At a March 30 demonstration at the Chinese Embassy, the U.S.-funded Uyghur Separatist Network was joined by prominent Muslim figures. “Behind The Headlines” correspondent Dan Cohen spoke to participants and examined their claims.
WASHINGTON — On March 30, demonstrators gathered outside the Chinese Embassy in Washington, calling on the U.S. Congress to pass the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention and Human Rights Protection Acts.
This legislation would ban the import of products alleged to be made from forced labor in China. It also authorizes President Biden to sanction anyone believed to be responsible for labor trafficking.
Despite their tiny numbers, these protesters have a powerful force backing them: the U.S. government. Several of them are funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, an ostensible non-governmental organization that itself is funded by Congress. Over the last two decades, through the NED, the U.S. government has poured millions of dollars into a network of organizations advocating for a neo-Ottoman separatist state in China’s Xinjiang province, what they call East Turkestan.
Indeed, these Uyghur exiles pose as grassroots activists attempting to pressure the very same Congress that is funding their activities. Most prominent among them is Rushan Abbas.
Rushan Abbas’s resume
“The Chinese regime is waging war against humanity. Against the basic rights God has given to us and waging war against our ethnicity and religion,” Abbas told the crowd.
Her profile – now scrubbed from the internet – boasts of “extensive experience working with U.S. government agencies, including Homeland Security, Department of Defense, Department of State, Department of Justice, and various U.S. intelligence agencies.” Most famously, she worked as a translator for Uyghur detainees at the notorious Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
Abbas also worked at Radio Free Asia – what The New York Times described as a “Worldwide Propaganda Network Built by the C.I.A.” Today, she heads the Campaign For Uyghurs, an organization funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.
Also in attendance was Elfidar Iltebir, secretary of the Uyghur American Association. This is a subsidiary of the World Uyghur Congress, the main NED-funded organ of the separatist movement. The NED has granted millions of dollars to the World Uyghur Congress since its founding, and gave it the Democracy Award in 2019.
“As the world has witnessed in the last decade, Chinese communists, instead of respecting religious beliefs, and embracing democracy, [has] become more racist, fascist and tyrannical,” Iltebir said.
Days before the rally, Iltebir took part in a Uyghur caravan denouncing a “Stop Asian Hate” rally. Fellow caravan participants shouted obscenities at the protesters.
Really wild stuff downtown. A Stop Asian Hate rally is clashing with a Pro-Uighur drive by. The pro-Uighur group is shouting “F— China!” The Asian rally is responding by calling them “racist.” pic.twitter.com/h8a2hB4Oqe
— Nic Rowan (@NicXTempore) March 21, 2021
The director of the Uyghur American Association is Kuzzat Altay. An investigation by Ajit Singh, published in The Grayzone, revealed that Altay and his brother Faruk have been trained by a former U.S. Army ranger as part of a Uyghur militia called Altay Defense.
Elfidar Iltebir’s sister is Elnigar Iltebir, who in 2019 was appointed to be the Trump administration’s director for China at the National Security Council.
I asked Abbas and Elfidar Iltebir about the allegations of a Uyghur genocide.
“More than three million Uyghurs are taken to concentration camps,” Abbas told me.
“So according to the State Department, two million — and the Pentagon, three million — Uyghurs. We believe it’s more than three million Uyghurs are in concentration camps in East Turkestan,” Iltebir said.
On Mike Pompeo’s last day heading Donald Trump’s state department, he published a report accusing China of genocide, claiming more than 1 million civilians are in concentration camps and likening them to the Nazi Holocaust.
Pompeo directly referenced Adrian Zenz, the evangelical Christian fundamentalist whose claims of forced sterilization and labor – the basis of the genocide label – have been discredited as the product of data abuse and outright fraud.
In May 2020, several months before Pompeo’s genocide claim, then-Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Randall Schriver suggested the number was much higher, though he offered no evidence.
“The detention camps, given what we understand to be the magnitude of the detention, at least a million but likely closer to three million citizens,” Schriver told reporters.
I asked how many people have died in the alleged concentration camps.
