By Liyu Woldemichael, ‘22

On Thursday March 4th, two events addressing the condition of the Uyghur minority in China were organized. The Duke Islamic Studies center brought guest-speaker Aydin Anwar, a Duke graduate, to lead A Conversation about the Uyghur Genocide. The Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute sponsored a conversation on a recent book on the subject,  A Genocide in Our Time, with the author Dr. Sean Roberts, Director of International Development Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs of The George Washington University, and Duke Professor Mustafa Tuna, whose research focuses on social and cultural change among the Muslim communities of Central Eurasia. The conversation was moderated by Professor Nancy MacLean. 

Both of these events helped trace the history of Uyghurs to the present-day. Currently, more than a million members of China’s Uyghur ethnic minority, who are largely Muslim, are being held in so-called “reeducation camps.” Reports show that China has built a system of “arbitrary detention, torture, forced political indoctrination, and mass surveillance of” Uyghur Muslims in these camps. 

In the conversation on A Genocide in Our Time, the speakers addressed the Uyghur community’s presence in China. Dr. Tuna described how the Chinese state has perceived the Uyghurs’ difference as separatism in the context of its efforts to homogenize China’s population. According to Dr. Roberts, the perceived resistance of the Uyghur people to “assimilation” into the larger Han Chinese ethnicity has been a source of tension for the Chinese state, and  this tension has been confounded by the global rise in Islamophobia as a result of the United States’ “war on terrorism” following 9/11. 

The Uyghur people have existed under changing empires for centuries and were incorporated into China only in the mid-eighteenth century. Despite this, however, the Chinese communist state does not recognize them as a distinct people and falsely maintains that the Uyghur people have always been part of China. The question of nationalism, ethnic and cultural identity, and citizenship were explored deeply by both speakers. One thing is clear: the history is complex and this crisis demands urgent attention.  It is imperative that we understand and confront how the U.S. is also culpable and complicit in the treatment of Uyghur people. We must support legislation that addresses these issues, including urging our elected officials to progress with House Bill 6210, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act

To learn more about this history and this present day crisis, Dr. Roberts’ book The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign against a Muslim Minority