Meeting the Uyghur Leader Rebiya Kadeer

The Dragon Fighter Speaks Up
By Abdelrahman Rashdan
Political Science Researcher

Editor's Note: In a 2010 exclusive interview with OnIslam.net, the prominent leader of the Uyghur Muslims of China's Autonomous Region of Xinjiang Rabiya Kadeer spoke out against the atrocities committed against her people by the Chinese government. OnIslam.net re-highlights the interview now in an effort to bring back the forgotten misery to attention.
Rebiya Kadeer, president of the World Uyghur Congress, gestures during a news conference.(Reuters Photo)
Meeting the Uyghur Leader Rebiya Kadeer
In a glass-walled meeting room in an ultra-modern furnished building, just across the street from the White House, a woman in a brown coat and a distinctive Doppa cap came in. She looked Asian, yet not much Chinese, but different from most of the Asians I have known. When she spoke, she was not using an Asian language, but a Turkic one. Her passport is supposed to say "Chinese", but clearly she was not one, at least for me. She told me about the story of her Uyghur people; the people who have a distinct culture, religion, language, and traditions, but forced to live and be like Chinese.

Rebiya Kadeer is a prominent Uyghur leader in the US. She spent six years of her life in a Chinese prison for standing for the rights of the Uyghur people against the Chinese government. Before her arrest in 1999, she was a well-known Uyghur businesswoman and at one time the seventh wealthiest person in the People's Republic of China.

Released in March 2005, Kadeer traveled to the US and became the president of the Uyghur American Association, which represents Uyghurs in the US, and the World Uyghur Congress, that is an umbrella organization for 47 Uyghur groups worldwide.

When she spoke about the situation in East Turkistan, I spotted tears in her eyes. Her Doppa cap would fall back her head as she used all her body language to deliver the meanings, the feelings about what her people are living.  

OnIslam.net (OI): Has the Obama administration taken enough steps to face the human rights violations in China? What do you think the US should be doing?

Chinese authorities have been detaining and killing people everyday.

Kadeer: Obama administration has actually disappointed us — the Uyghurs. On the 5th of July, 2009, there was unrest in the capital city of East Turkistan, Urumqi, and the Chinese government cracked down on our people. The crackdown has been ongoing till today, they are arresting and detaining people. They killed hundreds of people and arrested thousands. Recently I announced that the Chinese authorities arrested thousands of people and that ten thousand Uyghur people have disappeared after the Urumqi incident. Genocide is going on in our homeland and the Obama administration knows well about it, but it is still silent and has not said anything to stop this tragedy.

Chinese authorities have been detaining and killing people everyday. We have been receiving news and information everyday that people are disappearing, arrested, and being killed. The world doesn’t know what is going on there.

The southern part of East Turkistan does have religiously devout Muslims, so the Chinese authorities arrested most of the religious people from this area. They arrested women with headscarves, men with beards, and any person with connections to religion in the region.

In February 1997, there was unrest in the city of Ghulja, this was a protest against the arrest of the religious figures. People went to the streets to ask the government to release those leaders that have been arrested on the 27th of Ramadan on that year.

Those were religious figures who did not say anything against the government, they preached Islam to people. They told people to be good with others, avoid taking drugs, and avoid drinking alcohol.

The government did not do anything to prevent the Uyghur youth from taking drugs.

OI: Does the government push the Uyghurto take drugs, or it generally does not take measures against the spread of drugs?

Todays_China_and_XinjiangToday's China includes East Turkestan, also called Xinjiang.
I would like to explain the whole picture in details. Before 1987, sex trade was never known in Eastern Turkistan. Religion and traditions of Uyghurs have always been standing against this; we never heard about it before then. We never heard about sex shops, for example, in our history.

Uyghurs also have not heard before then about drugs. Drugs came from mainland China.

Until 1987, the people did not know about taking drugs and were not addicted to alcohol. Our religion prohibits drinking alcohol and people were very strict about that. Of course, there were people who were drinking alcohol, these people were the atheists and the members of the communist party of China.

Suddenly after 1987, drugs appeared in our land. There was a flow of drugs from mainland China and Uyghur youth started to take these things. They did not know what it was; there were a lot of rumors about these things.

New brothels were opened by the Chinese business people; they came from China and brought their girls from there to our region. They managed also to bring some of the Uyghur university girls facing financial challenges to this trade. And Because of the huge propaganda, they managed to influence many people.

