What About The Uighurs?

What About The Uighurs?

by Khalilah Sabra

Since the 1990s, the Chinese government has been carrying out systematic policies that discriminate against Uighurs; their language was outlawed in schools and government employees shaved their beards while Muslim women avoided traditional head scarves. No one challenged their religious suppression.  Uighurs faced strong discriminatory practices in education, healthcare, housing, and employment. So where was the Muslim voice then? Where is the outcry now? Brace yourself, not much is forth coming. 184 dead, more than a thousand injured, and thousands more detained. It has been a history of violence; only the blood is fresh now. The Muslim powerbrokers and dynasty dwellers won’t shed any tears. The Uighurs know the deal. Their “brothers” on the other side of Asia have no space for them in their social imagination. They are doomed to fight their battle alone as long as hypocrisy is imprinted on the grim walls of every castle throughout the Middle East.

The Uighurs have been struggling for human rights and freedom. Kings will not support their cause. They cannot call out for others what they cannot give to their own. The struggle of the Uighurs is synonymous with “free speech” and the “free world.” Empires have little, if anything, to do with such things.  The voices shouting revenge-loaded fatwas are silent. Asking the Arab leaders to come out from their desert oasis and say something meaningful, is like asking water to stop being wet—“it ain’t gonna happen.”

What about the rest of us? How do we get from our moral intelligence to moral action?


Moral thinking is shaped not only by our core beliefs, but by cultural forces and social events- apartheid in Palestine , religious oppression in China , racial profiling and all the assumptions these events foster. Moral conduct is altogether something different. Moral conduct is a response to moral experiences as they take place day after day, country after country and people after people. Moral intelligence is the way we take things into consideration and it is acquire by rules, for most Muslims the foundation of this is Islam and prophetic teachings. Moral conduct is how we put that witnessing into action, showing in action our rock bottom beliefs, desires and values. Our response to the tragedy of others defines our human connectedness and displays our moral principles in real time. Going beyond words, sermons and spiritual advice should trigger a life time of honorable human activity. To put it simply, we need to get beyond our heads, our thinking, and our pondering.

Character is ultimately expressed in action, in what we do. What does this have to do with the Uighurs? Everything.

These people have a problem, a very big one. They’ve been dying, here and there. They have been singled out for extinction. But we cannot help them unless and until we divide the words we speak from the real lives we lead. When will we separate ourselves from the ideals we espouse from the behaviors we have learned to live by—when this happens we won’t have to worry about the Uighurs. We will have learned how to prioritize suffering and the urgency to act. We won’t be living out this same pattern of routine that takes place every time we hear about another people’s tragedy. We won’t go through that period of over-examined analysis. We won’t live an arm’s distance from the original ideals of Islam that advocate social transformation in the first person.


There is this “thing” that happens after a tragic occurrence. Every emotion that is evoked must be understood and explicated in some chat room, newspaper commentary or research before something is done about it. After a long drawn out period of prescriptive diagnosis the problem is forgotten or conveniently ignored. We eulogized the cause to death and then did not have the wherewithal to bury it properly. Our indignation and righteousness did not survive our intrigue, analysis and ethical comprehension. The focus never went to the core of the confrontation, but only to the diagnosis of the core. We, as we typically do, can forever escape the burdens of intervention.

Like the generation before us, we will have failed to have a penetrating impact of the events that shape lives or destroy them. We will lose the ability and the opportunity to leave behind a concrete precedent, not only for our struggle but for our children as well; one that can’t be diluted into a meaningless consensus, nor one that goes beyond discussion groups. 


The only way, for now, to do this is to learn how to transform our deepest values and beliefs, by direct actions, into concrete deeds. Parking ourselves on the White House lawn and asking for a “democracy” to act like a democracy, writing letters of denunciation to the consulate that represent oppressors, creating strong civil rights alliances, and sponsoring a delegation to express our outrage in a meeting with UN representatives are four explicit forms of denunciation that cannot be neutralized into a polite disagreement. Complaint calls made to companies who do business with exploiters, naming them publicly, and initiating boycotts are actions which go beyond a meaningless consensus. Some kind of rebellion is better than none.

I imagine that there are many landscapes of intelligent rebellion and sustained revolt, some that more visible and involve more risk-taking nerve that goes beyond any suggestions made here. None of us pretend to have all the answers and look forward to the advice of those who might be willing to share and give light on a matter that has such humanitarian important.


These are things that we should be taking about and deciding on. Laws that seek to suppress religious rights are extremely dangerous. We should not be asking if we can do something about any of the things that seek to extinguish our religious rights, we should just do something. We must fight against it. We must believe that we can create leverage here and that power is not something beyond us or transformation is above us. This simply is not true, unless we choose to make it so by doing nothing. First we must ask ourselves, is fear the issue? Have we stood so far and so long on the outside barrier of our own understanding, marginal in all crucial respects to our recognition of our own ethical values, asking for permission to occupy a safe place of our own, pleading for the right to repossess our own ideals? This is not a far fetched accusation. Some do prefer this state of mind, as if it would be bearable to accept, than the anguish which might otherwise be felt if we were to authentically try to succeed. Admitting to ineffectiveness can be a gruesome moment!


Those who have been working in the social struggles of the last decade have witnessed to a devastating form of inhibition. Too many times they have met with those who fear action more than the defeat of dreams. They also know, and very well, that elbow-resting posture is the position of a man who explains the most significant moments of his life because he does not dare to live them. Ask yourselves; are there at least a few revolutionary remnants of Muhammad or Moses (peace be upon them)? Is there anything left of the moral indignation of Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X, or Paulo Freire? Perhaps it’s worth asking another simple question: Had any of these brave people been alive today, would they have chosen to sit comfortably in their undisputed place within the sanctuary of their nations? Or would they have come from behind the door and walked out onto the streets to rally their people once more?


We know the answer.



At the end of the day, it is not just the repressor’s mind we need to change. It is our own.


Constitutional, human and spiritual rights do not come with an “initiation.” These are God-given privileges.  He gives them to us and with them the right to protect what is given.

Khalilah Sabra is Director Muslim American Society, North Carolina