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Artist Profile

Uyghur Artist and Activist Rahima Mahmut on the Fight for Uyghur Culture and Survival

China

Rahima Mahmut, © Antonio Zazueta Olmos Photography

Rahima Mahmut is an Uyghur artist and activist. She is the UK project director of the World Uyghur Congress and the chair of Stop Uyghur Genocide.

The Uyghur people are a historically Turkic-speaking and Muslim minority group of 13 million people, predominantly located in the northwestern territory of Xinjiang. Their distinct language, culture, and religion has long made them a target of the Chinese authorities, which have sought to “integrate” -- and erase -- the Uyghur people for decades, denying religious rights such as observing Ramadan and allowing women to wear veils. China has also invested billions of dollars in infrastructure for resource extraction in Xinjiang, which has some of the country’s largest coal, natural gas, and oil deposits, reaping the region’s wealth while Uyghur towns remain impoverished and Uyghurs struggle to gain employment at oil companies due to racial discrimination.

ABC News

Many Uyghurs resent Chinese rule and the exploitation of their homeland’s resources, which has led to outbreaks of ethnic violence and domestic terrorism in the region over the years. The Chinese authorities opened a number of so-called “re-education camps” in 2017, intended to indoctrinate Uyghurs into the majority Han Chinese culture and erase the Uyghur religious and cultural identity. More than a million Uyghurs have been arbitrarily detained in the camps since 2017 and have no legal route to challenge their detentions, despite not being charged with crimes. The use of high-tech surveillance, such as facial recognition and police checkpoints designed to target and segregate Muslims, also surged in the region. China has been accused of crimes against humanity and genocide for its persecution of the Uyghur people, including violations such as forced labor, sexual abuse, torture, and forced sterilization to control the growth of the population.

Ahead of the G-20 conference in Rome from October 30-31 and the ongoing 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference -- also known as COP26, indicating that it is the 26th Conference of Parties that signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1994 -- human rights activists are calling on world leaders to hold China accountable for its human rights abuses rather than letting Beijing off the hook in exchange for cooperation on climate change issues. During COP-26, Rahima will address a gathering of the International Programme for Action on Climate, or IPAC, a body of 200+ global parliamentarians from different political perspectives.

As Rahima wrote in a stirring op-ed in The Diplomat co-written with Hong Kong activist Nathan Law, “A regime that is allowed to commit genocide with impunity, and faces no consequences, is a regime that will simply be emboldened to continue to commit atrocity crimes and threaten others beyond its borders.”

Rahima was scheduled to speak at ARC’s panel “Language, Music, and Censorship: When Tradition Becomes Resistance” at WOMEX, a global conference of musicians that took place in Portugal from October 27-31. The panel, hosted by ARC director Julie Trebault, featured Sara Curruchich, an indigenous Guatemalan singer-songwriter, and Ebo Krdum, Sudanese-Swedish self-taught singer, guitarist, artist and activist. Unfortunately, Rahima could not attend the panel due to travel complications resulting from COVID-19 regulations.

While we were deeply saddened that Rahima was unable to attend our panel and share her insights and story, we stand in solidarity with Rahima and other Uyghur musicians who are fighting for their cultural and human rights each and every day. In lieu of her participation in the panel, we are pleased to share an abridged version of her remarks below.

Good afternoon everyone, it is a pleasure to sit on this panel besides other musicians and activists who are, like me, fighting for their cultural rights. 

For my people, the Uyghurs, the fight for our culture is deeply intertwined with the fight for our survival. 

Since 2017, our beautiful homeland of East Turkestan has been turned into a police state. A network of surveillance technology covers every corner. The strong women of our community are under siege, with forced sterilizations, forced abortions, and forced marriages to Han Chinese men. Around 3 million Uyghurs have been interned in concentration camps, where they face relentless brutality. Starvation, routine torture, systematic rape, and even organ harvesting.

This campaign of terror is designed to destroy our identity. As a CCP Official stated, the point is to “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins.” 

In their efforts to ‘break our roots,’ the Chinese Regime has targeted the Uyghurs’ unique, rich and diverse culture because they see it as a threat. Our language is censored, our traditions banned, and our cultural figures seen as enemies of the state. Since 2017, around 400 intellectuals and artists have vanished. Rahile Dawut, Ablajan Ayup, Perhat Tursun – each disappearance is a deep wound to our community.

One of our most celebrated musicians, Abdurehim Heyit, an Uyghur singer and dutar player, was imprisoned in 2017. The Chinese Regime said the words he sang during a performance revealed him to be a terrorist threat.

In 2019, after reports that Abdurehim had died, many of us feared the worst. And then Chinese state media released a chilling video of him, speaking from a script and showing signs of torture and duress. It was painful for us to watch such a respected member of our community reduced to such degradation and humiliation at the hands of the Chinese government.

As a singer, I see it as my duty to give voice to Uyghur songs and maintain our culture while in exile. Particularly on behalf of my fellow artists detained in concentration camps who have had their voices stolen from them.

So, for me, music is a site of resistance – a vehicle through which I can share the Uyghur experience, our pain, but also our joy. When the regime does all it can to break us, expressing joy is a true act of defiance.

Earlier this year, I composed a song called “My Son, When Will You Return Home?”. The lyrics come from a poem by Muhemmet Abdumijit, an Uyghur poet in exile who lost contact with his mother many years ago. In the poem, he imagines her pain at not knowing whether her son is safe and her longing to see him again.

As an Uyghur, a singer, and also a mother, Muhemmet’s words touched me deeply – as the pain of missing loved ones is something we, Uyghurs, know well.

At this current moment, we are at risk of losing Uyghur culture altogether. The structural surveillance and internment have made my people in the Uyghur Region terrified to express their identity in any form. If the world does not act soon, Uyghur music, art, and literature will simply disappear into history.

While the Chinese Regime attempts to erase our identity, I have faith that our culture will withstand their repression. It has bound us to each other for hundreds of years. Through crackdown, repression, and occupation, the Uyghur culture has persisted. But the genocide happening now to the Uyghurs is different from anything that has come before, and it will take the work of committed artists to maintain and rebuild Uyghur culture in exile.

Therefore, we need the international community’s help – they must recognize that it is their moral duty to protect my people’s culture from extinction, and they must do everything in their power to stop it.

Learn more about Rahima's work and advocacy by following her on social media and watching her music videos.

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