I was a member of the parliament at that time, I talked to the government and urged them to take measures to raise awareness and prevent people from taking drugs and alcohol. But the government did not do anything or use the television, radio, or newspapers to promote an anti-drug and anti-alcohol culture. Because of the lack of efforts from the government, thousands of young Uyghur people became drug addicts and alcoholic. Consequently, our religious figures organized themselves and began to raise awareness. They used mosques and gatherings as a platform to speak out. Then, the Chinese authorities arrested all the religious figures who talked against the spread of alcohol and drugs.

On the 5th of February, 1997, the students of the arrested religious figures went out to protest in streets and asked the government to release the leaders. The government responded brutally, it killed hundreds of the young students and protesting Uyghur teenagers.

They continued the arrest of those who participated in the demonstration and their relatives. The arresting campaign continued for one year.

After this incident, hundreds of people were executed by the Chinese authorities. Execution happened everyday and the government forced people to go to streets and applause its response.

OI: Why did the government arrest the religious leaders? Does the Chinese government have a systematic policy of discrimination against Muslims in the region?

They want to destroy our religion therefore our fight is to keep our religion.
Kadeer: Of course, it is a policy for 60 years by the Chinese authorities to root out Islam.

There was a very famous cleric in our land, Oblikim Maksum, who once had 4,000 students who used to study under his leadership for 15 years . The cleric and his students were arrested by the government. They were arrested because they were learning their own religion and preaching Islam.

So, one of the main policies for the Chinese government is to, first of all, root out religion, which is Islam in this case. This is a communist government.

OI: Do the Chinese authorities view Islam as part of the Uyghur identity that would incite separatist activities?

Kadeer: It may be considered as part of that, but the Chinese government is an atheist one, it considers religion as the number one enemy of the state and therefore its main goal is to root out religion. They propagate for atheism, and their main goal for 60 years was to root out Islam just because the Uyghurs are Muslims.

If the Chinese authorities do not want to root out the religion of the Uyghur people then Uyghurs will not have any problem with the Chinese and they can live together.

They want to destroy our religion, therefore our fight is to keep it.

I spent six years in prison. The first thing the Chinese authorities ask for is that you have to acknowledge that there is no god. If you accept it, then you will be treated well in prison; if you reject, you will be punished. Your hands and feet will be shackled.

There was a devoted Muslim called Shamshi Noor who was imprisoned by the Chinese authorities. Noor wanted to pray, so she made tayyamom [dry abolition Muslims do in absence of water] and did not want to loudly recite the verses from the Quran during prayer. However, the Chinese authorities suspected that she was reading the Quran silently; they punished her, and she was denied any food for 24 hours.

If the Muslim world investigated all these prisons, they would find that 25 percent of all prisoners in East Turkistan are religious people. The Chinese authorities do not imprison people who are drug addicts or alcoholic. If you do not wear headscarf you will be living very good in East Turkistan. All the old people who live through those conditions now and their children are facing serious problems, they are losing their moral values.

OI: Why is the Chinese regime using such a tough policy?

[Uyghur] Women had to go to the streets because their men have been arrested.
Kadeer: Now, the Chinese government has a stiff policy against what it calls the "three evil forces." When the issue of human rights of Uyghurs is raised in any other country, the Chinese authorities reply that they are fighting these three evil forces.

The first is "radical Muslims." But, we do not have any radical Muslims in our land; they are clean Muslims and have nothing to do with radicalism. They do not have any crime except what Chinese authorities identify as preaching Islam. They do not want to kill anybody, their main goal is to preach Islam. So, if the Chinese authorities allowed them to live their own religion, they will not have any problems with the government. They call them radical Muslims.

The Chinese authorities cheated the world. They allow some people to go to Muslim countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey to study Islam, yet, when they come back they are all arrested by the Chinese authorities.

The second force that the Chinese authorities are fighting is "terrorists." What they call terrorists are all tolerant Muslims. They do not know even what terrorism is or who terrorists are like, they are only devoted Muslims.

The third force that they are claiming to be fighting there is "separatists." That’s me! China considers me as a Muslim and a separatist. They cannot call me radical because I do not wear a headscarf [holding one of her two long grey-haired braids], so they call me a separatist.

Generally, all those they call radical Muslims and terrorists are devoted Muslims. There is a fight against Islam and Muslims and the Muslim World does not know about it. The Chinese authorities could not do that in the past, but now if Chinese soldiers see a Uyghur woman putting a headscarf on in the street, they forcefully take it off and detain her. It is a normal thing now in East Turkistan.