“It’s hard to tell because the numbers China gives are never trustworthy. So according to the camp survivor Mihrigul Tursun, when she was in the camp for three months, nine out of 60 detainees were dead,” Iltebir told me.
Mihrigul Tursun is a Uyghur whose claims have been central to the genocide narrative and who has been featured in the CIA cutout National Endowment for Democracy’s promotional videos.
She was the central witness in a Congressional Executive Committee on China hearing chaired by the neoconservative Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL).
The very same Marco Rubio who, in 2016, denounced then-president Obama’s visit to a mosque, accusing him of dividing and pitting people against each other.
At the hearing, Tursun claimed to have had her head shaved, been tortured and nearly killed in an electric chair, and witnessed deaths of fellow inmates.
Harrowing testimony, to be sure. But is it factual? Well, it’s hard to say. However, the Chinese state media outlet CGTN caught Tursun lying to CNN about the death of her son.
So the claim of Uyghurs being killed comes down to the testimony of one person whose own mother was revealed to be a liar. If Mihrigul Tursun is lying, it wouldn’t be the first time the U.S. government would have a sympathetic character give teary-eyed but false testimony in order to justify military aggression. That testimony, of course, turned out to be a lie cooked up by a member of congress and a PR firm.
Back at the rally, Rushan Abbas couldn’t cite any actual figures, but insisted Uyghurs are being killed en masse.
“We may not know that there’s going to be like tens of thousands of dead bodies somewhere or gas chambers, but everything that the Chinese government is doing in our homeland is exterminating the Uyghur people and killing the Uyghurs basically,” Abbas explained.
Crematoriums and credulity
Both Rushan Abbas and Elfidar Iltebir also claimed that China has constructed crematoriums next to concentration camps, evoking imagery of the Nazi Holocaust.
“Also China built crematoriums around the camps,” according to Iltebir.
“Crematoriums are built next to it, next to those concentration camps, for a culture that doesn’t practice cremation. Right there, that should give a warning signal.” Abbas alleged.
But unlike in the Nazi death camps, there’s no evidence of Chinese crematoriums. Instead, there are a handful of articles from the U.S. propaganda organ Radio Free Asia where Abbas used to work.
This Radio Free Asia article about crematoriums references claims to have aerial photos delivered by the Uyghur Transitional Justice Database, a Norway based organization that is also funded by the National Endowment For Democracy. Yet the supposed photos of the alleged crematoriums are not provided.
Instead, the article contains a blurry image of what it claims is an internment camp, provided by serial fabulist Adrian Zenz, and says “there might be a cremation site near the camps.”
The Radio Free Asia article also references a previous article that alleges the regional government listed tenders for contractors to build nine quote “burial management centers” that include crematoria.
A native Mandarin speaker searched the website of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps and found nothing corroborating this claim.
The same report claims the existence of a job posting listed on the Xinjiang official government website seeking 50 security personnel to work in a crematorium.
There is no link to the job posting, a screenshot of any kind of evidence or of this job posting; and, again, research by a native Mandarin speaker came up empty.
It is, however, true that the Chinese government mandates cremation. Except, this only applies to the ethnic Han majority. Ethnic minorities including Uyghurs are exempt.
This 2003 document explains the policy, citing respect for customs of ethnic minorities, and instead allows them land for cemeteries.
“Ethnic minorities which traditionally practice inhumation are exempt from the government requirement of cremation, and are allotted special land for cemeteries,” the document says.
In fact, the cover photo of the first Radio Free Asia article shows a newly constructed and weatherproof Uyghur cemetery in Xinjiang. The traditional form of dirt burials had left them vulnerable to the elements, as this CGTN report explains.
Those Radio Free Asia articles were authored by Uyghur exile Gulchehra Hoja. In 2019, Hoja and Tursun were photographed proudly shaking hands with former CIA director and then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Met with survivors and family members of China's campaign of repression and mass detention against #Uighurs, ethnic #Kazakhs, and other members of minority groups in #Xinjiang. I call on China to end these counterproductive policies and release all arbitrarily detained. pic.twitter.com/g803O23bej
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) March 27, 2019
Just lobby, like the Uyghurs
At the rally, I asked Elfidar Iltebir what she thought about the U.S. government’s treatment of Muslims.
