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By John Cosenza

I: Introduction

In July 2020 top representatives from 22 nations across Europe, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia signed a letter addressed to the President of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The letter, just one of many recent international calls for concern, discussed the systemic persecution of Uighur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province. The letter quotes, “We, the co-signatories to this letter, are concerned about credible reports of arbitrary detention in large-scale places of detention, as well as widespread surveillance and restrictions, particularly targeting Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang, China.”[1] Although the Chinese government has repeatedly denied such accusations and has thwarted attempts by the international community to directly witness detention centers holding Uighur Muslims[2], new evidence has attracted significant backlash from human rights advocates, political leaders, journalists, scholars and other stakeholders. More importantly, this backlash has captivated a strong interest in Uighur Muslims in China; specifically focusing on their persecution in Xinjiang province as well as their history, customs, and involvement in Islamic extremist violence. This an exciting development for human rights practitioners aiming to reduce religious persecution across the globe, as such discussions are essential to understand the current plight of China’s Uighur Muslim community and to develop meaningful solutions.

The objective of this paper is to explore the Uighur Muslim community in a comprehensive and temporal manner to assist larger audiences better understand why they are being persecuted and how certain policies can result in meaningful change. This objective will be accomplished in three ways. First, a historical analysis will help explain the origins of the Uighur Muslim community in Xinjiang province and their animosity towards the Chinese government. Second, it will discuss the notable correlation between the Uighur community’s systemic persecution and Islamic extremist violence. Third, this analysis will provide policy recommendations to the Chinese government as well as to the Uighur Muslim community; with the goal being to encourage a mutually beneficial relationship that can reduce the Uighur community’s participation in extremist violence, and in turn, reduce their systemic persecution by the Chinese government.

II: A Historical Analysis of Uighur Muslims in China

The Uighur Muslim community stems from a long history of Islamic promulgation in China’s Inner Asian frontier. In Islam in China: Accommodation or Separation? Dru. C Gladney recounts the history of different societies living under Chinese rule for the past two millennia. According to Gladney, “Islam in China has primarily been propagated over the last 1,300 years among the people now known as “Hui”, but many of the issues confronting them are relevant to the Turkic and Indo-European Muslims. ‘Hui teaching’ (Huijiao) was the term once used in Chinese to indicate ‘Islam’ in general, and probably derives from an early Chinese rendering of the term for the modern Uighur people.”[3] The Uighur Muslim community in China, continues Gladney, firmly believes their ancestors were the indigenous people who settled the Tarim Basin, or present day Xinjiang province. The first recording by Chinese historians of the Uighur people dates back to the fall of the Turkish Khanate between 552-744 C.E.[4] During this time the Uighurs were but one tribe in alliance with several other nomadic peoples across the Tarim Basin. The Uighur allied themselves with other nomadic tribes such as the Basmil and Karlukh and defeated the Second Turkish Khanate in 742 C.E.[5] Shortly after their defeat of the Turkish Khanate, Gladney notes, “we find the beginnings of the Uighur empire”[6] and their emergence as the most dominant tribe across the Tarim Basin.

In the following years, the Uighur people gradually transitioned from a nomadic to a settled society and their interactions with neighboring states including the Chinese Tang State steadily increased. The Uighurs benefited from lucrative economic partnerships with the Chinese along Silk Road trade routes. However, increased socio-economic interactions with the Chinese and other societies along the Silk Road also contributed to substantial socio-religious changes among the Uighur people. Gladney quotes, “the traditional shamanistic Turkic-speaking Uighur came increasingly under the influence of Persian Manichaeism, Buddhism, and eventually, Nestorian Christianity. Extensive trade and military alliances along the old Silk Road with the Chinese state developed to the extent that the Uighur gradually adopted cultural dress and even agricultural practices of the Chinese.”[7] In 840 C.E., Uighur identity was further compromised when their capitol city Karabalghasun was sacked by the Kyrgyz tribe. After the conquest of Karabalghasun, a number of Uighur relocated to and founded the great city-state of Khocho (also known as Qocho) located in present day Xinjiang. Over the next several centuries the Uighur displaced their Buddhist religion ushered in by Chinese influence and slowly succumbed to Islamification from outside forces. In the 1390s, the Islamic Mongolian leader Khizr Khwaja personally embarked “upon a holy war against ‘Khitay”, conquering Turfan and Qocho in the core of Uyghuristan, and reportedly achieving the conversion of the Uyghuristan populace.”[8]

By the mid-15th century C.E. the Uighur people had committed to Islam but continued to be influenced by foreign powers with the means to exert political, socio-economic, and religious dominance including China.[9] In The Madrasa in Asia: Muslim Education in China: Chinese Madrasas and Linkages to Islamic Schools Abroad, Jackie Armijo discusses the persecution of Muslims throughout the Ming dynasty (1366 C.E. – 1644 C.E.) and Qing dynasty (1644 C.E. – 1911 C.E.) During the latter half of the Ming dynasty, “Muslims together with other foreigners who had settled in China were subject to new laws requiring them to dress like the Chinese, adopt Chinese surnames, speak Chinese, and essentially become Chinese.”[10] Unlike the Ming dynasty, the Qing dynasty witnessed unparalleled liberal expansion and growth for China’s Muslims. For example, travel restrictions were lifted and Muslims, including the Uighur, were allowed to make the pilgrimage to Mecca and travel to Islamic educational centers.[11] However, Armijo notes the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911 ushered in a “period of political unrest and social chaos that eventually led to the creation of two powerful political groups: the Nationalists of the Guomindang (known as the KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).”[12]

