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The Uyghur Trauma and the Threat of Collective Amnesia

“Similar to other suppressed and colonised people around the world, there is an imminent risk that the next generation of Uyghurs will suffer from collective amnesia,” writes Patrick Hällzon, doctoral student of Turkic languages. In his article he describes the risk that the next generation of Uyghur will have connections neither to their country nor to their culture but will instead be monolingual Chinese-speaking people trained in the Communist ideology. Finally, when no one knows a culture, who is there to put an end to its eradication?

Credits Text: Patrick Hällzon Translation from swedish: Christina Cullhed June 01 2020

Xinjiang, or East Turkestan as the Uyghurs prefer to call their country, can today be characterized as a terror society of Orwellian dimensions. The list of the violations that the Uyghurs and other ‘minorities’ in the province have suffered is long. Not since the Second World War has such a large minority been singled out for imprisonment merely on the grounds of culture, language, and religion. At present over one million people are interned in re-education camps, a word that of course is a euphemism for ‘concentration camps.’ Some reports claim that approximately three million are imprisoned out of a population that is estimated at about eleven million. With the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in these past few months, fear has risen, since everyone can envision the consequences should the virus spread in the overfull detention camps. In these camps, ordinary people whose only ‘crime’ is that they are Uyghur or Kazakh are forced to forsake their culture and language and instead sing the praises of the Communist party and its leader Xi Jinping.

The children of the interned are sent to orphanages to be inculcated with the Chinese spirit. In other words, they are denied the right to be brought up by their parents and denied their Uygur language and traditions. Instead, they are indoctrinated into the majority Chinese culture and language. The goal is total assimilation. In other words, the aim is to create a ‘new generation’ that has forgotten its heritage, traditions, lifestyle, religion, and language. The discipline of sociology uses the concept collective amnesia to describe this phenomenon. There is a real risk that the next generation of Uyghurs will lack any connection either to their homeland or to their culture, but will instead be monolingual, Chinese-speaking people trained in Communist ideology.

Despite the fact that Uyghur is supposed to be protected by law, signs in Uyghur have been removed from official buildings; to have a halal-sign at a restaurant is forbidden; people are arrested for having a beard or wearing a veil. Until a few years ago, a significant amount of literature was published in Uyghur and the other languages of Xinjiang—now these have been replaced by books in Chinese.

Reports reveal that about one million cadres have been sent to move into Uyghur homes to monitor whether people are inclined to ‘religious extremism.’ The goal is to ensure that this government’s subjects are living ‘correctly’ and do not have ‘extreme’ ideas, such as avoiding watching television or refraining from the use of cigarettes and alcohol. The word ‘extremist’ includes people who have posters with a Muslim motif, or who have a Koran in their home. But compare this to all the religious symbols we still have in our homes in secular Sweden: christenings, weddings and funerals in the churches; Christmas pageants; Christian holidays; the flag—all are imbued with Christian symbolism.

At present, the Chinese regime regards religion as poison, and all religious groups including Christians are now experiencing suppression. In Xinjiang, at an escalating rate, the authorities have gone so far as to destroy mosques and the holy mazars, Muslim saints’ mausoleums, which are pilgrimage sites, just as they did during the Cultural Revolution over fifty years ago. In the meantime, a bizarre reality surfaces where the domestic tourist industry, for example in the city of Kashgar, has risen by forty per cent while people are languishing in camps nearby. The following quote from the Hong-Kong based newspaper South China Morning Post sheds light on these circumstances: “China promotes Xinjiang as a tourist heaven while holding Muslim Uyghurs in re-education camps. Authorities in Xinjiang have created a parallel universe of smiling locals, exotic food and ‘ethnic’ dance, and are promoting the region to tourists. Meanwhile, Turkic-speaking Muslims are subject to mass internment and tight security and are denied the right to cultural expression.”