“Do you think Mike Pompeo and Antony Blinken are good allies to Muslims,” I asked?
“I believe so. I believe so,” Iltebir told me. “They do have strong beliefs which we see, you know? And they do stand up for human rights. And I believe they are indeed from the heart, care about humanity.”
Iltebir assured me that despite the U.S.-sponsored catastrophes in Muslim-majority countries like Yemen, Syria, and Palestine, the U.S. is actually taking care of their rights and they should simply lobby congressional lawmakers like the Uyghurs have.
“I am sure the U.S. did enough for their rights. Because I’m in the Uyghur diaspora I read more about those, so I may not have enough information to make a comment on that. But I would recommend those from Yemen and others to get together and do advocacy work and inform the Congress, inform the Senate, inform the government officials about what is going on. And if they know enough, I think they will take an action,” she assured. So what I suggest is for other Muslim countries to keep doing the advocacy work, lobbying.”
“Same with the Palestinians, for example,” I asked.
“Yes, and reach out for help. Reach out for other groups too,” she continued.
“Would you call what’s happening to the Palestinians a genocide,” I asked.
“Umm, as I said, because I don’t have enough information like I don’t read, I’m not up to date with what’s going on, I’m not the right person to make that comment,” Iltebir told me.
A very selective concern
When I asked Rushan Abbas why the U.S. is supposedly interested in the rights of Uyghurs while committing atrocities in Muslim-majority countries, she assured me that the U.S. is taking steps to ensure their rights.
“Why does the U.S. care about human rights for the Uyghur people but not about the Yemeni people, not about Palestinians,” I asked.
“I’m sure that they have, you know, other projects funding and supporting to end those atrocities as well,” Abbas told me.
Abbas then warned that China is seeking to imprison the entire world in concentration camps:
Look at the Uyghur today and imagine the future of the free, democratic world. Because that’s what Chinese government wants. If they win over the Uyghurs or win over the people like criticizing the Western countries or this and that, and they let us concentrate on something else and get away with what they are doing, then the darkness of what the Uyghurs are facing will be the future of the entire world.”
Finally, Abbas lashed out at Daniel Dumbrill, a Canadian vlogger based in China whom she accuses of making money from the Chinese government.
“They are very actively using the social media, using those famous YouTubers to spread disinformation and false narratives,” she claimed.
“Who are these people?” I asked.
“This is a guy, Daniel Dumbrill, he is supposed to be Canadian, living in Shenzhen, making money from the Chinese government. He has a brewing company,” she explained.
“He’s paid by the Chinese government?” I responded.
Well he has a company in Shenzhen supported by the Chinese regime because the Chinese regime is always advertising his brewing company in state-owned media… He accuses me of being paid by the US government or CIA but I’m not going to do what he is doing because I don’t have evidence.”
But Rushan Abbas has long been on the payroll of the U.S. government and continues to be funded by the National Endowment For Democracy, a fact she didn’t deny when I had brought it up earlier in our interview.
“What do you say to criticism about the funding that you’ve gotten and still get from the U.S. government,” I asked her.
“Because the U.S. cares about the human rights for the Uyghur people,” Abbas told me.
While Abbas acknowledges that she doesn’t have evidence that Daniel Dumbrill is paid by the Chinese government, she insisted on portraying him as its beneficiary.
“One thing you should think,” she said, “if he can use Youtube and Twitter and social media, which none of the other people who are living in China can use, if he has a brewing company being supported and advertised by the Chinese regime, what do you say?”
I contacted Daniel Dumbrill, who denied Abbas’s allegations that the Chinese government affords him special internet privileges and that Chinese media runs advertisements for his business, explaining:
I don’t think Rushan truly believes that millions of people accessing social media from China don’t know how to use a VPN and their only option is to do favors for the Chinese government. As for her other claim, I actually made a special note that if any media outlet came to interview me about my politics or vlogging, that they not mention my business. I didn’t want to conflate the two. Ironically it’s my critics that speak about my business more than I do. And this is a really good opportunity. Ask Rushan to provide any evidence to this claim and you’ll find, like many of her other claims, there’s just nothing there to back it up because it’s simply not true.”
