely back to school.
Nothing practical has been done to date by international organizations for peace and human rights. The victims are uncertain of their future, their lives are at the discretion of others, and their basic rights to freedom and mobility have been restricted through the use of force. They are unable to counteract because resistance is met with direct violence. The New York Times reported that when the Kashmiris attempted a peaceful protest in the streets of Srinagar after a few days of the lockdown, the Indian forces opened fire on them to scatter the crowd and cease them from further resistance, injuring at least seven people.
Kashmir has been a disputed and terror-imposed region for decades, but recent advancements by the Indian government have escalated the situation by making it “a living hell of anger and fear”. The world needs to understand that both India and Pakistan are nuclear-armed countries and the continued escalation of tension and confrontations may lead to a deadly nuclear war. The innocent residents of the region have sacrificed countless lives in the battle between the two countries. For decades, they have been suffering the consequences of British colonialism and their inefficiency during the Indo-Pak partition. When will their fight for freedom come to an end? When will the bloodshed and sacrifices of their loved ones bear fruit? When will they be able to enjoy normal lives and basic human rights? How many more lives will it take to make Kashmir a piece of heaven again? The answers are yet to be found.
The solution to the situation is complicated yet straightforward. It is their land and their lives. The only ones to decide their fate should be them, without any force or threat. This right was given to them by the UN, but unfortunately has not been implemented yet. A fair referendum by UN intervention can make it clear whether Kashmir wants to be a part of Pakistan, India, or a free state. But first, the abuse of human rights should be ceased by the world to normalize the lives of its residents.
We need to bring the attention of world leaders and organizations to the human rights crisis in Kashmir so they can intervene in the increasingly critical situation before it’s too late. To play our part in the fight against human rights abuse and bring attention to the Kashmir issue, we can show our support by raising our voice on different forums, especially social media using hashtags like #freekashmir, #standwithkashmir, and #endkashmirviolence.
“My holy place has been defiled…. My words are not intended as political fodder, I address all equally. Stop the words of hate,” said Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers. While it may sound as if Rabbi Myers spoke these words in Germany in the 1930s, he actually said them in the United States in 2018. That year, a gunman stormed into a Pittsburgh synagogue and killed eleven people who were worshipping there. Rabbi Myers leads one of the congregations who gathered at the synagogue. Just months later, in April 2019, another gunman entered a synagogue in Poway, California and killed one person and wounded three others on the final day of Passover. Authorities issued 109 hate crime charges against the shooter, including allegations that he also set fire to a nearby mosque. Other mosques are under attack even before they’re built. There have been protests surrounding plans to build mosques in various parts of the United States. In 2018, a Muslim group sued the city of Troy, Michigan, saying that the city has thwarted numerous attempts to open a mosque in the area.
Crimes and protests against religion aren’t confined to the United States, of course. In March 2019, yet another person shot and killed fifty-one people in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The gunman posted an Islamophobic and white supremacist manifesto online before streaming the attacks on social media. The next month, on Easter Sunday, a series of bombings at churches and hotels in different cities in Sri Lanka killed more than 290 people and wounded more than 500 other people. Referring to the bombings in Sri Lanka, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence tweeted, “This atrocity is an attack on Christianity & religious freedom everywhere. No one should ever be in fear in a house of worship.” This attack occurred on Easter Sunday and the Poway shooting occurred during Passover, two holy times for their respective religions. Sri Lanka canceled all Catholic masses the following week except for one: a mass by Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital. Sri Lanka’s president, Maithripala Sirisena, and its prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, attended the mass, which was also broadcast on television.
In the United States, the attacks on the synagogues violated the First Amendment of the country’s Constitution, which grants people the right to peaceably assemble and practice their religions. While the events in Sri Lanka, Pittsburgh, Poway, and Christchurch are indeed attacks on religion and religious freedom, they’re also attacks on so much more. Since they were attacks on religion, they were attacks on what people believed. They were attacks on what people thought.
What are some other types of attacks?
Sadly, these attacks on religion and thoughts seem to occur every day in various ways. While sometimes the attacks take the form of shootings and bombings, they also occur in quieter but still harmful ways. Protests about mosques in several areas of the United States are evidence of such attacks. The Muslim groups who have sued the city of Troy, Michigan, state that the city interfered with plans to open mosques in the city. Their lawsuit alleges that the city violated the U.S. federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. According to the FindLaw website, this act “protects the ability of religious institutions to exercise their purpose without restriction and to let their members apply their religious beliefs through the construction and use of property for religious purposes.”
