“There is no such thing as cultural genocide.” A phrase said a hundred times in a hundred different ways to dismiss the pain of an entire people desperately holding on to what they have as the rest is taken from them. When the dust settles, what we’ve grabbed on for dear life turns to dust, pouring from our hands and mixing with the rest of the rubble, indistinguishable. The few grains left in our palms are blown away, their last whispers of love and language barely heard through the wind. And we sit there, too stunned to cry, too tired to stand. We can’t even look at each other. We don’t dare talk about it. To speak it would be to acknowledge it, to admit that it is real. We shout slogans and carry signs and we demand justice, all righteous things. But that is not the same as admitting it.
Us Uyghurs mourn the loss of our homeland, and mourn our future. But we do so privately, quietly, in the dark when we think no one is listening. The muffled cries of a father who worries endlessly for his brothers, his mother. A mother sick with worry who turns to faith in an act of rebellion— and an act of meditation. A girl too young to fully understand but old enough to feel that something is wrong. The anxiety and dread seep into every room, displacing air until you can hardly breath. We smile, but it steals joy. We talk, but it’s empty words. A genocide has stolen our lives, and we don’t even live there.
What else can it be when our homes are demolished to make way for commercial developments, when mosques are bulldozed, shrines erased, and bodies criminalized? These homes, staples of Uyghur living, are taken away. Two-thirds of the mosques in our homeland are gone. The shrines of Uyghurs in the Taklamakan Desert are gone, using the meticulous work of Dr. Rahile Dawut and other anthropologists who tracked them to destroy them. In their place we see security checkpoints and armed police, surveillance cameras and a data collection machine that exists to monitor Uyghurs because of their supposed predisposition to “undesirable beliefs”. Uyghur faces, bodies, and walking patterns are analyzed and converted into data, stored away in a police server. The individual gets lost in a sea of information that represents them. That information is then used to assess whether they are “extremists”. And a massive security apparatus designed to detain and intern Uyghurs on a scale unheard of. Millions sent to camps for “re-education”, to remove their Uyghur identity. Thousands sent to prison for being religious leaders, intellectuals, cultural icons.
There is an idea that cultural genocide isn’t “as bad as actual genocide”. That somehow, a cultural genocide only targets ideas, or culture, a nebulous term that exists in an ether. Something that can be siphoned and stored or burned off, and that suddenly, this culture will remove itself from the collective conscious and the minds of people without a problem. That those very people, unharmed (apart from removing something so insignificant as their culture), can now live life peacefully and without molestation. They use it as a way to minimize the extent of suffering, or to deny it entirely.
Culture lives in the hearts and minds of people. It is inseparable. Culture and identity are fused, an atomic bond that can only be separated through enormous energy and deliberate effort. If it does not leave physical scars, it certainly leaves psychic ones.
The destruction of the Uyghur culture begins with targeting those who define and carry it forward. Uyghur scholars are disappeared. Educators are imprisoned for “dangerous teachings”, the same teachings approved just years ago. Journalists are jailed and writers are silenced. The Uyghurs who can define Uyghurness are taken away, to make sure that there is no argument when a new definition on is introduced.
My grandfather, an author from Hotan, passed away in 2019. He was detained for a period of time, and a few months after his release, he died. He is not the only, or the most notable, who has been taken away. Each death, each disappearance, another strike against culture and identity.
The process of cultural genocide takes the person it wants to change and subjects them to pain and suffering. It takes away their family, their home, their freedom. It tells them that who they are is wrong, that what they believe is wrong, that they make a choice every day to be wrong and that they must be saved from themselves. Their minds are subjected to a psychic assault that attempts to lay them bare. But a mind must be malleable before it can be molded. The person is deprived of sleep and food. They are deprived of warmth and comfort. They are deprived of privacy and security. They are stripped down and dehumanized, told they are less-than. And in those conditions, the mind may break. Just enough that seeds of doubt and self-hatred take root. The atomic bond has been broken.
