Break the Silence: Students Protesting the Uyghur Genocide

Image Credit: Jason Goode

American civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” When those that have the freedom and liberty to exercise their rights choose to remain silent, an unimaginable amount of power is handed to the hands of the oppressor. We as a globalized society can only prevail when, wherever there is injustice, there are voices that demand justice. 

Imploring the world to act and condemn China for its actions sends a strong message to the oppressors: Injustice and abuse have no place in our world, and those that perpetrate them must and will be held accountable. The Chinese government is committing gross human rights violations against its Uyghur population. Since 2014, Chinese abuses have not only denied ethnic Uyghurs the right to religion but also the universally guaranteed right to life. 

The world’s hypocrisy must be questioned, and the overwhelming silence of many influential institutions — for example, USC — sets a wildly dangerous precedent. The administration has been silent on the issue with no signal of even acknowledging the genocide. The silence of key figures, notably the USC Board of Trustees and President Carol Folt, on the issue has been disappointing to many, especially the Muslim community.  The world was quick to take action against Russian aggression and stand in solidarity with Ukrainians in Ukraine and around the world. 

As Muslims around the world celebrate Ramadan — a month of fasting, prayers and reflection — USC students took to the streets of the University Park Campus on April 14 to express their solidarity with Uyghur Muslims in Chinese occupied East Turkestan. In collaboration with Delta Phi Epsilon, USC’s Foreign Service Society, the Muslim Student Union stood firmly against oppression and called out China for its human rights violations. 

The incoming president of the USC Muslim Student Union, Aisha Patel, reaffirmed the commitment of the Muslim community on campus towards always siding with justice. She said, “Our religion is embedded in standing up for the oppressed and doing something beyond merely sharing words. The Muslim Student Union recognizes the importance of supporting humanitarian issues and is committed to spreading awareness.”

Many Muslim students were joined by students of diverse backgrounds for the common cause of advocating for human rights, marching across campus. Here’s why: 

China’s abuse of human rights and lack of government action is alarming with increased persecution of Turkic groups living within its borders, such as the Uyghurs, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz. Unlike the Han Chinese majority, who are primarily Chinese speakers, the Turkic groups are predominantly Muslim and have their own languages. A consensus concluded that Uyghurs and Kazakhs made up 46% and 7% of the population in Xinjiang, respectively. 

There are currently over 3 million Uyghur Muslims in Chinese detention camps. Many stand true to their Muslim faith as opposed to abandoning their religion. The detention camps are like prisons, forcing Uyghurs to renounce their ethnic identities through forced indoctrination and torture. 

The extermination of Muslim minority groups speaks to the Chinese government’s long history of human rights violations. Uyghurs, for example, are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. While Uyghurs are recognized as one of 55 minorities in China, they are continuously discriminated against by the government both culturally and ideologically. They aim to homogenize Chinese society by erasing Uyghur identity — an alarming message from the world’s most populous country. The oppression of Uyghur Muslims by the Chinese Communist Party needs to be called what it actually is:  a modern-day genocide. 

However, the ongoing genocide in China has not received the same swift attention from international media, nor has it been the subject of diplomatic and foreign policy efforts. World powers slapped Russia with drastic economic sanctions and came to aid Ukraine. While on the other hand, China has still not been held accountable for its violations. The common policy of inaction by world leaders in holding China accountable is alarming, and they need to take concrete action, and they need to do it now. 

For instance, the government-mandated detention prisons carry out forced sterilization of women in an attempt to curb and eventually exterminate the Uyghur population of China. Uyghur women are subject to intrusive sterilization surgeries, forced birth control and forced abortions. Not only have the detention camps created conditions to decrease the number of Uyghurs in China, but they have also carried out sexual violence against Uyghur women. Women in these camps are being systematically raped, tortured and assaulted. If the women resisted and tried to fight back, they are beaten and mutilated. 

The conditions of Uyghurs in detention camps during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic are grim, with heavily restricted and monitored access to health care. Their treatment during the holy month of Ramadan has been especially alarming: Uyghur Muslims in the camps are being forced to eat pork and drink alcohol, and those who observe the Ramadan fast are force-fed. 

Moreover, these same detention camps were designed to break families apart by separating children from their parents and segregating men and women. Children as young as three were forced to give up school and sit in stressful positions, such as squatting, for long hours. The men are exploited for labor, and the women are forced to serve the sexual needs of Chinese officers in the prisons. However, the Chinese government refuses to acknowledge these violations, labeling the prisons and detention centers as “re-education camps” and “ boarding schools.”.

The protest was led by the current president of the USC Muslim Student Union, Ephar Khan Anwar, who is ethnically Uyghur. She is a senior studying International Relations and Global Business. Her family is originally from Chinese-occupied East Turkestan, now called Xinjiang, and 93 of her relatives are now missing. She fears ever going back to visit her ancestral home because, for her, it would mean “being held in a concentration camp or even death.”  

The Uyghur solidarity protest made a bold statement, with all participants dressed in blue in support of the millions of Uyghur Muslims being held forcefully in detention camps in China. The crowd chanted phrases such as “Stop the Genocide” and “Hold China accountable.” Protesters also specifically USC’s inaction: “USC, break your silence,” “USC, stop being complacent to the genocide,” “How many is too many?”

However, it has been very disappointing to see the USC administration and other important organizations remain silent and stand on the side of injustice. Khan Anwar said, “USC has been notably silent on the Uyghur genocide, where they usually speak up on other human rights issues. It’s clear that greed will always remain on the pedestal.” Economic ties with China are prioritized at the cost of human lives. 

Others at the protest also shared the same sentiment that Muslims are under-represented, with no recognition or respect of Muslim festivals and traditions. USC, and many other U.S. universities, do not offer halal meal plans to Muslims on campus or accommodations during Ramadan. They felt unheard and said the university was quick to stand with Ukraine and issue a statement with resources for Ukrainian students but remained silent on the Uyghur issue. 

An anonymous protester, who is a Chinese Muslim, condemned the Chinese Communist Party for their actions against Uyghur Muslims and other minorities in China. They told Glimpse from the Globe that they wished to keep their identity a secret due to the repercussions their family in China might face if identified by the Chinese government as a supporter of the Uyghur cause. 

The Uyghur genocide is not an isolated incident. Like the Holocaust, what started as cultural and ideological persecution of a religious minority has now escalated to a mass termination. The dark chapters of the past should serve as a constant reminder to us all to take action to stop ethnic cleansing and genocide when we encounter it.

We must not allow ourselves to repeat past mistakes. The world needs to consider the voices of the oppressed, the ones being silenced, the ones facing a constant reminder of hatred and standing bold against oppressors such as China.

Uyghurs are more than just statistics to use to undermine China. They are actual people on the brink of mass extinction. While the flow of information from the region is limited due to the censorship by the government, there is a need now more than ever for the world to inform themselves on the issue. The genocide is happening, and how we act in this decisive moment matters above all else.


Zain Khan

Mohammed Zain Shafi Khan (he/him) is a Junior studying International Relations and Journalism. He interned at Freedom Firm, a non-profit that works on rescue and restoration operations for minors sold into prostitution. Currently, he is a research intern for the LA county 5th district supervisor’s office where him and his team find facilities that can house the mentally ill population of the soon to be demolished Mens Central Jail. I he is passionate about human rights especially in conflict ridden countries/regions such as Syria, Afghanistan, South America and the Middle East. He closely follow US politics and its relations with other countries. In his free time, he loves to cook, dance, try new foods, spend time with friends, family and binge watch tv series.