Uighur exiles in Turkey are desperately trying to keep their culture alive as China’s aggressive assimilation campaign in their homeland aims to destroy it, U.S. magazine Foreign Policy reported on Monday.
Launched in April, Four-Leaf Clover is the first literary magazine abroad written by Uighur children for Uighur children, according to its editor Muyesser Abdulehed, a Uighur-language teacher and poet.
“Copies of the magazine have made it into the hands of Uighur children living in a dozen countries, but not to their homeland, the Chinese region of Xinjiang, where the government has outlawed their language in schools and is on a mission to erase their culture,” Simina Mistreanu, the China correspondent for German news outlet dpa, wrote for Foreign Policy.
The number of Uighurs in Turkey has increased in recent years as they have fled oppression in Xinjiang, where China has placed up to 1.5 million Uighurs into political indoctrination camps, according to FP.
Human Rights Watch reported last year that Uighurs in the camps face possible torture, while a report released by China Tribunal last week found that China is harvesting the organs of Uighurs just before they are killed. China denies carrying out mass harvesting of organs.
Mistreanu said China had detained more than 300 Uighur cultural figures, including poets, novelists, historians and scientists. Many Uighur children are being placed in government-run schools where they are taught Mandarin and what the government calls good life habits, she said.
Beijing says this campaign is meant to root out terrorism and religious extremism, but the mass surveillance, arbitrary detention and crackdown on religious expression suggest it’s meant to strip Uighurs of their identity, according to Mistreanu.
“[China’s] treatment of the Uighurs should be called what it is: cultural genocide,” James Leibold, an associate professor of politics and Asian studies at La Trobe University, wrote in the Hong Kong Free Press in August.
It is left to Uighur communities in the diaspora to preserve and develop their culture, said Mistreanu.
A Muslim minority who speak a Turkic language, Uighurs are seen as culturally close to Turkish people. But once settled in Turkey, mainly in Istanbul’s immigrant-friendly Zeytinburnu district, most live in a legal limbo, without residence or work permits and unable to renew their Chinese passports, according to FP.
“In Zeytinburnu, Uighurs have rebuilt some of what has been erased from Xinjiang,” said Mistreanu, pointing to Uighur carpets and paintings on the walls, Uighur restaurants serving slippery noodles and bookstores offering the works of iconic Uighur dissidents.
“The answer by some community members to China’s crackdown has been to create a de facto cultural resistance. Through music, painting, poetry, education and fashion, Uighurs in Istanbul are working to maintain the richness of their identity and convey a more powerful message to the world.”
Award-winning Uighur musician Ferhat Kurban Tanridagli hopes to put together a traditional 12-member musical ensemble. A year ago, Uighur musician Yusuf Sulaiman formed a band. 22-year-old Ilminur Mutelip turned her fears about her parents back home being tortured into poetry, calligraphy, and works of art, like the plump man on the cover of the first issue of Four-Leaf Clover, according to Mistreanu.
At his Istanbul home, Habibulla Muhemmet has a rule that everybody must speak Uighur at all times, including his four children. Muhemmet runs a shop selling Uighur products and also designs traditional Uighur clothes, according to FP.
“I think it is my responsibility to do things I’m good at to protect my culture,” he said. “Otherwise, what can I tell my children in the future? What can I teach them? What can I leave them?”