By Heba Afify
September 25, 2018
Uighur Muslims who fled a crackdown in
China for the supposed safety of the Muslim world say they now fear the long
arm of Beijing as far away as Cairo.
Muhamad, a 22-year-old student of Islamic
studies, was in the Egyptian capital in July last year when security forces
launched a crackdown on the Uighur community.
Muhamad – a pseudonym for his safety –
watched from his house as his friends who tried to escape were arrested in the
streets. Others were detained at airports as they tried to flee the country.
Hundreds were detained. While many were
later released, Amnesty International said at least 22 students were deported
to China, a nightmare scenario as Uighurs in Islamic countries often face
terrorism charges and prolonged jail sentences upon return.
In the wake of the security campaign, most
of the community fled to Turkey. For those who remained, life became
“We used to get together for occasions and
religious sermons, now the Uighurs left in Egypt live in fear. They put their
head down and try to live under the radar,” Muhamad told Asia Times.
Clout of Beijing
Uighurs have been migrating from Xinjiang
region in waves since 1949, when the autonomous Muslim-majority region came
under the control of the Communist People’s Republic of China.
Among the hundreds of thousands of Uighurs
who left, most settled in the Muslim countries of Central Asia or the Arab
World due to cultural proximity and economic and logistical practicality.
In recent years, that migration intensified
with the Chinese government’s crackdown on the ethnic group, which it accuses
of adopting separatist ideas and has blamed for terrorist attacks.
But even as reports of “re-education camps”
for Uighurs prompted international concern, Muslim countries have become
increasingly dangerous for the community.
China has positioned itself as an
increasingly desirable ally for Muslim governments and its growing clout has
made it possible for the emerging economy to request extraditions of its
nationals and it expects silence on the Uighur issue.
Central Asian Muslim states, among the most
vulnerable to China’s economic pressure, have been deporting Uighurs in the
hundreds for years, according to Australia-based Uighur activist Alip Erkin. In
recent years, Erkin says, Arab countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia have also
In June 2017, the Egyptian and Chinese
governments signed a security cooperation agreement. One month later, Egyptian
police launched the crackdown Muhamad witnessed, roaming Uighur neighbourhoods
and rounding up hundreds.
Omer Kanat, the director of the Uighur
Human Rights Project, a Washington-based advocacy group, says the Chinese
security threat has extended to break down bonds within Uighur diaspora
Kanat, who has been collecting Uighur
testimonies, says the Chinese government coerces Uighurs abroad to spy on
members of the community, making them afraid to speak openly with their
neighbours, even halfway around the globe.
Usman, a pseudonym, a 26-year old Uighur
doing his masters in Islamic studies at Azhar University in Cairo, says that
after the 2017 crackdown, the once close-knit Uighur community in Cairo
completely disintegrated and people started isolating themselves. “People are
now scared that if they get together, the police will come. You wouldn’t even
find three Uighurs gathered together now,” he told Asia Times.
Usman offers Arabic and Quran tutoring for
members of the community. But while he used to have eight students, that number
has dropped to two. The others either left the country or stopped engaging with
their fellow Uighurs.
The crackdown by the Egyptian security
forces took the Uighur community by surprise, Usman reflects. Most people had
so much trust in the Egyptian government they did not believe warnings that
circulated months before the crackdown.
Fearing For Family
Back in China, the government has been
arresting and even torturing relatives of Uighurs abroad to pressure them to
come back, rights groups say.
According to Amnesty International, Chinese
authorities detained relatives of several students studying in Egypt in 2017 to
coerce the students to return, then tortured and detained them upon their
Beijing has also succeeded in almost
completely severing communications between locals and exiles.
The crackdown on Uighurs both at home and
abroad intensified in August 2016 when Community Party veteran Chen Quanguo was
appointed to run Xinjiang, according to those interviewed.
Starting in 2017, it became apparent that
the slightest communication between Uighurs in Xinjiang region and family
members or friends abroad would result in the imprisonment of those back home.
Uighurs abroad now ask foreigners visiting
Xinjiang to bring back news of their families, or they follow the newsfeed of
WeChat, the most widely used chat application in China, to get bits of
information on the community back home, Erkin says.
Erkin says he has not been able to obtain
information about his wife, incarcerated in a camp in Xinjiang, since 2017. His
family, like many others, removed him from all social media and chat
applications last year.
Turkey Turns Cold
Turkey, once a vocal supporter of the
Turkic-origin Uighurs, is now silent in the face of the escalating crackdown
Uighurs in Turkey say that while they
remain relatively safe, they are not as free to practice their religion and
engage in activism as they once were.
Abduweli Ayup, a Uighur activist in
Istanbul, says that in the past Turkey’s large Uighur community was able to
hold political events in major squares. Now, they are only given permits for
It is “no coincidence” that China has
boosted economic and political ties with Turkey in recent years, says Michael
Caster, a human rights advocate and author of a book on enforced disappearance
“China recognized the history of support
from Turkey to Uighur people and wanted to dampen that,” he said, adding: “It’s
true that Turkey is not rounding up Uighurs and deporting them, but that’s
setting the bar too low.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu
promised during a visit to Beijing in August 2018 to curb all opposition
activities against China in Turkey as well as eliminate all negative media
reports on China.
Ayup says it is not only political
activities that have been curtailed in Turkey. The Chinese embassy in Ankara
stopped renewing passports for Uighurs, putting their lives on hold.
This complaint was echoed in interviews
carried out by Asia Times with Uighurs in four countries, who say they have
also been denied other official papers from their embassies, including marriage
and birth certificates.
When Ayup went to the embassy in 2016 to
renew his passport, he was told he would need to return to his hometown in
That prospect is unthinkable for Ayup, who
was arrested in 2013 for founding schools to teach the Uighur mother language
in Xinjiang. The former linguistics professor spent 15 months there and then
fled to Turkey.
Like many of the diaspora, he lives with
the constant anguish over his family situation back home. His three siblings
have been in jail since 2017 and he has no way to learn their latest news.
Omer Kanat says the restriction has
devastated the lives of Uighurs whose testimonies he has documented, as they
are unable to renew and register necessary documents and parents are unable to
send their unregistered children to schools.
once a visiting scholar at Turkish universities, now depends on freelance
translations to get by. He does not have the paperwork necessary for official