You may have seen that recent protest by Muslim women in Urumqi, all of them wore headscarves. Women had to go to the streets because their men have been arrested.  

OI: Are you calling for the respect of human rights and Islam, as part of the Uighur identity,  while remaining part of China, or for the independence from China?

Kadeer: I have told the Chinese many times: respect our religion and respect our tradition so we can live together with you.

I told the Chinese authorities several times not to destroy our religion, not to attack it because my people consider religion a very important part to them. They are very devout people. When Chinese authorities disrespect our religion, problems happen.

The Chinese authorities know what to do. They know that if they attack religion people will rise up, which is a good excuse for them to crack down on them.

In the past, some unbelievable things happened in our region. They turned the mosques to pig stalls. They forced many clerics to burn the Quran on the streets. Because of international pressure, now you can have a copy of the Quran in your home, but if you have Hadeeth or other Islamic history books, or ones about the history of Prophet Mohamed, you are arrested and put in jail.

The religious preaching for the Uighur youth under the age of 18 is prohibited; officials will punish you if you send your child to a religious school. So, people are sending their children to private clandestine schools. Yet, if children are caught, they are imprisoned and punished severely, and even some of them are executed. The parents of those children are sentenced to three to six years in jail, and the sentence can be reduced to six month if they renounced those actions.

On the 18th of January, 2008, the Chief Judge of the Chinese Court announced that in the past five years 15,000 "radical Muslims" were arrested, and a certain number of those people were executed. He announced that openly. They were all clerics, not radicals.

OI: What reaction did you get, if any, from the Muslim and Arab worlds?

What we want from the Muslim world is to help us keep our Islamic identity and live our religion in our own region. 
Kadeer: There was not a big reaction neither from the Muslim world nor from the Organization of Islamic conference (OIC) [the second largest inter-governmental organization in the world after the UN whose 57 members are Muslim countries]. The Chinese government is very successful in misleading. We have not been able to explain to these countries nor the OIC our situation, but China was very successful in misleading. After the 5th of July incidents and the Turkish reaction there were some movements in the Muslim world to understand the situation of the Uighurs. An announcement came out of the OIC followed by a delegation sent to China to investigate.   China was very surprised with this reaction; it did not expect the Muslim world to react in such a way. The OIC reaction had an influence. Thus, the Chinese prime minister felt the urgency to go to Egypt in November 2009 and talk in front of the Arab League to explain the Chinese policy towards Islam.

Islamic organizations and media can explain our situation to the world, not the governments. People will then force their governments to do something to support the Uighur Muslims.

What we want from the Muslim world is to help us keep our Islamic identity and live our religion in our own region.

Urge the Chinese government to release all the Islamic clerics who are in prison right now. They are innocent people and China arrested them because of their religion. Same logic was used in the mass arrest in the wake of the Urumqi unrest on July 5th.

Concerning the July 5 unrest, the Chinese authorities recently announced that it executed 9 people declared to be involved in the violence.  One of those is a Han — Chinese dominant race — and the others are Uighurs.

OI: How would you explain that in light of what you said of the Chinese authorities' discrimination against Muslims?  

Kadeer: This was also a step to mislead the international community and portray China as not only cracking down upon the Uighurs, but also upon Chinese. If they executed Uighurs only, there would be a reaction from the international community; so they did it in order to mislead the international community.

Also, the crime that this Chinese person committed was very obvious, everyone knew about it. He killed five Uighurs, which the Chinese authorities could not hide out or have any other option. Also, on the 6th and 7th of July, Chinese mobs went out to the streets and killed many Uighurs and thus the international community was watching that. The Chinese authorities had to do something to show the international community that it is pursuing justice.

We have been receiving scary news and information about what happened on July 5. For example, we received news saying that they found 36 Uighur bodies killed and thrown in a water channel. The Chinese authorities, along with the mobs, have committed serious crimes after such incidents allover Eastern Turkistan, and especially in Urumqi.

What I want from the Islamic world is to put pressure on the Chinese government to allow the Uighur youth to learn their own religion and to have religious education and to have whatever they want. Chinese authorities should clean all the mosques from all those so called clerics and put real Muslim clerics in every mosque.

I watched on television one of the imams of a very famous mosque in East Turkistan telling people that Islam should follow the communist party principles of China.

