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Debate | LUCIS Panel Discussion | Islam in Central Asia

Perspectives on Recent Developments in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region

Tuesday 15 October 2019
Free entrance, registration required
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden

The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region within the People's Republic of China, known to some as East Turkestan (a name considered separatist by the PRC government), is home to numerous different ethnic groups. Its titular ethnicity, the Uyghurs, are a Turkic-speaking, majority Muslim people, though the region hosts a number of other Turkic-speaking groups, such as Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Tatars, in addition to the national majority Han Chinese and other ethnic groups. The region's cities have long been famed for their importance as centers of trade, not only of goods, but of people and ideas along what has become known as the Silk Road. Turfan along the northern rim of Xinjiang's great Taklamakan Desert was once fabled as a center of Buddhist scholarship, while Kashgar in the southwest played an instrumental role in the transmission of Islam to the Turkic peoples of Central Asia in its capacity as one of the centers of the Qarakhanid Empire.

Recently, however, Xinjiang has made headlines for a different reason. As early as 2014, the government of the PRC began a process of systematically arresting and detaining Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other, overwhelmingly Muslim inhabitants of Xinjiang in massive internment camps. This process has only increased in speed and scope during the following years, with reports on the number of detainees varying wildly from 120 000 to 3 000 000. According to official Chinese sources, these camps are reeducation facilities aimed at stemming the tide of Islamic extremism within the region. While some interviewed during state-sanctioned interviews have claimed that they joined the camps willingly for vocational training, a staggering number of reports from friends and relatives tell tale of overnight disappearances, with some missing now for several years, and others dead during or shortly after detention. To many of those impacted and to other observers, these detentions -- which have targeted, but not been limited to, prominent Uyghur intellectuals and cultural icons -- are part of a concerted effort on the part of the PRC government aimed at nothing short of cultural genocide.

Join LUCIS for presentations and subsequent discussion of the origins, current state, and future of Xinjiang's socio-political situation with a panel of international scholars and activists.

The event is moderated by Nicholas Kontovas. 

Additional information about the event will follow in the weeks to come and will be published on this page. Please register below to confirm your attendance and secure your seat. 


Rahima Mahmut

Rahima is an Uyghur singer, human rights activist, and award-winning translator of the poignant prison memoir The Land Drenched in Tears by Soyungul Chanisheff. Her latest work includes working as a consultant and translator for the ITV documentary Undercover: Inside China’s Digital Gulag shown July 2019; and translator for the latest BBC documentary China: A New World Order. Currently, she is the UK representative for the World Uyghur Congress.

Rian Thum

Rian's talk is named Chinas Internment Camps for Turkic Minorities: Evidence Base and Recent TransformationsThis talk explains how we know what we know about the system of internment and cultural cleansing for Uyghur, Kazakh, and other minority groups. Thum focuses on three kinds of evidence: the government's own documents, especially the tender system for building and furnishing internment camps, satellite imagery, and eye witness accounts. It also explores recent evidence than speaks to how Chinese policy toward Turkic minorities is and is not changing.

Rian Thum is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham. His research and teaching are generally concerned with the interpenetration of China and the Muslim World. Since 1999, he has regularly conducted field research in Xinjiang and other areas of China with large Muslim populations, both Uyghur- and Chinese-speaking. His book, The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History (Harvard University Press, 2014) was awarded the Fairbank prize for East Asian history (American Historical Association) and the Hsu prize for East Asian Anthropology (American Anthropological Association). Thum’s current book project, Islamic China, is a re-examination of Chinese Islam that takes full account of the numerous Persian and Arabic sources that Chinese-speaking Muslims have used and written. Thum has consulted for media organizations, businesses, NGOs, and government agencies developing responses to China's mass internment program in Xinjiang. In addition to his academic publications, Thum’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, and The Nation. 

Elise Anderson

Dr. Elise Anderson earned dual Ph.D. degrees in Ethnomusicology and Central Eurasian Studies from Indiana University-Bloomington in 2019. Her research focuses broadly on the performing arts of the Uyghurs and explores state-minority relationships through the lens of music institutionalization. Elise has spent extensive time conducting research abroad and wrote her dissertation based on more than 30 months of ethnographic and archival research in China and Sweden. Her research has appeared in Asian Music in addition to more public-facing venues. In Summer 2019 she was a Liu Xiaobo Fellow at the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, a U.S. federal commission tasked with monitoring the status of human rights and rule of law in the PRC. Elise is also a trained vocalist and wind instrumentalist who made her foray into Uyghur music performance when she began learning folksong and muqam repertoires on the dutar in early 2013, and she has recorded with some of the biggest names in Uyghur music.

Elise Anderson explores manifestations of sound and silence that have emanated from the Uyghur region since the 2016 installation of Chen Quanguo and the intensification of the crackdown on Uyghurs and other Turkic minority peoples. Academics and other observers have long noted that the Chinese state has embraced and even exoticized minority peoples such as the Uyghurs for their stereotypical talents in song and dance while also abhorring and fearing them for the ways that their distinct music, cultures, languages, and religions serve as indices of difference from mainstream "Chinese" (i.e., Han) culture. This oft-contradictory treatment of Uyghurs and other minority groups makes music a revealing lens for understanding how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the government relate to its citizens. Music and sound are far from frivolous, offering deep and valuable insight into the implementation and manifestation of party-state policy in everyday life. In this paper, I draw from ethnographic data, news reporting, and disseminated song to argue that the CCP is altering some of the most fundamental sonic elements of everyday life as it reengineers Uyghur society. Thus, in listening to what is present and absent in urban, musical, and other soundscapes (or sound environments), we can gain valuable insight into the scope of the Party’s campaign of assimilation and cultural genocide. By listening, we can hear that the Party is creating silence, a vacuum that it is then filling with itself.

Gene A. Bunin 

Gene A. Benin's talk will be about; The anatomy of testimony: From rejecting fear and passivity to “rescuing” one’s relatives in Xinjiang.

With the rise of China’s influence on the global stage, its mechanisms of control and repression have also taken an international character, allowing it to use hostage tactics to frighten and paralyze even those abroad. This has been particularly salient in the context of the recent Xinjiang repressions, forcing hundreds of thousands to remain silent despite having friends or relatives who’ve been incarcerated. In this talk, I share my experiences from over a year in Kazakhstan, where local activists have rejected this status quo, systematically pushing people to speak up and forcing the Chinese authorities to make concessions – not only to their relatives but to the world.

Gene A. Bunin is an independent scholar who has spent over a decade researching the Uyghur language in Xinjiang, with about half of that time spent in the region. Since 2018, he has been the curator of the Xinjiang Victims Database (shahit.biz) – the world’s largest searchable platform documenting the victims of the Xinjiang repressions.

Please note! Since there are no more seats available you will be put on a waiting list. If people deregister you will be notified.

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