Anti-mosque protests aren’t confined to Michigan, although the state has experienced a number of them. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) features a map of the United States on its website that illustrates anti-mosque incidents reported in the country. Only a handful of states – Alaska, Delaware, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Utah – did not experience any recorded incidents against mosques. The ACLU says, “While mosque opponents frequently claim their objections are based on practical considerations such as traffic, parking, and noise levels, those asserted concerns are often pretexts masking anti-Muslim sentiment.”
Denying people the physical space to practice their religion creates physical and ideological barriers to practicing religion. It marginalizes people by saying that they aren’t worthy to use the land to worship they way they want to worship, even though they are legal, tax-paying members of society, people who work, attend school, parent children, and buy groceries alongside other members of society. They are people who should have Constitutional protection to practice their religions but whose religious rights are sometimes considered less valid. Marginalizing people makes them feel less welcome as if they’re lesser people. It may even impact their health, as the stress of discrimination and feelings of being outsiders may make them anxious or depressed.
How do we stop such attacks?
We don’t have to believe what other people believe. We don’t have to agree with them. However, we do have to empathize with them. Education may help us develop this empathy. Schools already have classes in subjects such as geography, history, sociology, and world cultures. Some schools, especially parochial schools, have courses about religion. How about using such classes to teach students about different religions and how they impact cultures? Introducing religion to young people may make religions and the people who practice them more familiar to people while they’re still forming opinions on the world around them.
Outside of school, maybe we can try asking our family members, friends, coworkers, and classmates about their religions. Maybe we could use these conversations to learn how people practice their religion on a daily basis. Or, we could try going to the local library to check out some books or DVDs about different religions and cultures. More and more movie theaters are also showing films from other countries, which give us glimpses into the products of other cultures as well as the cultures themselves.
Of course, the web also provides a wealth of information about religion and so much else. Do you want to find general information about religion? Updates about how people treat members of different religions around the world? Suggestions on how to dress when you visit religious houses of worship? You can find all of that and more on the web. You may even join online discussion groups to talk about religion, ask people questions, and receive real, firsthand accounts about religious topics from real people.
If we know something, it’s harder to hate it. Talking with real people about their real religious beliefs puts a human face on religion. Yes, religion is a collection of beliefs about ethereal, intangible concepts. But religions are also collections of actual people who gather together for common purposes. They are collections of people who deserve rights and respect. We can grant and protect them by meeting and learning about people. If we don’t learn, are we just promoting ignorance and hate?
Pamela Zuber is a writer and an editor who has written about human rights, health and wellness, gender, and business.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples’ indigenous communities boast the oldest documented forms of culture in the world. For over 60,000 years (and some claim these communities have been in the Australian ‘neighborhood’ for 80,000 years), these societies were comprised of at least 500 distinct ethnic groups, sharing overarching worldviews and belief systems, but with widely diverse symbols and rituals, methods of exploring and explaining the world around them, and material expressions of their cultural heritage. Over the course of tens of thousands of years, Aboriginal peoples developed the oldest intellectual, religious, and artistic traditions in human history. As do all cultures, these traditions morphed and took shape over time, as the values of the Aboriginal peoples developed, as their surrounding ecological environment changed, and finally as colonizing forces destroyed much of the Aboriginal peoples and heritages. This post provides a brief overview of the colonization of Aboriginal communities and how, hundreds of years later, descendants of both Aboriginal communities and New Australians are working together to reconcile their shared traumatic history through the creation of shared cultural histories.
Colonial Past, Post-Colonial Future?
Broadly defined, colonization is the long-standing political practice of settling a population onto a new territory by subjugating and / or eradicating the current occupants. Colonization is rooted in domination – an assertion of power (e.g., political, economic, militaristic) for the benefit of the colonizing state. In essence, colonizers seek land or other natural resources, and they justify forcible expansion through various arguments from the religious (e.g., manifest destiny, divine rule) to the ethical (e.g., a ‘civilizing mission’) to the practical (e.g., terra nullius). Colonization is different from imperialism in the sense that imperialists seek absolute control over a territory, whereas colonizers seek to permanently settle a new population onto a territory. Colonization has ancient roots extending to the Romans, Moors, and Ottomans and likely beyond. Edward Said’s (1978) seminal text Orientalism helped usher in ‘postcolonial studies’, an intellectual framework intending to deconstruct the horrific consequences colonialism have had on global human development. At the most basic level, postcolonialism aims to explore and explain the world through the eyes of the ‘colonized people’, namely the indigenous groups that were and are repressed by colonizing forces and how this repression plays out in the modern day. In the case of Australia, this means Aboriginal communities.