Persecution of Intellectuals

As reported by Magnus Fiskesjö in this issue of PEN/Opp, several known Uyghur intellectuals and cultural figures have been arrested. Many had high-level appointments, while some belonged to the Communist Party, speak excellent Chinese, and have not expressed any resistance to the Chinese regime. What they have in common is that they are Uyghur or Kazakh or have some other ethnic minority identity and that they have written or sung in their own language or in some other way made efforts to protect their cultural heritage. In today’s Xinjiang it is enough to be labelled as a person having “two faces,” an allegation implying that on the surface a person may seem to act in one way while secretly having a hidden agenda. People who were earlier regarded as voices of Uyghur culture are now being accused of anti-government activities. Thus, in recent years a massive purge of intellectuals has taken place. A long series of, for example, academics, singers, poets, entrepreneurs, and students have simply disappeared or been sent to re-education camps, while others, such as the geographer Tashpolat Tiyip, have been sentenced to death.

Professor Rahile Dawut

According to a list compiled by the independent human rights organisation Uyghur Human Rights Project, the cultural profiles who are confirmed missing number more than four hundred people. Among them is the internationally renowned anthropologist Rahile Dawut, one of the foremost researchers of the pilgrimages to mazars, Muslim saints’ mausoleums, and of Uyghur folklore. In December 2017, she went to take an airplane from her hometown of Urumchi to Beijing. Since then there has been no news of her. Only China’s government knows for sure what has happened. Rahile Dawut was one of the first Uyghur women to receive a doctoral degree, and she has inspired a whole generation of young Uyghurs, who have often become the first in their families to pursue university studies. Several of her students have borne witness to the shock they experienced on hearing that their dear muallim “teacher” had met such a grim fate. Of course, it is not ‘fate’ but a deliberate strategy to silence the Uyghur people by imprisoning their foremost spokespeople in academia and in journalism, their writers, musicians, and many more.

Uyghurs in the Diaspora—A Collective Trauma

The situation is also dire for Uyghurs who reside abroad. For fear of retaliation on their family members, they dare not speak openly about friends or family, and as a result constantly suffer from anxiety and concern over what is happening to their loved ones. Young people who merely wanted to travel abroad to study find it impossible to return. Many are stuck abroad without any family or social support to protect them, but their fear of returning is also justified. Reports state that Uyghurs who have returned to China have gone missing. China’s control reaches even beyond its borders. Uyghurs are regularly contacted by Chinese authorities who threaten to punish the families of those who openly express critique of the regime. Many Uyghurs, therefore, do not write their candid opinions on social media, despite the fact that they supposedly are at a ‘safe’ distance well outside of China.

One turning point came with the rumour that began to circulate in 2019 that the well-known musician Abdurehim Heyit, a master of the two stringed lute or dutar, had died in one of the camps. China repudiated the rumour, and to prove that Heyit was still alive, they soon presented a video of the popular singer. This, however, did not appease Uyghurs, but instead led to more people protesting by uploading pictures of missing loved ones on the Internet under the hashtag #MeTooUyghur, a campaign initiated by the human rights activist Halmurat Harri Uyghur. Several campaigns have been undertaken since then.

Rahile Dawut has been highlighted in a similar way. In December of last year, two years after Rahile’s disappearance, her daughter Akide, now living in the USA, published an appeal on the Internet under #FreeRahileDawut. At the time, she had had no news of her mother since 2017. Sadly, this is a narrative that she shares with hundreds of thousands of mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, sisters and brothers whose relatives have disappeared.

Collective Amnesia

The Hong Kong Free Press discusses whether a language with more than eleven million speakers (somewhat more than Swedish) can be regarded as a threatened language. The answer sadly is yes. Even languages with many speakers can be threatened, especially when most of the speakers of this language happen to live within the borders of the People’s Republic of China—a superpower that evidently uses all available means to control its citizens, and in particular those whom they neither count as, nor treat as, Chinese citizens. The Uyghur are presently experiencing a collective trauma and are faced with the threat of collective amnesia similar to what the indigenous peoples of North America, Australia, and the Sami in Scandinavia, once experienced.