OI: Do you think that China is successful in using media to manipulate public opinion in the Muslim world, especially through its new Arabic TV Channel and Internet websites?

Uyghurs_protestOn one hand they show the world that they are respecting Islam and on the other hand they crack down on Muslims. 
Kadeer: Yes, it has been very successful in creating an image in many countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan. All these Islamic countries now consider China as a country which respects the rights of Muslims and allow them to practice their religion freely.

It is very hard to know the intensions of the Chinese authorities because they are very clever; on one hand they show the world that they are respecting Islam and on the other hand they crack down on Muslims.

I was very surprised when Saudi Arabia signed that [$1.8 billion worth] railroad contract with the Chinese government [early in 2009].

OI: Do you think that China is constraining the Arab and Muslim countries through the growing trade ties it has with them?

Kadeer: Of course, China is using its economic leverage. Actually, it is benefiting from the Muslim world; it is exporting all its goods to the Muslim world. It is drinking the blood of the Muslim world.

Important part of the Chinese trade is with the Muslim world. Now, Chinese authorities are sending thousands of Chinese people as experts and workers to the Muslim world, for example to Dubai and Saudi Arabia.

Chinese government has been very successful in pressuring the governments in the Muslim world to crack down on the Uighurs in their countries. Uighur Muslims are not allowed to live in peace in any Muslim country, while Chinese are living in peace in those same Muslim countries.

Many Muslim countries are sending Uighur activists back to China under pressure from the Chinese government. Those activists are executed when they reach China. Such measures are taken by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Sudan, and Egypt.

Our religious Uighur clerics flee from China to the Muslim countries, and from Muslim countries, if they are successful, they flee to Turkey or to European countries. In every Muslim country the Uighur activists face problems, they are suspected as being terrorists or criminals and they are put in jail.

We as a Uighur organization have big problems with all Muslim countries because all the Uighur activists in those countries are in trouble. So we have to appeal to the Muslim countries not to send them back to China, we are all Muslims, why are you leaning to the Chinese claims that they are terrorists. Many of the Muslim countries then reply back to us that they will not send them back to China but they should leave their countries. Thus, Uighur activists search for other countries like Turkey or European countries.

OI: So, is your appeal directed to Muslims all over the world and not the governments because it seems from your words that Muslim governments are not helpful in supporting the Uighur rights?

I ask the Muslim countries, such as Pakistan, Dubai, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, not to return any Uighur who took refuge to your country. 
Kadeer: My appeal is first to the governments; they do not know the real situation because we were not able to explain the realities to them. The next appeal is to the Islamic intellectuals, they should play an important role in explaining our situation to the Muslim public.

The support of the Muslim countries is very important; if some Muslim countries spoke out, China will stop because the Chinese authorities have big economic interests with the Muslim world which they will be very careful not to disturb through upsetting the Muslim world.

The Muslim countries and Muslim intellectuals both should ask the Chinese government to first release all the Uighur religious figures and stop punishing Uighurs by death penalty.

Next, I ask the Muslim governments not to turn back any Uighur who takes refuge in their countries and seeks asylum. If China claims that Uighur refugees are terrorists, Muslim governments should do their own investigations. I appeal to them to grant political asylum for all those Uighurs who escaped and took refuge in a Muslim country. It is the duty of all Muslims to help each other. If you are Muslim you have to help people from other religions also, so how can you turn back and reject a Muslim brother?

I ask the Muslim countries, such as Pakistan, Dubai, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, not to return any Uighur who took refuge to your country. Only Turkey until today out of the Muslim countries did not return any Uighur activist, in addition to the Western world. There are many Uighur activists wanted by China who are now living freely in countries like Germany, Norway, and other western countries.

OI: Do you have a final word to say to the Muslim World through OnIslam.net?   

Kadeer: Yes. Muslim countries must put pressure on the Chinese government to respect the right of self-determination of the Uighur people. Chinese authorities granted the autonomous status for East Turkistan in 1955 so it should respect its own promise.

In this granted autonomy, Uighurs were also granted right for self-determination to determine their own future.

Related Links:
China Oppression Silences Uighur Muslims
Job Bias Worsens Uighur Muslim Life
China Pressures Japan on Uighur Muslims
No Ramadan for Uighur Muslims
Abdelrahman Rashdan is a political science researcher and commentator specialized in national security and the Middle East.

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