For 200 years, contact between Aboriginal groups and outside world produced largely positive results, including trade relations and the sharing of technologies. Then in 1770, English Captain James Cook and his cadre begin settling in Australia, bringing with them disease, dispossession, and direct conflict. Within 10 years, the Aboriginal population was decimated; direct (e.g. violence) and indirect (e.g. alcoholism) effects of colonization murdered 90% of these communities. Even today, the violent legacy of colonization cascades into the lived experience of Aboriginal Australians. This collective trauma still impacts these individuals at the biological level (e.g., pathologically high rates of embodied stress), psychological level (e.g., higher rates of suicide), and the societal level (e.g., placing trauma as a central component of cultural production; Krieg, 2009). In the span of about 200 years, the historical and cultural legacies of the oldest societies on the planet were either intentionally destroyed or forcibly assimilated. In 1991, however, the Australian government moved to finally reconcile this violent past with surviving members of Aboriginal communities, drawing on the wisdom of these communities themselves.
Reconciliation: Measuring Success & The Canning Stock Route Project
In 1991, the Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody set the stage for reconciliation processes between Aboriginal and new Australians. The following decade saw the government-sponsored Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and its successor, the NGO Reconciliation Australia, standardize and elevate reconciliation processes between Aboriginal and new Australians. Reconciliation Australia posits five dimensions must be addressed in successful reconciliation attempts: (1) race relations; (2) equality and equity; (3) institutional integrity; (4) historical acceptance; (5) unity. McIntosh (2014) further clarifies best practices of Australian reconciliation efforts by measuring these attempts through the Reconciliation Process Analysis (RPA). The RPA grounds its prescription in two critical factors: visioning (imagining the ‘end state’ of reconciliation, i.e. unity between Aboriginal and new Australians, as decreed by Reconciliation Australia) and backcasting (workings backwards from this vision and labelling tangible steps that have the potential to lead to this reconciliatory vision; McIntosh, 2014). He lists three stages in the RPA:
Stage 1: “Search[ing] for all available information on the convergence of interests that created the agenda for reconciliation”; this emphasizes the “spaces of encounter or contact zone”.
Stage 2: Understanding how these spaces of encounter can lead to ‘tipping points’, whereby reconciliation processes are unstoppable both in public and private discourse; in effect, how to move from theory to practice.
Stage 3: Creating a reconciliation ‘report card’ by comparing the current state of affairs to visioning and backcasting efforts undertaken by reconciliation workers from both sides of the conflict.
Utilizing the RPA clarifies the success rate of reconciliation for the practitioner and, more importantly, offers concrete steps and directives for the actors involved in reconciliation processes. By utilizing this framework, Aboriginal and Western Australians now have a blueprint and a tool for functional analysis.
One documented reconciliatory success is the that of the Nguarra Kuju Walyja (translating to “One Country, One People” in a local Aboriginal dialect) Canning Stock Route Project (CSRP). The CSRP uses cartographic rendering from both Western and Aboriginal Australian sources to create a new transcultural map of portions of Western Australia that were colonized by the English (Milroy & Revell, 2013). This project involved combining colonial-era mapping (originally belonging to Surveyor Alfred Canning) with religious artistic techniques belonging to the indigenous communities forcibly displaced and murdered by Canning and his crew (Scott, 2011). The CSRP features a hybrid of Western and Indigenous art media (cartography, sand illustration, paint, etc.) for the purpose of intercultural apology, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
To learn more of the artists involved in the project, click here, and to see the artwork used in the CSRP, click here.
Processes such as these benefit not only the public who consumes the art, but also the researchers, artists, and practitioners who work together on the project (Milroy & Revell, 2013, Smithers Graeme & Mandawe, 2017). An autoethnographic and reflexive examination of the reconciliation processes enjoyed by the producers of the CSRP would likely reveal changes in outlook between these producers; the act of physically participating in the creation of a reconciliation project may have more tangible effects on the artists than the public. This and other initiatives similar to the Canning Stock Route Project should be analyzed using McIntosh’s RPA to assess tangible reconciliation outcomes and their impacts in the broader communities these projects serve. This form of reconciliation research would connect the general benefits of reconciliation, such as the integration of histories, with empirical support. Reconciliation is, after all, both an art and a science.
