The Forgotten Story Of The Uighurs

It’s time to step in and deal with this human rights issue.

In the latter years of the 20th century, the United States has committed itself to defend what it sees as its fundamental values—democracy and human rights. From helping to save Europe and the Jewish people by fighting the Nazis to preventing genocide in Bosnia and airlifting supplies in Berlin, America has often aspired to improve the world and bring the blessings of American life to other nations. 

Today, though, we are falling short in China. This story, that of the Uighur Muslim group in western China, has flown under the radar in recent months but is the epitome of the challenges that a free society will confront in the 21st century.  

The Uighur’s are an ethnic Muslim minority in western China who fought alongside Chiang-kai-sheik in the Chinese Civil War during the 1940s. Upon China’s descent into communism, the Maoist government sought to repress their religious freedom and suppress anti-Chinese sentiments in their community. However, they were left largely alone until recently, when in 2017 the Chinese government forcibly deported nearly a million Uighur Muslims to “re-education” facilities. These areas, essentially glorified concentration camps, are grounds in which the Chinese government can restrict and ultimately destroy their Islamic faith, as well as brainwash the members of the community with Chinese communist propaganda. 

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, most people in the camps have never been charged with crimes and have no legal avenues to challenge their detentions. The detainees seem to have been targeted for a variety of reasons, according to media reports, including traveling to or contacting people from any of the twenty-six countries China considers sensitive, such as Turkey and Afghanistan, attending services at mosques and sending texts containing Quranic verses. Often, their only crime is being Muslim, human rights groups say, adding that many Uighurs have been labeled as extremists simply for practicing their religion.

Inside the camps, Uighurs are forced to praise the Communist Party, speak in Mandarin and renounce their Islamic faith. Furthermore, escaped members have told stories of constant surveillance, sexual assault and awful torture. 

Most horrifyingly, the Chinese government, in a bid for ethnic cleansing, made women in the camps undergo forced abortions and other surgical procedures aimed at rendering women incapable of having children. 

Protesters from the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement (ETNAM) hold a demonstration in front of the World Bank’s Headquarters in Washington DC. Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images

All of this, on the mere account, that the Uighurs seek to practice their religion freely. The Chinese government has subjected them to unimaginable suffering and cruelty because they refuse to give up their basic human rights. 

I can see nothing more characteristic of the great questions of our time than this. We must ask what we, as a global civilization, bonded together in pursuit of the common causes of democracy, freedom and human rights, will do to ensure the blessings of Liberty for all. This case is and will be a barometer for whether we are willing to put steel in the spine of our values.  

Now is not the time to retreat into retrenched isolationism. Now is not the time to make excuses about what we can do or fight for. Now is not the time for hesitation.  

It is time to say that the Uighurs fight is our fight, that the fight for freedom and democracy anywhere in the world is our fight just the same. It should matter to us that those children are locked in cages, even if they aren’t our children. It should matter that men of faith are being degraded, even if we don’t share their beliefs. Because in the end, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

It is in this spirit that I seek to share the story of Uighurs, hoping that in raising awareness, a chord will be struck within the American conscious and a genuine change will occur. 

Please note that the opinions in this piece are presented solely by the author, and neither Fresh Ink for Teens nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.


Yoav Shames is a junior at The Ramaz School in Manhattan. He is a member of the Fresh Ink for Teens' Editorial Board.

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