An Open Letter to the BBC: What’s Islam got to do with it?

Dear BBC,
The Xinjiang research community is delighted that you continue to cover such pressing humanitarian disasters as cultural genocide and internment camps. However, your coverage of the Xinjiang, Karakax papers on the 17th February 2019 fell somewhat short of the rigorous standards associated with your organisation that should continue to be both publicly accountable and funded. I hope these comments are received in the spirit of civic engagement and support to improve your important work with which they are intended.
The key factual problem in the reporting was the representation of the operation of camps and assimilation policies in Xinjiang as focused on targeting religion per se. The expert literature on state and non-state violence in the region by Gardner BovingdonJames Millward, and Sean Roberts, who have published on the topic for over 20 years, has demonstrated it was only after 9/11 that religion was adopted as an official public-image focus, re-representing what the party-state has always openly termed the “ethnic problem”. Policy documents throughout the 1990s did not even mention religion or extremism yet these events are re-described this way today. BBC journalists do know this, so it was unusual that in your main bulletin, the issue was represented in a manner considerably closer to the perspective of CCTV rather than the BBC or the global research community.
Your own data points to how ethnic targeting does target religion but only as one of multiple indicators of ethnic identity. Some of the key reasons for interning people include plans to travel outside China and the entirely arbitrary “untrustworthy” judgement. Preventing religious observance is one aspect of these policies but they also target language use, travel abroad, friendship with non-Chinese citizens, and general ‘cultural’ demeanour described as “manners education” in the leaked documents. The work of Timothy Grose even shows how narratives of “hygiene”, paralleling more well-known historical instances of ethnic targeting, justify destruction of traditional Uyghur furniture from people’s own homes. Uyghur language has long been removed from the school curriculum and according to the scholars and NGOs you work with, it is constantly monitored in camps as an indicator of extremism and general untrustworthiness. Religion is only one facet of identity and governance in the region, which I hope my work helps show have been described in official documents as a problem of “backwardness” for decades. In 2009, textbooks for middle-school children taught the concept of minzu xiaowang (民族消亡) to celebrate that “backward” minority groups will disappear. Ethnic unity and Patriotic Education textbooks explicitly celebrate the “disappearance” of minority languages as progress. Xinjiang’s Turkic-speaking groups are always represented as behind the advanced “settler culture” (tunken wenhua 屯垦文化) of the majority and in need of their guidance, as illustrated in the images above taken from official exhibitions. This is essential background knowledge to make sense of current policies.
These are not intellectual quibbles over minor details! The framing of these issues has real concrete impact, particularly when presented in mainstream media on an area generally considered specialised. So why does this matter? 
Uyghurs and other Turkic-speaking minorities say it matters and ultimately, it’s their identity we are talking about! Uyghur diaspora groups and scholars have been calling for journalists to take heed of the fact that “this is not a war on Islam but a war on Uyghurs”, according to one Uyghur scholar, and “we are not all Muslims” according to another. There is much diversity among Uyghurs and other Turkic-speaking groups in Xinjiang. They feel you are misrepresenting their identity and they are worried about the concrete effects of that misrepresentation.
Audience reception. The reality is that in an age of popular anxieties about terrorism and Islam, your audience is considerably more sympathetic to a “war on Islam” than cultural genocide or camps for people arbitrarily deemed untrustworthy. In my line of work, I encounter British people of left and right-wing persuasions telling me they are not interested in this issue because they “don’t like Muslims” or “don’t like religion”. Your coverage does not cause that intolerance but it cannot reach those people. It may even embolden them with another example of “Muslims behaving badly” and does so by misrepresenting basic facts about people’s identity and governance of the region. Uyghurs in the UK and across Europe are concerned that representation of this issue may encourage discrimination here and give greater global support for the party-state to pursue what they describe as cultural genocide.
I commend that you cover this issue but recommend that you more fully engage with people from the region and consult a broader range of scholars with long-term experience in the region. This will help avoid misrepresenting such an important and complex set of issues. 
Yours sincerely,                              

  Dr David Tobin (University of Manchester)

Uyghur Times

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