The Dreaming & The Land
A central aim of the CSRP was an intentional integration of European history (vis-à-vis ‘Western Geography’) and Aboriginal history (vis-à-vis the land-based worldview of The Dreaming). This history is co-written, it is co-owned, and it draws on cultural heritages and strengths of both parties. We are all familiar with the notion of Western Geography – but what is the Aboriginal Dreaming?
The Dreaming, loosely translated, means several things: the time of creation (when animistic spirits sang the world into existence), the spiritual / ethical code of an Aboriginal individual, and the cultural laws governing Aboriginal tribes (Milroy & Revell, 2013). The Dreaming is both a worldview and a system of behavior – there is no differentiation within many Aboriginal societies.
The Dreaming informs Aboriginal tribes of their cultural history and collective memory through story, art (with particular emphasis on performative aspects, such as dance), pilgrimage, and other rites / rituals (Petchovsky, San Roque & Beskow, 2003). The Dreaming is the spiritual and cultural tradition of Aboriginals, and the Dreaming is central to every facet of their lives. The Dreaming, Aboriginal Australia’s religious and cultural system, is literally rooted in the Australian landscape (Milroy & Revell, 2013). Landmarks are holy sites to the Aboriginals; some locations’ sacredness is shared by all tribes, some tribes, or one tribe. The unifying factor, amidst hundreds of Aboriginal traditions, is the relationship between person, spirit, and land in Australia. The spiritual lives of Aboriginal Australians are nourished by this relationship; by the same token, land theft and forced displacement robs the Aboriginal not only of his or her Country but also their spiritual home and fortitude. The CSRP, at its most fundamental, approached reconciliation through the land. Land theft cleaved the relationship between colonizers and Aboriginal communities, therefore land sharing may mend this relationship.
A Dream of Reconciliation
Initiatives such as the Canning Stock Route Project aim to engender sustainable peace and reconciliation between descendants of indigenous populations and their colonizers – this is at the heart of healing from cultural violence. Other similar reconciliation movements, such as those between European Americans and Native Americans, must take heed from the successes of the CSRP. Government policies, such as reparations, are not enough to successfully reconcile cultures dominated by violence and repression. Successful reconciliation also hinges on heritage – such as Aboriginal societies’ profound love of and respect for their land. nHeritage lives through art, through wisdom texts, and through stories passed down over the course of many millennia (in the case of Aboriginal communities, 60,000 years and more). nIf the modern world truly seeks to heal from its colonial past, the glorious histories, beliefs, and heritages of indigenous communities must drive future reconciliation.
Below are images of Aboriginal rock art and of the Australian landscape that may have once inspired the Aboriginal Dreaming.
For more information about rock art, visit here, here, and here.
For information on the powerful connection between Aboriginal communities and land, visit here.
For a greater in-depth explanation of the Aboriginal Dreaming, visit here.
Borer, T. A. (2006). Telling the Truths. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
Krieg, A. (2009). The experience of collective trauma in Australian Indigenous communities. Australian Psychiatry, 17(special supplement), 28-32.
McIntosh, I. S. (2014). Reconciliation, you’ve got to be Dreaming: Exploring methodologies for monitoring and achieving Aboriginal reconciliation in Australia by 2030. Conflict Resolution Quarterly, 32(1).
Milroy, J. & Revell, G. (2013). Aboriginal story systems: Re-mapping the West, knowing country, sharing space. Occasion: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities, 3, 1-24.
Petchovsky, L., San Roque, C. & Beskow, M. (2003). Jung and the Dreaming Analytical psychology’s encounters with Aboriginal culture. Transcultural Psychology, 40(2), 208-238.
Said, E. W. (1978). Orientalism. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.
Scott, S. (2011). Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route. Australia Historical Studies, 42, 289-294.
Smithers Graeme, C. & Mandawe, E. (2017). Indigenous geographies: Research as reconciliation. The Interdisciplinary Indigenous Policy Journal, 8(2), 1-19.
