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Interview with the 2024 Language Rights Defenders Award winner, Dr. Abduweli Ayup

Interviewed in June 2024

Dr. Abduweli Ayup is the winner of the Global Coalition for Language Rights’ first annual Language Rights Defenders award. He is a Uyghur activist, poet, and linguist.

Below is a background on the Uyghurs and the current situation, derived from an interview conducted in June of 2024, excerpts of which follows below.

Background and Mass Arrests

The Uyghur are a people who live primarily in Northwest China, between Russia and India. According to Ayup, the Uyghur population inside the homeland is about 12 million. The total population is about 13.5 million. The majority of people are Muslim, some are shamanist and some are Buddhist and some Christian. According to Ayup, because they are living on the Silk Road, they are an obstacle for China’s Belt and Road Initiative. More on that below.

The mass arrests of Uyghur people started in 2014, when Xi Jin Ping declared that the Chinese government was going to start a “people’s war” against three evil forces: separatism, religious extremism, and terrorism. Uyghurs, who are primarily Muslim and share a history with other Turkic groups, are labeled as separatists, terrorists, and religious extremists by the Chinese governments.

Although the arrests started in 2014, the world community didn’t learn about what happened until 2017. Abduweli recalls that he was inside a Chinese prison that time when, suddenly, the detention center became crowded with Uyghurs, so much so that they were transferred to a newly-built detention center because there was no more space.

It wasn’t just those outside of China who didn’t know – Uyghurs themselves did not even know. According to Ayup, the mass arrests happened very secretly, people were arrested at night. Additionally, the Chinese government had already segregated Uyghur regions so that they are confined to compounds where you need an ID card to get in.

Ayup says that from his county alone, 10,800 people who had got arrested. The total population of his county is only about 200,000 people who were living there. Even in his county, though, people did not know what was happening.

Why are the Uyghurs an obstacle to China’s Belt and Road initiative?

The plan includes more than 60 countries and one third of the world’s population. The Uyghur border eight of these countries. The Chinese government wants to do business, they want to expand their colonial power in those regions. But the Uyghur share a heritage with neighboring cultures, for example, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Tajik. They are all Turkic. In addition, as they are primarily are Muslim, they share a connection Pakistan and northern India.

Because of this, the Chinese government doesn’t feel safe. They don’t want Uyghurs to feel like they are members of a Turkic or Islamic group. They want them to feel like they are a part of the Han Chinese group. So, the Chinese government started to emphasize their Chinese-ness, first from education – the Chinese language.

How has the Chinese government forced assimilation of the Uyghur people?

In 2016 Uyghur education was made illegal, whereas before it was restricted. Textbooks were collected and burned and the scholars who compiled those textbooks were sentenced to prison. The teachers who taught using those books and the students, about 3 million, who were educated with those books were blacklisted, even though the textbooks were compiled under the Chinese Communist instruction and of which about 60% were texts translated from Chinese textbooks.

In addition, the Chinese government decorated Uyghur cultural sites in a Han Chinese style and changed place names from Uyghur to Chinese. They also have started to change the demography. They build factories and send Han Chinese people to work in them. They build new cities, giving them Chinese names.

Another example Ayup was a tomb of a king from the 11th century which was demolished and given a new name. Ayup says that there were thousands of graves there which were demolished and new apartments were built on top of them that Chinese immigrants were invited to move into. Not only that but the Uyghur people are primarily farmers. When land is confiscated, they have no means of feeding themselves. All of this, Ayup says, has created conflict.

We pick up with the interview below:

A lot of people don’t understand the relationship between violence and linguistic assimilation and oppression, getting rid of the Uyghur language. How do you see that relationship, how is the physical abuse that Uyghur people face related to the taking away of Uyghur language rights?

Our democracy is based on language. Without democracy, there is no conversation, there is no discussion anymore. And what is left is conflict, violence. What the Chinese government is doing is restricting language, restricting the conversation, restricting the discussion. And that will end in conflict.

If you allow people to speak, to tell their story and to discuss with you what they want, then you will find a solution. If you shut them down, they will express their feeling not with language but with hands and stones and knives. 

I started this language activism because of the power of word, of language. So, I hoped I could solve the problem, that I could find common ground. But they put me in prison. So, there is no common ground anymore. It started in 2013, they already shut down that opportunity to talk, to express, to discuss.

What do you say to people who say, “Why don’t you just speak Chinese? Lots of people know Chinese. Just speak Chinese.”?

I really wanted to but how do I make 13 million people speak Chinese in one night? And how can I force them to speak Chinese? If I force them to speak Chinese, they will not be happy and they will be angry and they will take some extreme measure. I want them to speak whatever they want, not only Uyghur. Like my mother language kindergarten, we have English, Chinese, and Uyghur at the same time. There is no conflict. We can learn as many languages as we want, there is no limit. It’s not a problem.

Why is there a Uyghur language problem for the Chinese [government]? It’s because of dictatorship. “Dic” means word. “I am the only speaker.” “Dicte” – “I am the only speaker; you should shut your mouth because I am the speaker. “If you suddenly shut our mouths, we will be uncomfortable.

Sometimes people will say things like, “But Uyghurs are recognized by the Chinese government and on bank notes, there are other languages. So, it isn’t true, the Uyghurs are making it up, they aren’t being oppressed. The Chinese government recognizes these groups.” So, what do you say to those kinds of comments?

Those signs are written in Uyghur and Chinese but if you can read, those signs are in Uyghur but it’s a transliteration from Chinese. They change the place name into Chinese and they write that Chinese word in Uyghur. On bank notes, no one reads it, it’s just decoration on the bank note. 

In China, there are two meanings for every word. For example, when I was in jail. We call it “jail” but they call it “transformation through education center.” Inside, they call it “cultural training.” They teach you Chinese and you have to denounce your own religion. And, they say, “ethnic unity” and “ethnic harmony” – those are beautiful words but that ethnic unity has to be under Chinese Communist Party, under Han Chinese culture.

In terms of language preservation, what does that look like in the diaspora? Do children continue to speak Uyghur? Do they know Uyghur culture and heritage? What are the challenges they face?

In Turkey, people live in the same neighborhood and they create their own community, so the kids in Turkey, they speak their language really well. But in the US and Europe, they don’t have that community. So, in the US and Canada, it is really easy for them to lose their language. It’s sad. It’s really hard. People are trying, especially after this genocide. People are trying really hard to keep their language alive but it’s not that easy.

Most of them can speak but their reading and writing is very low. But I’m hopeful; those teachers are really hard-working. It’s challenging, especially with the Chinese transnational oppression. If you send your kids to [Uyghur extracurricular] school, your family members in China will be under pressure because the Chinese government feels like if you send your kids to Uyghur schools, you are sending your kids to separatist schools and then they put pressure on your family members in China. 

One school in Australia shut down because of that. Some people went to visit their family members in Urumqi and they were questioned – “Have you sent your kids to Uyghur school?” So, it is really hard, not only because of the dominant language issue. Another reason is because of your family members are in control of the Chinese government and you don’t want your behavior to influence your family members.

So, there are Uyghur schools in some places? What are they like? Where do they get their materials from?

Yes, there are schools in Germany, Turkey, the United States. They are like Sunday school. Usually 2 hours. I made the materials. I have books and I send them to those Uyghur schools. They’re almost all using my books. 

I visited and I saw those kids are reading my texts and they’ll told me, “Oh you have mad mistakes here,” things like that. 

What are the books like? What kinds of books and things have you produced?

There are different levels. For beginners, there are poems, about numbers, colors, shapes, and weather and things like that. In second grade, about animals and things like that. The sixth level is about Uyghur culture: how Uyghurs treat guests, how Uyghurs greet each other, how Uyghurs celebrate their festivals, how Uyghurs dance, how Uyghurs cook food. 

If I have enough time and funding, I will change and improve all of them.

The teachers are volunteers from the community?

Most of them. Only in the US, they get paid, but very low. There is no full-time teacher. In Australia it’s better because they support the schools, they support mother language but they don’t pay the teachers but they pay for their gas, for equipment and they provide a free place. But in the US they have to pay rent. 

Australia has funding for teachers training and administrative training but not in the US or Europe.

Do those teachers receive training?

No, no one has been trained. This year was the first time we trained them for two days. We are thinking about how to apply for funding so we can train them in the future. 

They are doing really well, they are sacrificing their time, I am really proud of them but the important thing is you should know how to teach. So, in the future the important thing for us is to train qualified teachers and to apply for funding because [the teachers] are doing what the State should do, so the State should support them. 

We should work to educate those governments; they should protect their citizens. Uyghurs are their citizens and they shouldn’t live under Chinese control. This transnational oppression should stop. But the police officers in Urumchi control the Uyghurs in Washington. 

Do you have any advice or insights for other diaspora communities who are afraid of not being able to pass on their language to their children?

I think the most important thing is, you shouldn’t tell your kids, “You have to learn this language.” The kids will ask, “Why?” because they are living in a foreign country, so why should they learn that language? You should use that language. 

For example, you can tell stories. We are story-telling animals. Every kid loves stories. Tell stories to your kids. Then when they start reading, they should start with shared reading. Read one page by yourself, then let you kid read another page. 

Language is a creation of society. You cannot create language only at home. You should take your kids outside, let them see that this isn’t the language at home. People also speak that language. You have to take your kids to weddings and different cultural celebrations. Then kids feel that this isn’t only the language we speak at home. This is the language of society, of life. Not only the private life at home. 

Another is that there is a common problem that people feel like our mother language will be an obstacle to learn the language of the country where we are living. Actually, there is no such thing. It will be improved, actually. But at the beginning, kids are sometimes confused about which language to choose. That is natural, let them speak whatever they want. 

Let them be free. If you force them to speak one language only, they will face problems.

What you said is like what you said earlier about dictatorships. If you tell them to only speak Uyghur, it is kind of like the Chinese government saying, “Only speak Chinese.”

Yeah, that is what we are fighting for. We are fighting for freedom. If you ask them to only speak Uyghur, that is dictatorship.

Do you have any other thoughts about what States or even everyday citizens can do, how they help?

This time I visited Australia, I feel like that’s the ideal country for me, as a language activist. Because the country support local language, support those refugee languages and their culture. They have teacher training, administrative training.

Why not in the US? In Canada? In Europe? 

Don’t allow them to disappear into dominant society because then they feel hopeless. It’s not good for them. We are human beings and our language is our dignity and our language is our soul and supports our body. So, we shouldn’t destroy human beings. We shouldn’t destroy human souls. It will not solve them problem. It will create problems.

They should invest in schools and in teachers. And at public schools, they should encourage the parents to keep their language alive. Speaking a different language should be embraced as an advantage, as something important to keep. 

Why does language matter? Why is language important?

Through language we learn about nature. We can’t learn how to live without language. We name them first, then learn how to use them. We are story-telling animals, we live in this world, not because we are kids of our parents. We are not only kids of our parents. We are a creation of their story, creation of their dream, descendants of their dream and ambitions. 

Language is important because language is based off of discussion, based off conversation. Discussion, conversation, and understanding are the skills of living in this world together. Because we have language, we can understand, we can talk, we can discuss. That’s why we’ve survived as a species on this planet. 

If we destroy languages, extinguish those languages, we will extinguish our past and also extinguish our future and we will destroy our present. That’s why language is important.

Learn more about Ayup and his work:

Uyghur Hjelp – a non-profit organization founded by Ayup in 2016 to document the Uyghur genocide and support educational and humanitarian efforts for the Uyghurs in the diaspora. 

This work has been featured in the news:

Uyghur Help also promotes and preserves Uyghur language and culture:

Ayup’s work has had real-life impact. For example, after his campaign, Bergen University canceled their contract with a Chinese solar company which was linked to forced Uyghur labor.

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