For those who sincerely practice a religion, there is nothing more important than remaining true to the tenets of their faith. Their religion is the framework through which they understand all of life and they do what is required of them.
Of course, this is easier said than done. There are always temptations in life that pull us away from what is good. But throughout history, there has been religious persecution that has made it even more difficult for one to remain true to their beliefs…
When you think of countries with significant Muslim populations, the first region of the world that comes to mind is the Middle East. However, there are people who follow Islam spread throughout the entire world. You might be surprised to know that one of the nations with a large Muslim population is China.
There are more than 21 million Muslims living in China, where Islam has been practiced for at least 1,400 years. Of course, China has changed quite a bit in that time. In recent years, it has become a global superpower, noted for the ironclad control its single political party has over everything within its borders.
China’s Ethnic Minorities
One of the people who directly felt the squeeze of China’s iron grip was a man named Omir Bekali. He was a Muslim born to Kazakh and Uighur parents, two of the 55 ethnic minorities you can find inside of China’s borders. Although there are a wide variety of ethnic minorities found there, they only make up about six percent of the population. The other 94 percent are all Han.
In recent years, some radical separatist Muslim Uighurs were responsible for hundreds of deaths in the western region of Xinjiang, a territory approximately half the size of India. Because of those attacks, Chinese authorities considered the entire region a threat to peace in the country.
To address that threat, the Chinese government began a program whose aim seemed to be to get Uighur Muslims to change their political thinking, abandon their Islamic beliefs, and ultimately completely change their identities.
But the program wouldn’t accomplish this through some sort of soft suggestion or gradual propaganda techniques. In keeping with China’s typical heavy-handed manner of dealing with social discord, the program could only be described as severe in every way.
The Chinese government instituted a massive internment program where an estimated 900,000 to one million Muslims were detained in “re-education camps,” which a U.S. commission on China described as “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.”
Omir was among the people sent one of those camps, which operate with almost no judicial process or legal paperwork. His only apparent crime was being an Uighur Muslim, which was enough to get him abducted by Chinese security agents and detained for eight months without any legal recourse.
Though he’d been born in China in 1976, Omir moved to Kazakhstan in 2006 and became a citizen there three years later. He didn’t know about the intensity of the “People’s War on Terror” going on in his home region of Xinjiang. Omir would return to Xinjiang in 2017 for a work trip with no idea of the circumstances he was stepping into.
He was entering a place with all-encompassing, data-driven surveillance constantly tracking residents where viewing a foreign website, taking a phone call from a relative abroad, praying regularly, or simply growing a beard could land a person in a political indoctrination camp, prison, or both.
Come With Us
Omir went to visit his parents during the trip and, on the way, passed through several police checkpoints where he used his decade-old Chinese identity card. The next day, five armed police officers showed up at his parents’ doorstep and took him away.
Telling the Tale
The heavyset, soft spoken 42-year-old man was one of the detainees who told about his time inside the camps in a number of interviews with the Associated Press. What Omir described sounded every bit like something out of a dystopian horror story.
Every day, all day long, Omir and the other detainees in the camps had to disavow their Islamic beliefs. They also had to perform a sort of penance, criticizing themselves and their loved ones while at the same time, giving thanks to the ruling Communist party.
Omir was unusual among the detainees in his mule-headed stubbornness, refusing to take part in the verbal self-flagellation and supplication before the state. For his disobedience, he was forced to stand at a wall for five hours at a time. As he persisted, he was sent to solitary confinement where he was deprived of food for 24 hours. He was also forced to eat pork and drink alcohol, both of which are forbidden in Islam.
After 20 days in the heavily guarded camp, Omir wanted to kill himself. “The psychological pressure is enormous, when you have to criticize yourself, denounce your thinking, your own ethnic group,” he said to the Associated Press. “I still think about it every night, until the sun rises,” he said with tears in his eyes. “I can’t sleep. The thoughts are with me all the time.”
After eight months, Omir was released just as suddenly as he was detained. One of the policeman who had always gone easy on him during the many interrogations checked him out of the facility and drove him to his sister’s home. During the drive, he told Omir, “You were too headstrong, but what the department did was unjust.”
He was free and left China a few days later. But within just a few months, the police took his sister Adila. A week after that, they took his mother Amina, and one month after that, took his father Ebrayem. His entire family was taken away for re-education.
Echoes of the Past
The detention program is emblematic of China’s newly emboldened state security mechanisms under the increasingly nationalistic, hard-line rule of President Xi Jinping. The policy is also rooted in the ancient Chinese belief in transformation through education, which was most notably exemplified on a state level with the mass thought reform campaigns of Mao Zedong.
“Cultural cleansing is Beijing’s attempt to find a final solution to the Xinjiang problem,” said James Millward, a China historian at Georgetown University, invoking a term that strikes a dark historical chord.
Generations of Pain
But Professor Rian Thum of Loyola University saw it as linked to another historical tragedy. “The closest analogy is maybe the Cultural Revolution in that this will leave long-term, psychological effects,” Thum said. “This will create a multigenerational trauma from which many people will never recover.”