Saudi Arabia is in the Middle East and occupies about “four-fifths of the Arabian Peninsula”. It is home to Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina. When thinking of Saudi Arabia, most people associate it with religion, petroleum wealth, and tribalism. Although, throughout the years, Saudi Arabia has become more urban while experiencing vast technological, educational, social, and economic changes. However, in terms of women’s rights, Saudi Arabia has received much backlash.
Women’s Rights Timeline in Saudi Arabia
In 1955, Saudi Arabia’s first school for girls was created and, in 1970, the first university for women opened its doors. In 2001, women were allowed to get personal identification cards as long as they had permission from their guardian. Furthermore, it was issued to the guardian, not the women. Until 2005, it was cultural practice for women to be forced into marriages even though it was considered illegal. Four years later, in 2009, the first female government minister, Noura al-Fayez, was appointed. In 2012, women were allowed to compete in the Olympics on the national team for the first time. Before the 2012 Olympic Games, there was a possibility that Saudi Arabia could be banned due to gender discrimination. A year later, women could ride bicycles and motorcycles in recreational areas but only if they wear the full Islamic body covering and have a male relative present. That same year, 30 women were sworn into the consultative council, the Shura. In 2015, women could run for office for the first time, which resulted in 20 women being elected to municipal roles in the absolute monarchy. Beginning just last year, women can now go to the sports stadiums and drive. Furthermore, in order for women to get their driver license, they do not need permission from a male guardian and can drive by themselves. Finally, in 2019, there a new law established where women would receive a text message if they got divorced, whereas in the past, their marriage could end without their knowledge. Additionally, they can check their marital status online or in court, but only if she has her husband’s approval or if he has harmed her. Many of these policy reforms still include male supervision. While persecution is a high risk, women are willing to fight for their freedom.
One of the most common reasons women flee Saudi Arabia is due to the restrictions placed on where women can travel. Women are not given the right to leave the country without their male guardian’s permission. Furthermore, a woman’s ability to choose her marriage partner is solely dependent on the permission of their male guardian. In January 2019, the country set the minimum age of marriage at 18, but girls aged 15-18 can still become married without the court’s approval. Other reasons include but are not limited to domestic violence, discrimination in employment and healthcare, and inequality in divorce, child custody, and inheritance.
In Saudi Arabia, there is an app called Absher, which the government can access. The purpose of the app is for men to approve or deny women to go abroad. As mentioned earlier, some women have tried fleeing the country and must do this secretly due to not having permission from their male guardian. In this case, technology is detrimental for women’s rights because it places a limitation on their freedom. Technological advancement makes it easier for men to have power over women by “policing” the women’s movement. Whenever a woman wants to go to the airport, she cannot leave without the government and her guardian knowing because they receive a text alert; people have gotten around this system. For example, Salwa left Saudi Arabia by getting her father’s phone and replacing his information with her information. Thus, she was able to make consent for her sister and herself, although risking legal consequences. People believe that these apps are causing discrimination to become more normalized. Unfortunately, even though the companies are aware of the circumstances, removing the app would not solve women’s issues in Saudi Arabia. The government in Saudi Arabia has a website that comprises of the same functionality as the app does.
During a session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, leaders of Saudi Arabia discussed their goal of developing the country by increasing participation from women. In fact, the number of female diplomats has expanded steadily over the years. While the future for Saudi Arabia’s women is unknown, there is “cautious optimism” in regards to women having a bigger role in society and politics.
In the arid and ashen deserts of Xinjiang, the northwestern province of China, as many as 1 million Uyghurs have been detained in internment camps by the Chinese government for mandatory “re-education.” Scores of the compounds can be seen vividly from satellite images. Enclosed by concrete walls, barbed wire, and guard stations, they have the imposing sterility of prisons. Inside, the detainees, Uyghurs, and members of a few other ethnic groups who practice the Muslim faith, are forced to participate in a program of indoctrination, listening to lectures, singing songs that praise the Communist Party of China, and writing essays of “self-criticism.” They are also coerced into abandoning traditional practices tied to Islam: praying, growing a beard, wearing a headscarf, and abstaining from pork and alcohol.
The stated aim of the campaign is to eliminate extremism in a region that has been marked by unrest and separatist violence, to produce “transformation by education.” One revealing official document reviewed by Agence-France Press states that to produce this change, the centers must “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins.” It’s clear that in Xinjiang, China has gone far beyond fighting separatism and works actively to erase a great cultural tradition for the purposes of political stability. The mass detention underway is a reflection of the Xi Jinping government, a nationalistic, hardline regime that often glorifies the practices of the Mao years. During the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976, millions of youth from Chinese cities were sent to the countryside for “re-education.” The recent spate of mass detentions should come as no surprise.
