Poets — and the musicians who perform their lyrics — are at the forefront of Uyghur culture. If they were to be given even limited forms of autonomy, poetry might bring their traditions into the present and guide them into the future.
Over the past several months, state culture workers in the Uyghur region have produced a series of twisted, psychologically violent videos. These short films center on the transformation of Uyghurs as a way of justifying the “reeducation” camp system that has taken away the freedom of as many as 1.5 million Uyghurs. In one of the videos, a young woman discusses how she was forced into an arranged marriage and how the camp system saved her from her misogynist husband, exposed her to Chinese culture and the joys of hip-hop. Another tells the story of a young Uyghur man who, prior to his reeducation, said he saw his wife as his “property” and would not allow her to work outside the home. He said that he sometimes beat her. Now, he said, through his “reeducation,” he had come to truly love his wife and recognize that she deserves to be free; together they are embracing a new “reeducated” life.
Uyghurs in the diaspora who have watched these short films tell me they come away deeply sad and angry. One Uyghur woman said she could “see the horror” in the eyes of the Uyghur detainees. She said the videos are powerful because they highlight real problems in Uyghur society, but in the context of a smothering reeducation campaign. The videos ask viewers to identify with women who have been victims of abuse and repentant men who had been taught to act in hateful ways toward women. One young Uyghur man I spoke with said the videos “feel like a knife being twisted in my heart.”
The cause of this deep pain stems from the way the seven stories in this series are presented as justification for the shattering of millions of Uyghur families and the erasure of Uyghur culture. As another Uyghur man told me, “Uyghur society was not perfect before. Just as in every other society, it had its own problems. But the Communist Party did not set out to establish the camps to help solve these social issues. They set out to eliminate Uyghurs as a distinct group of people. Only now have they made these propaganda videos to put themselves in a positive light.” Continuing, he said, “I think this shift mirrors their prior denial of the camps and their later acknowledgement of their existence as ‘vocational schools.’” In fact, the language of “vocational schools” is belied by the videos themselves, which center on punitive, Islamophobic “reeducation” and dictating what counts as “normal life” rather than job training.
Each person sent to the internment camps is the son and daughter of someone. Many are the fathers or mothers of children. The “success stories” told by state filmmakers try to hide this deep social violence. They show us Muslims being saved from themselves. As in the Bush administration’s attempts to win the hearts and minds of Muslims in Afghanistan, they center on a kind of neo-imperial feminism.
The anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod responded to the question of whether or not Muslim women need to be saved by suggesting that we should ask Muslim women this question and consider the harms of intervening in Muslim societies. She suggests that, while the impetus to rescue Muslim women might come from a humanitarian impulse, it is in fact centered around an Islamophobic ideology that treats the lives and bodies of Muslim women as a site of contestation. Because Muslim men are seen as inherently suspicious and threatening, Muslim women become an object that needs to be rescued at any cost. Saving “them” means making them like “us” and ignoring the strong traditions of women’s empowerment in Muslim societies. In the Chinese case, nearly all forms of Turkic Islamic practice are now seen as threatening. The Islamophobia that the Chinese state is promoting is thus a virulent adaptation of the savior complex that pervades the Western liberal discourse around the so-called Global War on Terror. The question any viewer of Chinese state propaganda regarding Uyghur “salvation” must ask is: what does it mean to “save” Uyghurs by destroying their society?
Speaking as a listener, and the power of poetry
Instead of forcing Uyghurs to change in response to Han fears, Uyghurs should be given autonomy to choose what kind of contemporary people they want to become. One approach to this would be to recognize that Uyghurs are a nation of poets. Poets, and the musicians who perform their lyrics, are the leaders of the nation. If they were to be given even limited forms of autonomy, poetry might bring their traditions into the present and guide them into the future. Many of the Uyghur poets I have met over the years have spoken as listeners, as careful observers of the society they participate in. They have been inherently suspicious of dogma, of formulas and ideologies, yet deeply cognizant of their history. They worked on clearing a space for free thinking.
I grew to realize, after reading and translating dozens of their poems, that poetry was one of the cultural practices that gave Uyghurs autonomy. When I attended a meeting of two dozen contemporary free-verse Uyghur poets at a restaurant in the Uyghur district of Ürümchi in 2015, organized by Tahir Hamut and Perhat Tursun, I found that they were some of the finest thinkers I had ever met. This diverse crowd of men and women from across the region gave me hope that Uyghur contemporary life could thrive at the intersection of Muslim, Chinese, Western, and Turkic worlds.
The thinking of these poets is also seen as threatening to the autocratic vision of the state. They wrote about Uyghur life using elliptical images of the feelings of state violence. They wrote about Uyghurs as wild pigeons trapped in a cage, as urbanites seduced by the convenience of the contemporary Chinese city. They tried to practice a contemporary Uyghur life. Since 2016, nearly all of those poets have been disappeared. In 2018, when I visited the restaurant where I had met them, its door was locked. The owner, Tahir Hamut’s brother, had been taken away.