Like the residential schools in North America, Uyghur children are sent to state institutions with the purpose of raising them right. Children are socialized and educated mostly in public education systems, a perfect time to create the next generation of Uyghurs in the likeness of the state’s desires. They find no time to speak their own language or practice their own customs. They are taught in Chinese, raised in Chinese culture, and are severed from their roots. The Uyghur people dwindle, if not in the size of the genetic pool, then by identity, a far more important and meaningful connection.
In 1948, the world came together to ratify the United Nations Genocide Convention. After the horrors of the Holocaust, the world came together in a moment of unity to condemn the atrocities of the past and to resolve that it never happens again. We failed. We failed again. And again. History since the Holocaust is a near uninterrupted sequence of hatred and violence. Why do we fail to intervene, and why does genocide persist?
The Uyghurs are a distinct ethnic group, visibly separate from the Han Chinese majority in appearance. The differences become more apparent when you look at culture, the predominantly Muslim, Turkic group that had lived on these lands since at least the times of the Silk Road trade. To the ambitions and goals of China, Uyghurs pose an obstacle to be removed. Despite the talk of harmony among the Chinese ethnicities, China’s settler colonialism has extracted wealth from the Uyghur homeland to benefit the Han Chinese population, relegating Uyghurs to the bottom rungs of society. The settler-colonialism is accompanied by the Han chauvinist attitudes similar to the ones embodied in Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden”. The belief that it is the responsibility of Han Chinese to uplift and civilize their inferiors may play a centre-point in the evolving policies of oppression and genocide by the state.
To the diaspora, this loss has been complex and uncertain. We are left untethered to what many consider their home. We live in a state of complex grief where we cannot fully move on, nor can we accept loss. We simply are left without knowing. We cannot visit. We cannot call. And when we do hear the voices of our loved ones, it is in conversation that is sterile, devoid of anything that we fear might get them in trouble. And for those of us too young to remember home, or who have not even been there, the sudden loss of choice is hard. Our futures are uncertain. Can we ever return? Will we see our loved ones again? And will it be the same as how we remember it, or will it be unrecognizable to us? Will the bonds of Uyghurness exist only in us, eliminated from its ancestral homeland?
That is the loss that we mourn. The grief we don’t speak of. That we in the diaspora will be the only ones left to watch and preserve as our language, our culture, our faith, our culture, our identity crumbles around us, and that the little we have held in our hands will turn to dust too.
But we are starting to see signs of healing. The world has focused a lens on our plight and people are taking note. Only recently did the United Nations release a report on the human rights of Uyghurs, confirming what we have been saying for years. It is a bittersweet feeling to finally have the suffering and pain we have endured recognized after years of delay; the report is a reminder of the many times before that we were so sure would spur the world into action. “They have to do something now, the evidence is irrefutable.” Once said with bright-eyed optimism, it has become a sardonic and guarded response to every bombshell revelation or breaking news article.
My faith lies in the youth of the Uyghur diaspora, the ones who are set to inherit this cause. For all the pain this genocide has caused, it has sparked a rebirth of sorts in our culture. Young Uyghurs like myself have recognized what we are so close to losing and have acted to prevent it. It was only after losing my ability to connect with my culture that I did what I could to be a part of it, and I suspect many young Uyghurs share a similar story. Being Uyghur was almost a background part of my identity. Yes, I was Uyghur, but it was not something I expressed. Now it is something I work towards defining for myself.
Whether through direct advocacy and activism or through the promotion and growth of our culture, young Uyghurs have taken up the call. Organizations like the Tarim network have brought together Uyghurs from around the world, providing a community of sorts to better learn what it means to be Uyghur. And it is young Uyghurs who have been the most outspoken and passionate about making sure that our identity continues well into the 21st century. Being Uyghur is not a homogenous thing. There is no one set identity. While there may be disagreement by some about this, it is clear to me that our diaspora has found ways to make being Uyghur work. It is exactly this diversity in identity, in exploration of culture and of who we are, that will allow us to grow and thrive outside of our homeland. It is what makes us resilient to the outside forces set on eliminating that aspect of what we are. It is what makes us Uyghur.