Sam Brownback is a lawyer, former United States Senator and former governor of the state of Kansas who has served as the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom since February 2018.
He spoke with RFA Uyghur Service Director Alim Seytoff on June 5, the Muslim Eid holiday, about U.S. policies in response to the persecution underway in northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), where authorities have held an estimated 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas in a network of political “re-education camps” since April 2017.
RFA: More than one billion Muslims around the world are celebrating the Eid holiday with their families and friends. At the same time, more than one million Uyghurs are detained in China’s so-called political reeducation camps. The State Department last week called on China to release all the Uyghurs detained in the camps, but the Chinese government has not released them. What’s your message today to the Chinese government?
Brownback: This is a terrible mistake that they’ve made. They shouldn’t have done it. Locking up this many people of faith simply because they’re Muslims and the Chinese are trying to control the Muslim population in their country. We continue to call upon them to release these individuals. And the world has taken note, the world will take note, and there will be actions that follow this consequence of what China is doing. If you think about it, we’re in 2019 and we’re talking about internment camps and reeducation camps and these sort of things that sound like they should belong in the 1940s and 1950s, not where the world is today. I think this is a terrible mistake that the Chinese have made and we call upon them to release all the Uyghurs and to allow them to peacefully and freely practice their faith. Particularly in this season, where Ramadan is just over and it’s a celebratory time, the Chinese really should do the right thing. And it also sends a message to the world: If China is willing to do this to their own Muslim population, what do they think of Muslims around the world that peacefully practice their faith? A country the size of China—the biggest population in the world, the second biggest economy—they need to be far more interested in what they’re projecting to the world and what they think of people of faith. Particularly the Muslim faith, but they’re doing this to Christians, they’re doing this to Buddhists, they’re doing this to Falun Gong, across the board.
RFA: On this very special day, Uyghurs, especially Uyghurs in exile, cannot be with their family and friends. Most of them do not even know whether their family and friends are alive or in detention camps. They cannot call their parents to say ‘Eid Mubarak.’ They’re living in a very difficult situation. A lot of them are very distraught and they cannot see hope. What’s your message to the Uyghur people – not just those in exile, but the Uyghur people who are inside the camps and those outside the camps who also live in what many scholars describe as a police state?
Brownback: My message to them is to pray and have hope, not to give up hope. This situation is coming clearer in focus around the world. You’re seeing protesters now mount up in some Muslim countries. In Indonesia there were protesters. The Turkish government has spoken up. The United States government has spoken up strongly and with clarity. Not to give up on hope and continue to believe that right ultimately does win. We have seen situations in the world over history where initially it looks like the situation is hopeless. There’s a phrase in the bible about ‘God is not mocked.’ There is a clarity of truth that comes through in due season. It doesn’t mean there won’t be pain and difficulty, but God is not mocked. There will be truth. There will be righteous things in the future. Maintain that hope.
RFA: The United States government is at the forefront in defending the rights of Uyghurs and other Muslims in the region after the Chinese government has arbitrarily detained anywhere from 800,000 to two million Uyghurs and others. Yet aside from Turkey, the rest of the Muslim majority countries are silent on this issue. Some even support and endorse the Chinese government’s repression of the Uyghurs. What’s your message to the Muslim majority countries?
Brownback: My message is to them is that they really should examine the factual situation, what’s happening here, and stand up for the human rights of Uyghurs and everybody else when they are persecuted. I think some governments are concerned that ‘well, we don’t want people to criticize us so we won’t criticize somebody else.’ Is that the sort of standard that we ought to have? The United States we have places that people can criticize and be critical of what’s happened here. We’ve had recently two shootings at Jewish synagogues taking place. But we acknowledged that and we fight and we push back against that. That’s what I would call on these Muslim countries to do: Do the right thing and just stand up and have your voices be heard and stand for religious freedom for everybody. Stand for it in your country and stand for it in China as well, and don’t be afraid of China. So many countries…I’ve met with a number of them, and I’ll raise the issue of the Uyghurs and they are concerned about China using its economic power to bully them to be quiet. Is that how you address somebody that’s doing something wrong? Do you act in fear or you don’t act because of fear? That’s how you push back against somebody. You speak truth clearly, and they should do that. The Muslim countries should do that. The Western world, the entire world, should do this and condemn these sort of internment camps, of over a million people interned in the year 2019, and they are interned primarily because of their faith and the practice of their faith. This is wrong.
RFA: Do you support sanctioning the Chinese officials who are responsible for the atrocities that are happening to the Uyghur people under the Global Magnitsky Act?
Brownback: There are discussions taking place on that right now, and the United States doesn’t announce its position until it’s taken. That’s the status of where that is now, and I can’t announce a position one way or another what’s happening, but when the United States takes action, the world will know.
RFA: What will happen to the Uyghur people if the international community, besides expressing its concerns, fails to take any meaningful action?
Brownback: We’ve seen this in the past. When the international community doesn’t take actions to address issues, when they take an appeasement strategy, it just emboldens the people that act. What we will see taking place, if China is not confronted in Xinjiang, we’ll see these tactics used in other places by other authoritarian regimes. We’ll see these other high-tech surveillance systems put in place by authoritarian regimes with artificial intelligence (and) facial recognition systems. We’ll see oppression taking place. In some cases in Xinjiang, people aren’t locked up but you can’t act in the society. You can’t go to a mosque. You’ll get seen going in there, and if you get seen, you’ll get a low social credit score, then you can’t participate in the culture or the society and you get blocked out by these very high-tech systems. I think you’ll see these systems multiply if the world doesn’t confront China with what it’s doing now. That’s the history of this. If you don’t confront them, then it just expands. Now is the time for the world community to act.
RFA: In your recent remarks, you stated that China is at war with religion and especially Islam, and the Uyghur people’s cultural, religious, ethnic identity is under severe assault. Do you think China will win its war on Islam against the Uyghur people?
Brownback: No. Think how many regimes in the past have tried that and how successful have they been. You can put down a faith community for a while. But by the very nature of faith, you’re trying to put down the soul of man. It is a fight you cannot win and you will not win. Now for a while you can lock people up. Look at the Soviet Union. An officially atheistic county for 70 years, and they were trying to squash faith everywhere. Well, that regime no longer exists and the faith community is back. The Orthodox Church is back. I was in Romania recently, and the headquarters of the Orthodox Christian community is now in the old parliament building that was put forward by the communist regime during the period when Romania was under Soviet domination. It was a fake parliament, they weren’t really doing anything. It was just kind of a show, but now it’s the headquarters for the Orthodox Church. And you’re going: ‘Well, okay. Where’s communism now? Where is the Orthodox Church?’ The Orthodox Church has been around for over 2,000 years. Islam has been around for a long period of time, and it’s going to be around. This is a war that China will not win and regimes have tried and failed in the past and the Chinese will fail, too.