Muslim Student Association joins Cornell students, others in Capitol Hill protest for Uyghur rights
Speakers demanded government action to address Uyghur abuses in China
The American University Muslim Student Association participated in a Feb. 13 rally on Capitol Hill organized by the Cornell Muslim Educational and Cultural Association and other organizations to advocate for Uyghur rights.
Uyghurs are a Muslim ethnic minority primarily located in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of northwestern China. Several countries, including the U.S., the U.K. and Canada, have accused China of detaining over one million Uyghurs and imprisoning them in re-education camps. It has also been reported that the Chinese government is allegedly suppressing the Uyghur population by sterilizing Uyghur women and separating Uyghur children from their families.
The rally’s speaker lineup featured representatives from Free Uyghur Now, the Uyghur American Association, Campaign for Uyghurs, the Uyghur Human Rights Project, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Athenai Institute and the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, among others. The protest was moderated by Cornell students Suha Khan and Zoë Johnson-Berman.
“We stand here today, not only in solidarity, but to make a promise, a promise that we will not just stand by and watch idly,” Johnson-Berman said at the event. “A promise that we will ensure our government takes proper actions against the Chinese government’s inhumane regime against Uyghurs and other minorities.”
The speakers, many of whom were Uyghur themselves, discussed the human rights abuses their community has suffered and called on the U.S. government to take action to protect them.
“The Chinese government is destroying our families, our culture and our Muslim faith,” said Omer Kanat, the executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, at the event. “We must act now to stop China from normalizing genocide in the 21st century.”
Some of the speakers have family members who are currently detained or imprisoned in China. general secretary of Campaign for Uyghurs Kamalturk Yalqun explained how his father has been unlawfully imprisoned since 2016.
“He was the chief editor of the Uyghur literature textbooks,” Yalqun said while addressing protesters. “My father and his colleagues were arrested and were sentenced to prison only because they tried to include Uyghur history, Uyghur culture into the Uyghur literature textbooks. … The imprisonment of my innocent father and many educators, scholars and intellectuals is an attempt to erase Uyghur history, demolish Uyghur culture and ultimately destroy the Uyghur identity.”
Rizwangul NurMuhammad, founder of the nonprofit Empower Communities Charitable Trust, said her brother has been detained in a Uyghur internment camp since 2017.
“I really hope that they are hearing our voices,” NurMuhammad said at the event. “I hope that they don’t lose hope.”
Speakers at the event demanded the U.S. Congress pass the Uyghur Policy Act of 2021 and the Uyghur Human Rights Protection Act of 2020, the latter of which would give refugee priority status to Uyghurs. The bill would also help reunite families and protect Uyghurs living around the world from unjust deportation to China.
“Some Uyghurs in other countries such as Turkey, Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Thailand live in fear everyday of deportation back to China,” Elfidar Iltebir, a member of the Uyghur American Association, said during the protest. “Most of those countries have extradition treaties with China and can deport Uyghurs anytime for any reason, including economic incentives.”
Other speakers called on American corporations to divest any financial holdings connected to China and the Xinjiang region. College students have used divestment as a tool to fight political injustice for decades. In 1977, a group of Hampshire College students convinced their school board to divest all holdings of companies that did business in South Africa to help stop apartheid.
Leo Hojnowski, a junior at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is part of the ongoing movement. Hojnowski works as a fellow at the Athenai Institute to help companies separate their investments from any connections to Uyghur human rights abuses.
“The Athenai Institute is working at universities all around the country to get them to investigate their investments for any connections to Uyghur forced labor,” Hojnowski told The Eagle. “We’re looking to send a financial signal to Wall Street that investments in companies that rely on forced labor is a bad move both morally and for their pocketbooks.”
The Athenai Institute is a student founded, nonpartisan nonprofit organization that provides tools for universities to “financially disentangle” themselves from the human rights abuses of the Chinese Communist Party, according to their website. Hojnowski said colleges and universities play an especially important role in the divestment movement.
“We want to put an end to the Uyghur genocide, and that starts for us on college campuses, separating American education dollars from genocide,” he said. “All these universities who are making statements about diversity and inclusion and ethics, we want them to put their money where their mouth is.”
Khan said that organizing the event was a heavy undertaking that involved extensive communication with potential attendees.
“It took us about two months to get this organized,” Khan, who has been working on Uyghur rights issues since 2019, told the Eagle. “We decided to go through social media and contact every club we could possibly. I think we reached out to about 50, and we made this huge spreadsheet. … Not only did we gather students, it was gathering people who would be leaders in their communities who would be willing to talk.”
In addition to contacting the various organizations at the event through social media, Khan underwent the lengthy process of getting a permit to advocate on Capitol Hill grounds. However, she said all these efforts were worth it to create a safe space for Uyghurs to tell their stories.
“Uyghurs get surveilled, so a lot of people don’t have that chance of actually advocating for themselves,” she said. “This project was not really just to gather students, I would say it’s to gather the Uyghurs so they have a safe space to actually talk about their concerns.”
Looking to the future, Khan said she hopes to bring more awareness to the struggles of the Uyghurs and other minority Muslim populations whose hardships are frequently overlooked due to religious and racial biases.
“When it comes to minority populations, non-white, non-Christian populations, they have difficulty even just coming into the U.S. or being recognized as someone who has war or terror upon themselves,” she said. “They don’t have enough recognition because there’s so much rampant Islamophobia.”
This sentiment was echoed by AU MSA president Qudsia Saeed, a junior in the School of Education, who said the media can often be biased in their reporting of human rights crises.
“It’s not benefiting the U.S. or media in any way to talk about the Uyghur Muslims and human rights violations in China right now,” Saeed told The Eagle. “How I view it, I’m a Pakistani Muslim American and so I view the situation very similar to what’s happening in Kashmir, what’s happening in Palestine, what’s happening around the world to a lot of these communities.”
Saeed said that all people have a duty to advocate for Muslims and other minority groups, regardless of their own race or religion.
“It does not matter if you're not a Uyghur Muslim,” she said. “It's about emphasizing to non-Muslims that you also have a responsibility as an ally, as a supporter in this larger conversation.”
This article was edited by Zoe Bell, Jordan Young and Nina Heller. Copyediting done by Isabelle Kravis, Leta Lattin, Sarah Clayton and Stella Guzik.