Earlier last month, as the news of the outbreak of Coronavirus spread across the world causing global panic, several countries took rapid actions to evacuate their nationals from China. In a fear of the virus becoming pandemic, with 24000 confirmed cases in 27 countries, several efforts such as thorough screenings at the airport, awareness drives, restricting imports from China etc. were taken globally. However, one region within the province of China has been grossly ignored. Facing a ‘communication blackout’ and ethnic oppression, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China has 32 confirmed cases according to the Chinese government. The actual number of those affected by the deadly virus, though, is believed to be much higher.
This crude apathy towards Uyghurs, an ethnic community of Turkic-speaking Muslims (with the largest population in China’s Xinjiang province) hardly comes as a surprise. Though classified as an ethnic-religious minority, the Uyghurs, who have closer links to Central Asia, are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, subject to China’s mass detention and surveillance campaign to wipe out their cultural identity.
The Xinjiang region, home to almost 21 million people, has been facing systematic oppression under China’s communist regimes since the 1940s. Their anti-religious stance has subjected Uyghurs to economic and political marginalisation, even when the country’s laws allow ethnic minorities to practice their religion. They are constantly under surveillance and are either sent to detention for ‘crimes against the communist regime’ or admitted to ‘re-education’ camps for a ‘transformative thought process’ when there’s a slight, even an unreasonable suspicion of ‘religious extremism’. The people in the camps are said to be living in inhumane conditions: overcrowding, cases of physical and sexual abuse, organ harvesting, malnutrition, and possibly a high number of casualties of coronavirus. Thousands of Uyghurs have fled Xinjiang to escape persecution and are living as refugees across the world.
This long ongoing persecution faced by the community has only recently received global attention, but there have hardly been any concrete actions, given China’s economic power and diplomatic stance within the UN. Moreover, their narrative has largely been presented as a monolith of tragedy with hardly any reference to their rich culture and tradition that remains at the risk of erosion.
To raise awareness about the Uyghur cause, SOAS is all set to host ‘In Honour of Uyghur’ on Friday 21 February, 6.30pm onwards in SALT, Senate House. A cultural evening of food, music, and performances, it will incorporate the personal experiences of members of the Uyghur community, as well as Uyghur artistic performances. There will be information on the current crisis, which will be followed by a Q&A session. This event aims to raise money for Uyghur refugees escaping the concentration camps in China.
“The main purpose of the event is to educate people on the Uyghur culture and connect people to the humanity and life of the Uyghurs — so, that when they hear of the crisis they feel an emotional responsibility to spread awareness, especially in this age of media desensitization,” says Assia Hamdi, a 4th-year History and Arabic student at SOAS who was inspired to organise the event given the lack of anything such even in a diverse, political space like SOAS.
The event will see a range of interesting speakers and performers such as Rahima Mahmut, an Uyghur singer, human rights activist, and award-winning translator; Mr Aziz Isa Elkun; a poet and the secretary of Uyghur Pen Centre, who has been working on a project “Uyghur Meshrep in Kazakhstan” at SOAS; Dr Rachel Harris, a Professor in Ethnomusicology at SOAS whose research is focused on the Uyghurs; and Dilzat Turdi, a SOAS student who will play the Duttar, a traditional instrument used in Uyghur folk songs.
Dilzat, who is doing his foundation year at SOAS, feels that this event is important because it’s the most effective ways to raise awareness to a wider community about the daily violation of Uyghurs’ human rights. “The entire future of an ethnic community is being destroyed in front of our eyes and yet too many remain quiet. Therefore, events like this which involve speech, music and culture will draw a lot of attention to society,” he adds.
Dilzat will soon be studying Music at SOAS in the next academic year. Proud and excited to perform his cultural music, he adds, “This instrument and Uyghur music mean a lot to me because music itself is a universal language that brings people together regardless of any background.”
The event will also boast of scrumptious Uyghur food donated by the wonderful chef Mukaddes Yadikar, who runs the Etles Restaurant, specialising in Uyghur and Central + Northern Asian cuisine.
This event has a £5 fee or £3 concession fee at the door, however, registration is preferred. For more details, follow this link.
Devyani Nighoskar is a 24-year-old SOAS Digital Ambassador from India. A former journalist, she is currently pursuing her MA in Critical Media and Cultural Studies. Check out her work on Instagram @runawayjojo.