We are living in the year 2018, yet camps similar to those that imprisoned Jews in Germany are now detaining Muslims in China. In school, we learned about the Holocaust and the millions who were killed because of the animosity held by others. While sitting in our classrooms, we personally vowed to never allow a calamity like it to happen again. However, despite that, we are now witnessing similar tragedies occur in ‘re-education camps’ that are expanding in the Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang – just 73 years later.
Perhaps one of the main issues is the lack of media attention to what the US commission claims to be “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.” These camps have been around since the spring of 2017, but news sources are just recently producing coverage on them. The public is, for the most part, uninformed about the physical and mental abuse imprisoned Muslims are facing.
But why is this happening? For Chinese officials, the answer is simple. The state media has quoted them explaining that in order to fight separatism and Islamic extremism, ideological changes in Muslims are needed. In recent years, radical Muslim Uighurs have terrorized and killed hundreds, thus becoming a threat to the peace in the country. The actions of these extremists have been used to define, at the very least, “tens of thousands” of innocent Muslims and to excuse the torture they are enduring. According to leaked government documents, almost 900,000 Muslims are detained.
The establishment of these ‘re-education camps’ is influenced by China’s history — mainly from the Cultural Revolution, a chaotic and violent political reform movement led by former emperor Mao Zedong. The idea of transformation through education has since then remained a prevalent belief in Chinese culture.
These supposedly necessary changes mentioned earlier are delivered by forcing detainees to disavow their beliefs and deny any submission to Islam. Being allowed to cleanse oneself was rare because it was equated with Islamic washing. In addition, detainees attended four-hour sessions preaching the dangers of Islam, and were quizzed about which law they obeyed — Sharia or Chinese — and if they understood why it was dangerous. If they answered incorrectly, they were tortured.
Imprisoned Muslims would also have to present criticisms of their religious history and of their peers and loved ones. One was heard claiming that they were “taught the Quran by [their] father” and learned it because they “didn’t know better.” Another explained that they left China “without knowing that [they] could be exposed to extremist thoughts abroad.” Those who criticized Islam were rewarded with more comfort, whereas those who did not were punished with solitary confinement, beating, and food deprivation.
Detainees were also required to rewire their political thinking and show loyalty to China and the Communist Party. Every morning, they would sing the Chinese national anthem, and raise the Chinese flag. After, they would learn red songs, which were revolutionary anthems from the Mao era, such as, “Without the Communist Party, there is no New China.” They were taught the Chinese language and China’s history from a biased point-of-view.
Before meals, they were ordered to chant, “Thank the Party! Thank the Motherland! Thank President Xi!” On top of that, they were instructed to say, “We will oppose extremism, we will oppose separatism, we will oppose terrorism.” Law enforcement would attend the camps as guest lecturers and inform detainees about the threat of separatism and extremism.
Not only are citizens being detained – foreign citizens like Omir Bekali are also being held captive. Much of the information in this article is based on the first-hand account of Bekali, a Kazakh Muslim who was released after almost 8 months. He recalls the punishments he received when he refused to follow orders. He was forced to stand at a wall for five hours at a time and was sent to solitary confinement where he was deprived of food for 24 hours. He remembers wanting to kill himself after 20 days in the concentration camp.
We always say “never again.” We hashtag it in tweets of empty promises. We chant it on the streets with our fists raised high. But now, when it is time to make a difference, we are not even aware of what is happening.
As a child, this year held a lot of promises. I dreamed of seeing cars flying on sky highways, celebrating the cure for cancer, and gawking at the news while they discussed the discovery of aliens. Unfortunately, I have now learned that dreams do not always come true.
Instead, my hands tremble as I scroll past posts honoring the lives of murdered students. My vision blurs with tears while reading stories of families separated at the border. My breath escapes me while hearing about Muslim concentration camps. Although this year has not gone as planned, it is not going to be another year of blissful ignorance. I vow to make “never again” happen, raise awareness, and try to change our futures for the better.