Both political parties attempted to win the support of China’s largest minority communities including Muslims. After years of political turmoil and civil war, the CCP emerged victorious and officially absorbed Xinjiang province, home to the Uighur Muslim population, into China’s body politic. In Religion and Nationalism in Chinese Societies Yuan-lin Tsai argues the communists attempted to build “up a strong political mechanism to integrate”[13] the Uighurs into Chinese society but ultimately failed. By 1955 China’s communist party established the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, which perpetuated “the Nationalist policy of recognizing the Uighur as a minority nationality under Chinese rule.”[14] This designation led to another wave of systemic persecution against Uighur Muslims during the Communist Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976. During the Cultural Revolution “the Muslims of China found their religion outlawed, their religious leaders persecuted, imprisoned and even killed, and their mosques defiled, if not destroyed.”[15]

Despite seemingly endless waves of socio-religious persecution, the Uighur Muslims of China were, and still are, determined to practice their faith. Tasi quotes,

“They (Sinicized Muslims) were more inclined to accept a new Chinese nationality based on the model of Sun’s nationalist ideal than the Uighur Muslims, for geographical, cultural, and historical reasons. Due to the late integration of Xinjiang into the Qing imperial political system and the Uighur Muslims’ exposure to their Turkish Muslim brothers in the neighboring Central Asian region, they kept their Persian-Turkish Islamic tradition intact up to the Republican era. Indeed, the majority of the Uighur Muslims could not speak Chinese, and far less adopted Han Chinese customs, read Confucian Classics or took up any position in the Han-dominant bureaucratic system.”[16]

Ultimately, the Uighur people have been persecuted by several external powers throughout their history. Today, the Uighur community’s strong resistance to Chinese integration and participation in separatist violence is reactionary to this history. Indeed, it is plausible to suggest the Uighur community’s participation in Islamic extremist violence is a direct response to the persecution of their people over the course of hundreds of years. In turn, it is equally plausible to suggest Uighur persecution is compounded by a small minority of community members who participate in Islamic extremist violence. Understanding this history helps explain the cyclical animosity the Uighur have for Chinese authority figures and vice versa; as well as the egregious acts of socio-religious persecution witnessed today in Xinjiang province. The next section of this analysis will in no way attempt to justify the Chinese government’s persecution of Uighur Muslims nor justify Islamic extremist violence. Rather, it will review existing literature to objectively explore the relationship between Uighur separatist violence and the persecution of the larger Uighur community at whole. Understanding this correlation can assist stakeholders develop correct policy recommendations to alleviate the current plight of Uighur Muslims.

The remaining two parts of John Cosenza’s examination will be published on a weekly basis throughout December.

John Cosenza is a Market Research Analyst at Zitter Health Insights as well as a part time Research Consultant at the Mitchell Firm, a Washington D.C. based lobbying and consultancy firm. John graduated from Marist College with a dual degree in History & Political Science and graduated from Norwich University with a Master’s Degree in Diplomacy & International Business. John is an experienced professional with a unique combination of primary and secondary research skills as well as writing skills. He has experience working in the private and non-profit sector conducting secondary, qualitative, and quantitative research for multiple organizations including the world’s largest marketing and advertising agency, an international marketing consultancy firm, and a Washington, D.C. based Non-Government Organization (NGO). In addition to his research, John has co-authored multiple articles with Mr. John T. Pinna of the Mitchell firm focusing on international human rights issues and international religious persecution. John continues to work with political, think tank, and NGO leaders in the Washington D.C. metro area to advocate for international religious freedom. He can be reached at [email protected] or

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates.

[1] United Nations Human Rights Council (2020). Human Rights Watch, (July 2020).

[2] Kirby, Jen (2020). “Concentration Camps and Forced Labor: China’s Repression of the Uighurs, Explained.” Vox, (9/25/2020).


[3] Gladney, C. Dru (2020). Islam in China: Accommodation or Separation? Austrian Academy of Sciences Press, (September 2020).

[4] Ibid, 192

[5] Ibid, 192

[6] Ibid, 193

[7] Ibid, 193

[8] Millward, A. James (2007). “Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang.” Columbia University Press, (2007).

[9] Ibid, 69

[10] Armijo, Jackie (2020). “The Madrasa in Asia: Muslim Education in China: Chinese Madrasas and Linkages to Islamic Schools Abroad.” Amsterdam University Press, (10/4/2020)

[11] Ibid, 171

[12] Ibid, 172

[13] Tsai, Yuan-lin (2020). Religion and Nationalism in Chinese Societies: Pilgrimage and Hui Muslim Identity in the Republican Era, Amsterdam University Press (10/4/2020)

Ibid, 181

[14] Gladney, C. Dru (2020). Islam in China: Accommodation or Separation? Austrian Academy of Sciences Press, (September 2020).

[15] Armijo, Jackie (2020). “The Madrasa in Asia: Muslim Education in China: Chinese Madrasas and Linkages to Islamic Schools Abroad.” Amsterdam University Press, (10/4/2020)

[16] Tsai, Yuan-lin (2020). Religion and Nationalism in Chinese Societies: Pilgrimage and Hui Muslim Identity in the Republican Era, Amsterdam University Press (10/4/2020)