Who are the Uyghurs in Xinjiang?
Xinjiang is a province in China that borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia. China is dominated by the Han majority, which comprises over 90 percent of the population, but is also home to 55 ethnic minorities. About 10 million Muslim Uyghurs (and other Muslim minorities) live in the Xinjiang province. The Uyghurs, who feel a stronger kinship with the peoples of Central Asia than with the Han Chinese, speak a distinct Turkic language similar to Uzbek and practice a form of Sunni Islam. They have left a distinct mark on the history of Inner Asia, having ruled their own kingdom that stretched from Manchuria to the Caspian Sea in the eighth and ninth centuries but is now concentrated in Xinjiang. Since the Communist Party took over China in 1949, Xinjiang has been ruled by China as an “autonomous” region that is not truly autonomous. Freedoms and liberties for the Uyghurs have been curtailed heavily – the recent mass detentions are only a piece of the larger picture of repression that Uyghurs face.
Uyghurs are divided in opinion over their political autonomy. Some support remaining a distinct culture within the Xinjiang Autonomous Region or integrating into the Chinese system, while others call for becoming a separate state called “East Turkestan.” For China, Xinjiang is an important province, the biggest domestic producer of oil and gas that is also a critical logistics hub for the “Belt and Road Initiative,” an ambitious trillion dollar infrastructure plan meant to strengthen China’s global influence. China is also concerned that unrest in Xinjiang will spark unrest in other provinces such as Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Taiwan.
The brutal measures toward the Muslims in Xinjiang are only one aspect of the broader repression levied against religious groups in China under Xi Jinping. The U.S. State Department has long designated China as a “particular country of concern” with regards to religious freedom. An authoritarian state that fears the rise of civil society, China has placed restrictions on all religious groups—from the Tibetan Buddhists to Christians to Falun Gong practitioners. Throughout the history of the PRC, the state has been monitoring the activities of major religious organizations and even banning groups such as the popular spiritual movement Falun Gong, which had gained approximately 70 million followers in China before it was declared illegal. On the Tibetan plateau, where there are six million adherents of Tibetan Buddhism and its exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, we see some of the most extreme measures. Paramilitary police patrol the streets to monitor the movements ethnic Tibetans, reinforced by a fleet of video cameras recording all events for review. The “grid management” system that Xinjiang now employs was tried and tested first in Tibet, where an army of community workers oversee sections of the city divided into “grids” to provide security officials with real-time data that could uncover the first signs of potential unrest.
Since Xi Jinping has consolidated power, the crackdown on religion has intensified. The uptick in repression has been especially visible for Protestant churches and quasi-Christian groups since 2016. Reports from Christians in China tell of an alarming increase in Bibles burned, churches demolished, and pastors detained. As Heritage Foundation fellow Olivia Enos explains, “I think that the Chinese government, like so many authoritarian governments around the world, recognizes that religion gives an alternative authority to the government and it requires the allegiance of the people to an authority that is, frankly, far higher than the government.”
A Police State Emerges in Xinjiang
Maintaining political stability in Xinjiang has been paramount for China, especially as discontent has flared up in recent years. As Xinjiang has developed economically since 1949, the government has encouraged the migration of Han Chinese into the region. Tensions have arisen as many Uyghurs resent discrimination by the government and the Han Chinese. Uyghurs have watched the higher paying jobs go to the ethnically Han Chinese while the Uyghur “minorities” have been given the labor-intensive jobs for lesser pay. Long-simmering tensions exploded in 2008 and 2009 when thousands of Uyghurs took to the streets to riot in Xinjiang over the unfair treatment by the government and the Han Chinese.
Blaming the 2008 and 2009 riots on Uyghur separatists, China has since implemented increasingly repressive policies to control the Uyghurs in Xinjiang under the guise of combating terrorism and extremism. Several Uyghur-led rebellions against the Chinese government have punctuated the history of Xinjiang, dating back to the early 1900s. During the Qing Dynasty, the imperial government’s attempt to assimilate the Uyghur people into China created antagonism between Uyghurs and the Chinese government that became a foundation of the newly formed Uyghur identity. Today, there also exist extreme separatist groups in Xinjiang with ties to global jihad, including the Turkestan Islamic Party, which took credit for a series of attacks in 2008. In one sense, it is easy to see why the current government of China would be vigilant about violence and ensuring that the Uyghurs never rise up again as they have in history. They fear that China will splinter if regional separatist movements gain traction and inspire each other. Yet China has gone far beyond fighting the perceived threat, now detaining innocent people and infringing on so many aspects of their daily lives.