“By the term ‘Cultural Amnesia’ I refer to a diagnosis of a condition that has been caused by external damage or trauma. This may result in a society forced to forget about their roots, culture and connection to the landscape, once been embraced by a community as a whole but now been forgotten and replaced by different ideals that are displaced from context.” (Epp Jerlei 2015:4,

The Diaspora and the Importance of a Cultural Heritage

Alongside this cultural genocide there is desperate and untiring activity among Uyghurs in the diaspora to save whatever can be saved. A small but highly committed group of exiled Uyghurs have taken upon themselves to work with a range of efforts to conserve culture for a future generation of Uyghurs. In Paris recently, for example, a new Uyghur Cultural Centre has been established with the aim of documenting and informing the public about Uyghur culture. In Sweden the musician Muhtar Abdukerim, former student of Abdurehem Heyit, leads an orchestra called The Uyghur European Ensemble. This group of musicians consists of people living in various countries who want to use this medium to spread information about Uyghur culture. In many places around the world Uyghur cultural organisations undertake language teaching for Uyghur children.

Other initiatives by dedicated individuals include the publication of literature for children and young people. One example is the youth magazine Tötqulaq, the four-leaf clover, distributed to Uyghurs in exile around the world. In Istanbul, home of the largest Uyghur diaspora outside of Central Asia, there are several publishers, for example the Teklimakan Press, that publish literature forbidden in China. Many of these titles were earlier allowed in China, but in the past few years the authors of these books have either disappeared or been imprisoned. The books are no longer accessible in East Turkestan, and no new books have been published in Uyghur.

It is not only old books that are being published among Uyghurs in exile. One recently published book is the novel Xeyr-Xosh, Quyash, meaning ‘farewell sun’, by the woman writer Muyesser Hendan. The novel is based on people’s stories from the concentration camps and describes life in the camps alongside the author’s own experience of discrimination. The novel is soon to be published in English. In Sweden, the poet Abdushukur Muhemmet has edited a collection of poems in Swedish translation called Natten och andra uiguriska dikter ‘The Night and Other Uyghur Poems’. Many of these poems deal with the Uyghur situation, the fear of being exterminated as a people, and with people’s longing for home. These intellectuals mirror a people’s fears of ongoing developments and of what might happen or be happening to missing relatives and friends. They are terrified of the disappearance of their culture and language. But they are no longer afraid to tell their stories because at this point, they have nothing to lose.

Vigorous activities continue among the Uyghurs to save their culture for the future. Many have also become aware of the existence of Swedish archival collections. Prior to 2000 and the publication of Özlük wä kimlik ‘Ego and Identity’ (2006) by Äsäd Sulayman, a distinguished Uyghur professor and writer who earlier lived in Sweden but now lives and works in the USA, very few were familiar with the important collections in Swedish museums, archives, and libraries. It was through Sulayman’s bestselling book, now forbidden in China that many Uyghurs became aware of Sweden and were alerted to this enormous cultural heritage of East Turkestan. The archives contain visual material, locally written manuscripts (e.g. the Gunnar Jarring collection of manuscripts in Lund), and ethnographic collections at for example, The Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm. Moreover, various archives and libraries have preserved a substantial number of printed books and diaries written by missionaries and other travellers, who all have something to relate about Uyghur culture and Uyghur everyday life. Many manuscripts have already been digitalized.

Much like other suppressed and colonised people around the world, there is an imminent risk that the next generation of Uyghurs will suffer from collective amnesia caused by a collective trauma and ideals imposed from the outside, recalling the colonialism of the past. With respect to what is happening to the Uyghur homeland, the accessibility of these collections is a small step of immense value for the Uyghur people; it is a link to their roots, their history, their language, and their culture.

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