The kind of autonomy that those poets desire is not the same kind of freedom that Marco Rubio stands for when he advocates for Uyghur rights. The American right is in fact still in favor of saving Muslims from themselves. It sees Islam as a global threat that must be countered with discourses of Christian freedom and American capitalism; Muslims can only be made allies to this cause when they serve some strategic purpose. When the American right stands with the Trump administration, it is in fact standing with an administration that has made Islamophobia blatant and systematic. Yet, like the poets I met in Ürümchi, Rubio also knows something about the tyranny of authoritarianism from his experience with Cuban history. And if Rubio was willing to advocate for the release of my loved ones, I, like most Uyghurs, would embrace him regardless of his inability to stand up to the National Rifle Association or to speak out against a ban on Muslim refugees.
Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in China do not need to be saved, but they need allies and accomplices of all types. They need people who will amplify their voices regardless of the cost, who will sacrifice their time and money to give them guidance and support, who will rearrange their lives to help them show the pain and violence of Chinese settler colonialism. When I speak about the assault on Uyghur society on college campuses across the United States, I am often met with strident declarations from Han international students who have come to express the Islamophobic logics that have suffused Chinese public discourse. But I am also heartened to see Han students from China who come up to me quietly in university hallways asking how they can get involved in documenting what is happening to Uyghurs. They tell me that what is being done in their name makes them deeply sad. Like Shawn Zhang, a law student at the University of British Columbia who has used satellite images to track the growth of the camps over time, they have been activated. They want to make the Uyghur issue a central part of their lives. They want to move beyond the liberal impulse to empathy, which pervades so much of Western social life, to actually make a difference.
A short video from the Uyghur doctoral candidate Mirshad Ghalip titled “Seeking Help Rescuing My Mother.”
These Han international students are joining Uyghur students who have tried to be apolitical their whole lives in an effort to protect their families and secure a better future as members of Chinese society. Even though they have been model citizens, trained in some of the best Chinese schools, the parents of these Uyghur students have also been taken. As a result, more and more of these brilliant young students have been activated. One of these young people, a linguistic anthropology Ph.D. student at Indiana University, Mirshad Ghalip, recently broke his silence to speak about his mother’s disappearance into the camps. He refers to himself as a “survivor” — someone who has escaped the “reeducation” system while losing those they love. He appeals to viewers to make his mother’s life matter in Western popular culture by petitioning people of influence to amplify her story.
At the Association for Asian Studies meetings that were held in March 2019 in Denver, the journalist Emily Rauhala suggested something similar. In order to stop the reeducation camp system, she argued, Uyghur issues need to become one of the key stories we tell about China. She suggested that teachers of Chinese studies should center their classes on Uyghur issues, that China commentators and journalists should make it a regular part of their beat. It needs to become something as common as discussions of Xi Jinping’s administration, the Belt and Road initiative, or rural-to-urban migration. Every expert on contemporary China should also be able to speak with authority on what is happening in Xinjiang; it is, after all, a key example of the systemic logic to which they claim to have expertise. Every professional association should follow the Association for Asian Studies in issuing statements condemning the Islamophobic “reeducation” of Uyghur society. All Western university presidents who visit China should recite Uyghur poetry, as the president of Harvard did recently. All of us should join David Brophy in fighting for the end of the “War on Terror,” which he describes as “the chief source of worldwide Islamophobia.” As long as the discourse of terrorism continues to hide the reasons why white, brown, and black young men around the world lash out violently, systemic forms of hatred and bigotry will continue to grow.
As Daniel Bessner and Isaac Stone Fish have argued, we also need to take the story of Uyghur “reeducation” to progressive political leaders. We cannot allow cold warriors like Rubio and white nationalists like Steve Bannon to utilize it to spread xenophobia and anti-Chinese bigotry. It needs to become part of every progressive political platform. If Elizabeth Warren is interested in breaking up big tech firms because of the way they are complicit in manipulating populations, she should also be concerned with the way Sensetime, the face-recognition AI tech company that has built much of the Xinjiang police state, has signed a major agreement with MIT, and the way its rival Face++ has been funded by Kai-Fu Lee, a major figure in the Asian and American tech scenes. Bernie Sanders should do more than simply sign letters nominating Ilham Tohti for the Noble Peace Prize. If he, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez truly oppose Islamophobia and imperialism in all forms, they should join Noam Chomsky in opposing crimes against humanity wherever they may occur.
Uyghurs do not need to be saved. They do not need your pity. Their stories need to be mainstreamed. As Nury Turkel, the chairman of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, told me recently, “I’m getting impatient. I need action. Expressing concern is not enough.” Uyghurs need their allies to move beyond liberal empathy. They need action. As the scholar of Xinjiang urbanism, Lauren Restrepo, put it recently, Uyghurs need people to say “F— that! I’m not turning away from Xinjiang.”
Darren Byler’s Xinjiang Column is published on the first Wednesday of every month. Previously: