Olsi Jazexhi is an Albanian-Canadian historian and journalist who shot to fame following his controversial visit to China’s Xinjiang province last year as a guest of the Chinese government. While on a guided tour of the region, he uploaded videos from what China describes as vocational centres for Muslim minority Uighurs and claimed that they were more like Hitler’s concentration camps, not training units. Beijing retaliated by calling him a liar and an unethical journalist on a smearing campaign. Yet, his name keeps cropping up in the international media whenever there are allegations of human rights violations by Xi Jinping’s government. While sharing his experiences in China, Jazexhi also expressed concerns about rising Islamophobia in many parts of the world, including in India.
“Many extremist Israeli groups promote Islamophobia in the West to generate support for their oppression of Palestinians. In India we have Islamophobic groups who want to legitimise their fascist policies against Muslims in the name of hatred against Islam,” he tells Open in an interview. He also suggests steps for China to bring peace in Xinjiang and allow people to practise any faith of their choice. By suppressing Uighurs, the Chinese will end up radicalising them further, he warns. Edited excerpts:
At present, you are being interviewed widely about the conditions in which Uighurs (a Muslim minority) live in China although your visit to Xinjiang (from where you sent videos of the ‘concentration’ camps) took place last year. Why is this being brought up now?
I have been on the news about the Uighurs since August 2019 when – invited by the Chinese government – I visited the Muslim majority region of China, Xinjiang or East Turkestan. My videos and statements about the conditions of the Uighurs shocked our Chinese friends as well as Muslims around the world, who saw for themselves how China treats its Muslims.
I am back and forth in the news because whenever China rakes up any trouble in the world, journalists like you decide to interrogate me about my visit to Xinjiang!
Why do you think the Chinese let you visit these ‘concentration’ camps? Didn’t they realise that it was going to attract negative coverage? Do you think they did it on purpose or did they make a mistake in assuming that you were a friendly journalist?
Our Chinese friends in the Chinese Embassy in Tirana, Albania, invited me to visit Xinjiang, hoping that I would convey a positive image about China to the outside world. I had requested the Chinese embassy to visit the region since I had suspected that the issue of Xinjiang was being created by the Americans in order to create a new ‘jihad’ and ‘terrorism’ against China the way they did against Syria in 2012 or against the Soviets in Afghanistan in 1970s. I have dealt a lot with the process of radicalisation and victimisation of Muslims in Europe, and my fear was that the Americans were trying to radicalise the Muslims once again to make new troubles for their enemies.
This is how I approached our Chinese friends. I have videos and articles where I criticise US foreign policies towards the Muslim World, Russia and China and I expose the implicit role of the Americans and their Saudi friends in radicalising the Muslims of Europe and turning them into terrorists. In December 2018, I visited Palestine and I wrote a book about the situation of Muslims in Israel / Palestine. In this book I praised China for its support for the Palestinian Authority.
Seeing China from Europe as a power that is standing against US unilateralism, imperialism and its fanatical support for Israel and the destruction of the Muslim World, I was very sympathetic to China. I did not want to think even for a moment that China would deal with its Muslim population like Israel does with the Palestinians.
What are the reasons you call these detention camps for Uighurs ‘concentration’ camps like those in WWII Poland and so on?
The detention camps, or the ‘vocational Training Centers’ that China has built for forcefully de-Islamisising the Uighurs are quite often called in the West as concentration camps. They are not much different from the concentration camps that Nazi Germany built during the WWII in Poland and Germany. In these camps, the Chinese were imprisoning and brainwashing hundreds of thousands of Muslims and forcing them to renounce their religion and ethnicity. If during WWII the Nazis were persecuting the Jews because of their religion and distinct identity, the Chinese are doing the same in Xinjiang. If you happen to believe in Allah, speak Turkic language and refuse to learn Chinese, the authorities of Xinjiang declare you an extremist and your place is in a concentration camp. There, you must spend two years. You must renounce your religion, language, praise Xi Jinping and the Communist Party of China, become a spy against your own people and hope that one day the Chinese thought police will release you and make you a labourer in some government factory or in an agricultural company.
You have stated that the Chinese Communist Party is doing against Uighurs what Hitler did to the Jews. By saying so aren’t you downplaying the monstrosity of the Holocaust?
The Chinese Communist Party is doing to Uighurs what Hitler did to the Jews. While the Holocaust was a process of extermination of Jews in a much larger scale, China’s fight against its Muslim community has many similarities.
China claims that it is fighting “three evils” in Xinjiang: Ethnic separatism, terrorism, and religious extremism. Hitler fought similar ‘evils’ in Nazi Germany: Jewish ethnic identity, Jewish religiosity and Jewish communist revolutionary spirit. The aim of Hitler was to exterminate or assimilate the Jews into Germans. The aim of communist rulers of Xinjiang, Chen Quanguo and Shohrat Zakir is to eradicate and assimilate the Uighurs into Han Chinese. Of course, China does not send the Uighurs into gas chambers. It sends them into labour camps since it needs them as slaves of the Chinese socialism-imperialist state.
You have also accused China of perpetuating a policy similar to Nazi’s lebensraum. How much proof do you have to make such assertions? Are you saying that Uighurs in China are being slowly wiped out by the Chinese state?
There are many books and statistics that show the Han Chinese colonisation of Xinjiang and the replacement of local Muslim with Chinese colonists. In 1955, the Uighurs accounted for 73% of the population, today they account for only 45%. However, these numbers are changing fast since the region is being colonised every day by Han Chinese who come from other provinces of China and take positions of authority in the province. The process of colonisation, mass-assimilation of Uighurs and the destruction of their religious sites and infrastructure and their replacement with Chinese institutions is slowly but surely changing the face of Xinjiang. The Chinese are wiping out everything, changing names of cities like Kashgar into Kashi, bulldozing mosques and traditional Uighur cities, imprisoning imams, burning books and creating a new lebensraum for the ‘superior’ Han ruling race.
If China is following a policy of conversion of Uighurs into ‘neutral’ citizens who would no longer be Muslims by faith, is it fair to compare that to Hitler’s policy to eliminate Jews?
Yes and no. China has not yet built gas chambers for the Uighurs like the Nazis did. Its policies against the Uighurs can probably be compared to the policies that Anglo-American settlers undertook in North America and Australia by killing, converting and assimilating natives into the British culture. Their policies of colonisation and land grab can also be compared in a way with the policies of Israel against the Palestinians. However, they have no match when it comes to the indoctrination that is being done in the concentration camps. Maybe the Soviet Gulags can be taken as a better example when we compare the concentration camps of China against its Muslim population.
Which are the places you have visited in China? Do you think your Canadian citizenship helped you get away after you posted videos and images of camps that you have visited?
I have visited Urumqi, Aksu and Kashgar. Our Chinese friends were not aware that I am a Canadian citizen. They learned about it after I posted videos and images from the camps that I visited and they even questioned me about my behaviour and provocative questions. By posting these videos while I was in Xinjiang, I was warned by journalist friends from Turkey that our lives were in danger. They told me that we could get arrested. However, I did not feel guilty since the places that we visited were predetermined by our Chinese friends. As an investigative journalist and historian, I asked questions that I felt needed to be asked and did not follow the protocol. I went to Xinjiang to understand the situation of our Muslim brethren and not to sell to the world the story that our Chinese friends wanted to.
While my initial intention was to be on China’s side of the story, when I saw Muslims being detained only because they prayed to Allah, made Nikah (religious marriage) and read the Quran I could not remain silent anymore. I had to tell the truth to the world.
Your visit to China and your expose on the conditions of Uighurs there is incredible because China is not a country that is known to allow anyone enter such premises. Also, you were invited by them to visit these sites where you travelled to — you were on a guided tour. You are not an investigative journalist who went to China in disguise. Does this all mean that Chinese policies are not as opaque as made out to be?
During our visit in China, we understood that our Chinese friends were not very smart and did not have the understanding of freedoms and human rights that we have in Europe. They took our friendship for granted without understanding that we are humans with feelings, emotions and beliefs.
After coming out of Xinjiang and revealing my videos to the outside world, the Chinese were very upset with me. In a Global Times interview with the spokesperson of the People’s Government of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the Chinese official stated that: “The vocational education and training program in Xinjiang has achieved good results since its implementation, and has received positive comments from the international community. Since the end of 2018, more than 70 delegations of over 1,000 people from 91 countries and regions have visited Xinjiang, including senior UN officials, foreign envoys to China, delegates of international organisations, permanent representatives of different countries to the UN office at Geneva, journalists of foreign media and leaders of religious groups. Through field trips, many of them have seen the truth and come to understand that it is a necessary, legal and reasonable effort to carry out vocational education and training in Xinjiang.”
They accused me of spreading fake information with evil intentions: “From August 17 to 23, 2019, Olsi Jazexhi made a field visit to Changji, Aksu and Kashi in Xinjiang with more than 20 foreign media representatives from 16 countries such as Russia and Turkey. Despite the fact that Olsi Jazexhi said during his visit that the studying and living conditions in the vocational education and training centres were very good, he ignored the facts and spread false information to the public when he returned home. The videos he published do not contain any pictures or recordings of interviews in Xinjiang. He is talking entirely on his own. This kind of behaviour seriously violates the basic professional ethics of journalism, and the intention is evil.”
Even though our Chinese friends accused me of lying, doing ‘vicious deeds’ and having evil intentions, the facts that I presented were seen by all other journalists. A journalist from Turkey and another from India also reported what we saw in Xinjiang, while the others were prevented by their governments from uttering a word.
The fact that out of 1000 people only a few have spoken out against what China does with its Muslim community, shows the long hand that China has over many countries around the world. However, courageous journalists who do their work properly will always be able to sacrifice [personal safety] for the truth and reveal to the world the true picture. When I visited Xinjiang and saw what China does to our Muslim brothers and sisters, I decided that it is my Islamic and humanistic duty to reveal the truth to the world. My revelations have upset our Chinese friends. However, I feel happy about what I have done and I have no regrets and am not worried by China’s possible revenge.
What are your thoughts on Islamophobia in many countries across the world? Why there is a widespread perception that Islam is synonymous with terrorism?
Islamophobia, like other forms or racism and anti-Semitism, is a weapon that is used by enemies of Muslims who hate them for their belief or historical reasons. The Muslims of Srebrenica or those of New Zealand were killed in the name of Christianity by extremist Serbs. Many extremist Israeli groups promote Islamophobia in the West to generate support for their oppression of Palestinians. In India we have Islamophobic groups who want to legitimise their fascist policies against Muslims in the name of hatred against Islam.
The perception that we receive in the West that Islam is synonymous with terrorism is generated by policies that NATO and the Americans have towards the Muslim World, and their refusal to accept the Israeli genocide of the Palestinians. The policies that China carries against Muslims in Xinjiang are made in the name of fighting terrorism too.
Some governments in the West, China and others use the threat of terrorism to justify state terrorism against Muslims. This does not mean that Muslims are angels and that there are no Muslim terrorists. However, the biggest form of terrorism comes from states that persecute Muslims. Serbia of Slobodan Milosevic, China of Xi Jinping, Israel of Benjamin Netanyahu, United States of George Bush and so on use Muslim terrorism to justify their domestic and international state terrorism, which we call war. When NATO, the Americans and Israel bomb Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Sudan etc. we do not speak of terrorism but “fight against terrorism”. Nevertheless, they are both the same. A Muslim terrorist who kills ten people is not much different from a Christian NATO terrorist who bombs a city in Middle East in the name of fighting terrorism. Both are killers. China is terrorising millions of Uighurs in the name of fighting Uighur and Islamic terrorism.
How can the Uighurs get justice? Do you think the Chinese do not understand Islamic values? Why is it so?
I have told our Chinese friends that the best way to resolve their conflict with the Uighurs for China is to let the Uighurs free in their home country East Turkestan – Xinjiang. While China is not ready to give independence to East Turkestan, it should at least give them autonomy like Mao Zedong did and not treat them like Slobodan Milosevic treated the Kosovars. I told this to our Chinese friends when I was in Xinjiang. They must learn from history! Yugoslavia was destroyed when Milosevic wanted to Serbianise all the other nations of Yugoslavia. Xi Jinping should not follow Milosevic.
China must release all its Muslim political prisoners, stop its massive surveillance and persecution of Uighurs, close the concentration camps, allow Uighurs access to internet and other means of communication, allow Uighurs to travel back and forth to their homeland, produce amnesty for all the Uighur community, allow separated Uighur families to reunited, allow Uighurs to open their mosques and madrasas and stop its process of colonisation of Xinjiang.
The Chinese do not understand Muslims, nor even the rest of mankind. This is what we witnessed when we were in Xinjiang. They are very materialistic and do not understand the spiritual world of monotheist believers. The Chinese believe in money, while Muslims believe in Allah and want to live with nature. The conflict in Xinjiang is a conflict between an aggressive Chinese social-imperialism and the native Muslims of the Altai mountains and Himalayas. It is a conflict between the Han Chinese and Indo-Europeans, people who belong to two different civilisations. When I was in Xinjiang, I told our Chinese friends that you look like Martians to us. You must come down to earth and understand that humans are humans and not machines.
The Chinese government is very strong and arrogant at this moment; it needs to rethink its policies and learn from Islamic and Christian humanism and understand that the Uighurs are humans who deserve more mercy and respect from their Chinese masters. By suppressing them, the Chinese will simply radicalise them even more.