China's Torture of the Uyghurs Will Usher in More Islamist Terrorism | Opinion

Earlier this week, shocking drone footage reportedly showing Chinese police herding hundreds of shackled and blindfolded Uyghur Muslim men onto trains surfaced on social media. When confronted with these images, Chinese Ambassador to the U.K Liu Xiaoming denied the authenticity of the video. The ambassador also denied reports that China was carrying out a program of sterilization on Uyghur women in the Xinjiang region.

While this footage is certainly disturbing, it sadly barely scratches the surface of what has been described by many as the worst human rights crisis in the world today. In November 2019, a New York Times report highlighted more than 400 pages of internal Chinese documents (dubbed the "Xinjiang Papers") that provide a breakdown of how China created and organized re-education camps in Xinjiang in 2017. This was followed by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists publishing a collection of Chinese government documents (dubbed the "China Cables") detailing the repressive inner workings of detention camps in Xinjiang.

It is estimated that over a million Uyghurs are imprisoned in Chinese concentration camps. China claims that these sites are vocational education training centers aimed at stemming the threat of Islamist extremism. But in reality, the Chinese Communist Party is committing genocide against the Uyghurs. Edward Lucas of The Daily Mail describes how inmates lack any privacy whatsoever, with high-tech surveillance recording their every word and deed. Toilet breaks are rationed, while prisoners of all ages are made to parade naked. Uyghurs are being abused, raped, tortured and murdered.

The torture is insidiously designed to destroy any sense of Uyghur identity. Half-starved inmates are forced to eat pork and drink alcohol, in defiance of their Muslim faith. Uyghurs are forced to denounce friends and family for fictitious crimes, while resistance is met with beatings, electric shocks and sleep deprivation. Inmates are forced to listen to hours of lectures on the supposed evils of religion to the backdrop of rhythmic Communist slogans. At the end of class, inmates are forced to proclaim that there is no deity.

Despite this horrendous abuse, Muslim countries on the UN Human Rights Council have not uttered a syllable of protest. In fact, nearly half of the 37 countries defending China's Xinjiang policy were Muslim-majority nations. The Islamic Republic of Iran is even going as far to conclude a $400 billion trade and military deal with China.

To be sure, over the past several decades, China has suffered a series of riots, arson attacks, knifings and bombings, perpetrated by suspected militant separatists in Xinjiang. The majority of these incidents have targeted ethnic Han Chinese and critical infrastructure. These Islamist terrorist attacks have already resulted in hundreds of deaths and injuries. This is a terrorist threat that certainly must be handled swiftly and effectively.

Chinese President Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping Andrea Verdelli/Getty Images

However, China's policy of systemic torture will end up having the opposite intended effect. Leading counter-terrorism expert Ed Husain highlights how the poor treatment of Islamist prisoners in Egypt during the 1950s and 1960s gave way to even worse radicalism and terrorism. Considered by many to be the intellectual godfather of modern Islamist terrorism, Sayyid Qutb's radicalization took place while incarcerated in the prisons of Egypt. Qutb laced his personal and political woes with religious justification, transforming him from a secular Egyptian writer to the most radical Islamist thinker in the Arab world.

Other leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood would share similar experiences. In her book Return of the Pharaoh, Zainab al-Ghazali describes the sadistic torture she and other founding members of the Brotherhood underwent while in prison. Al-Ghazali recounts how she was deprived of food and drink, locked in a cell with dogs and restricted from even going to the toilet.

Qutb and al-Ghazali's books detailing their prison experiences not only call for the replacement of Egypt's government with an Islamic state, but are bestsellers throughout the Arab world. The Muslim Brotherhood's radical Islamist philosophy would later result in the birth of al-Qaeda, ISIS and other terrorist movements. The current leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was regularly tortured and beaten while imprisoned in Egypt. According to his fellow inmates, this traumatic experience was what transformed him into a fanatical and violent extremist.

Is it any wonder that support for the Uyghurs came pouring in from jihadist leaders? In April 2019, al-Qaeda's general command expressed solidarity with the Uyghurs and pledged support for their liberation. Given the close relationship between Uyghur Islamists and al-Qaeda, China's continued repression in Xinjiang can only serve to drive more Uyghurs into the welcoming arms of jihadist recruiters who are more than willing to exploit their suffering.

Contrary to what popular television shows like 24 would have you believe, torture simply does not work. Developing trust and good relations has proven to be far more effective in the global fight against terrorism. China's torture of the Uyghurs is not only inhumane, but it will also have the opposite effect in any counter-terrorism initiative. For the sake of both humanity and public safety, this genocide must be stopped.

Bradley Martin is the executive director for the Near East Center for Strategic Studies.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.