The brutal repression of the Uyghurs expanded dramatically in 2016 with the installation of a new Party chief, Chen Quanguo, who has brought his experience quelling unrest as the former Party chief of Tibet. In 2017, Xinjiang’s security spending increased by more than 90 percent to $8.52 billion. Xinjiang is now a police state where the government intrudes into many aspects of people’s lives. According to one detailed report that summarizes the findings of numerous accounts in the media:
“Uyghurs have been banned from fasting during Ramadan, refusing to eat pork, refusing to wear shorts, refusing to watch state TV or listen to state radio, wearing burqas, having “abnormal” beards, performing traditional funeral rites, speaking to family members overseas, travelling overseas, and giving their children Islamic names such as Mohammad and Fatima.”
Chinese flags and Communist slogans have been installed in mosques.
“Convenience police stations” have been set up every 500 meters in the capital city of Urumqi
Local officials have been required to “live, eat, and study” with local families.
Volunteers are assigned households to monitor. They are charged with finding out what organizations people belong and “the sort of lives they lead” including their political opinions.
40,000 face-recognition cameras have been installed to track Uyghurs
All drivers in Xinjiang have been required to install GPS trackers in their cars that will monitor their movements
Police have taken voice samples, DNA samples, fingerprints, and iris scans.
Uyghurs are regularly required to have their ID cards checked doing typical activities in a day such as traveling and filling up gas.
Perhaps the most drastic measures have been the mass detentions. Uyghurs who have committed no crime other than practicing their religion – activities such as reading an Islamic verse at a funeral or making a pilgrimage to Mecca – have been arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang. As former detainees tell their stories, the world has gotten a sense of what takes place inside of the camps. It’s not the sunny “vocational education” that Chinese officials and state television have propagated. Part of the detention involves education: former detainees have described being taught daily lessons in Pinyin, the Romanized system of Chinese. Other lessons are less innocuous—songs praising Xi Jinping, curriculum about the hero Lei Feng to inspire devotion to communism. Detainees have reported being forced to recite “126 lies” about religion. “Religion is opium, religion is bad, you must believe in no religion, you must believe in the Communist Party,” one former detainee remembers.
The use of force is not uncommon in the camps. Official documents obtained about the camps include a procurement order for 2,768 police batons, 550 electric cattle prods, 1,367 pairs of handcuffs, and 2,792 cans of pepper spray. Another detainee has told the BBC that they were forced to wake before sunrise every morning for mandatory runs. Those who didn’t run fast enough were beaten and kicked by guards. More beatings were in store for detainees who couldn’t recite correctly the laws they were forced to memorize. In one case, an ethnically Kazakh man who had been detained revealed to NPR that he had been tortured for resisting the orders of a guard to make his bed and throwing the mattress at the guard—though he was the only one at his camp to actually be tortured rather than just threatened. He’d been forced to wear a suit made of metal weighing over 50 lbs that stretched out his limbs and caused him immense pain in his back. “They made people wear this thing to break their spirits,” he told NPR. “After 12 hours, I became so soft, quiet and lawful.”
The humanitarian crisis against Muslims in Xinjiang can hold lessons for the United States as well, especially with regards to the recent travel ban against five Muslim majority countries. In the name of national security, China has swept a broad swath of society into one vilified category and carried out massive human rights violations against their own citizens on the basis of faith. China doesn’t honor religious freedom or the rights of minorities. To the Chinese government, there is no sense that these rights should be protected when larger objectives are at stake. These protections, however, are a defining characteristic of the United States as a democracy. In the words of the Declaration of Independence, all men are created equal. Honoring the fundamental rights of one group means honoring the rights of all. It ensures that there will be no “tyranny of the majority.” While the travel ban does not compare to the vast violation of civil liberties in China, it undermines the spirit of democracy and contributes to the widespread prejudice and discrimination against people of religious faith in America.
Dianna Bai is a Birmingham-based writer who currently writes for AL.com. Her writing has been featured on Forbes, TechCrunch, and Medium. You can find her portfolio here.
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