Indeed, I asked Abbas for evidence but she declined to provide it, saying she is “not interested in anything he had to say.”
CAIR weighs in
Yet it wasn’t only Uyghur separatist figures linked to intelligence agencies at the rally. Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), attended too.
“We ask the Biden administration to fulfill its promise to put human rights on the top of their agenda,” Awad told the small crowd.
While on one hand defending the civil rights of Muslim-Americans and refugees targeted by the U.S. government in the post 9/11 era, CAIR has also been a key proponent of destructive U.S. wars in the Middle East and North Africa.
In 2011, CAIR backed the Obama administration’s decision to launch a NATO regime-change war on Libya, which plunged the country into chaos and brought open-air slave markets back to the African continent. In 2015, CAIR supported the U.S. dirty war on Syria, calling for a no-fly zone – a euphemism for the U.S. to shoot down Syrian and Russian military aircraft.
CAIR has called on its membership to pressure Congress to pass the so-called Caesar Act, the most crippling sanctions on Syria to date. These sanctions have criminalized international aid, created severe energy shortages, and caused a devastating famine. According to Foreign Policy magazine, “it has brought starvation, darkness, plague, misery, robbery, kidnappings, and the destruction of a nation.”
Now, under the guise of humanitarianism, CAIR is throwing its weight behind the U.S.’s new cold war against China.
Dr. Talibi Shareef, the Imam and president of Washington’s historic Masjid Muhammad mosque, attended too.
“We are asking that America, its government, its president, its leaders, put pressure on China to treat every one of their citizens as the creation of the Almighty God the Creator,” he said, “as has been identified, in the precious document that established this country: this Declaration of Independence.”
Imam Shareef told me that Congress passing this legislation targeting China would be a sign of the U.S. living up to the ideals expressed in its founding documents, and he seemed to suggest the U.S. should take military action.
“So if the U.S., for example, recognizes this Uyghur genocide, and advances legislation to challenge it, you think that will be a sign that the U.S. is advancing towards a more harmonious, racially tolerant atmosphere?” I asked.
“Absolutely it would be a sign. And it’s really the least they should be able to do. I served in the military for over thirty years. So I know they have different instruments of power,” he assured me.
Pompeo finishes with a full-split
But the Uyghur genocide narrative was the project of former CIA Director and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, one of the most extreme Islamophobes in U.S. politics.
After the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, Pompeo remarked that “silence has made these Islamic leaders across America potentially complicit in these acts.” Pompeo has accepted awards from the hate group ACT for America, whose founder Brigitte Gabriel said that an American Muslim “cannot be a loyal citizen” and that Islam is the “real enemy.”
But for Imam Shareef, Pompeo’s last-day genocide designation wasn’t an attempt to irreversibly ramp up aggression with China, but a sign of genuine change of heart.
“Why do you think someone like Mike Pompeo, who is widely considered an Islamophobe, is so serious about this issue?” I asked.
“Well, I think some of that had to do with some sense of consciousness to speak the truth,” Imam Shareef told me, adding:
He was on his way out. He knew he was on his way out. Because we got to look at the whole time he was in in terms of how he addressed it. And this is a short period of time, and for him, I think in terms of consequences to him, were inconsequential for him to make that statement at that particular time even if it was going against the interests of the one that he was representing. That’s why I think he said it. But again, I do see him as one who represents that right extremist population. “
“So you think, just on this issue, kind of at the end he kinda came to his senses and said, ‘I’m gonna be in solidarity with these people?’” I asked.
“I do,” he affirmed. “I do.”
With little pushback, the Uyghur issue is the central component of a bipartisan push to weaken and divide China and is now at the top of Washington’s foreign policy agenda.
Feature photo | Graphic by Antonio Cabrera
Dan Cohen is the Washington DC correspondent for Behind The Headlines. He has produced widely distributed video reports and print dispatches from across Israel-Palestine. He tweets at @DanCohen3000.