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Q&A on Uyghur Relations with Drexel’s New Director of Global Studies



March 5, 2019

After 10 years in Drexel University’s School of Education, Rebecca Clothey, PhD, begins her tenure as the new director of the College’s Global Studies program this month. For the past decade, she has conducted research on education issues related to the Uyghur (Uighur) people — a population making international headlines for reported human-rights violations against them in China, including mass detention in “re-education camps,” surveillance, and physical and psychological violence.

A scholar of international education, Clothey spent the fall and winter quarters conducting research on the Uyghur diaspora while on sabbatical in Turkey, and is a leading expert on Uyghur-Chinese-Turkish-U.S. relations. We asked her to share some of her knowledge on the topic, and how she’s looking forward to her new CoAS appointment.

Rebecca Clothey, PhD
Rebecca Clothey, PhD

How did you first become interested in Uyghur issues?
I lived in China off and on starting in 1993, for a total of about six years, and have made multiple trips back and forth outside of that, too. I have had the opportunity to visit many parts of the country, and I was surprised to discover how diverse it is. Most Americans do not know, for example, that there are more Muslims in China than in Saudi Arabia. I got interested in Uyghurs after getting to know some people from that community when I lived in Beijing.

Tell us about your sabbatical in Turkey. What did you study, and what were your methods?
Most immigrant communities wish to maintain some aspects of their culture and traditions even after they move abroad. Because one of the larger Uyghur diaspora communities is in Turkey, I went there to observe how Uyghurs there are maintaining aspects of their culture and transmitting them to the next generation through non-formal education. While there, I observed Uyghur language classes and schools, participated in relevant Uyghur-organized events, and conducted in-depth interviews with Uyghur community leaders, scholars, principals and teachers.

A United Nations human rights panel estimated in August that over a million Uyghurs were detained in “re-education camps” in China. How have recent political developments and news media affected your research?
The current situation in the Uyghur region has strengthened the Uyghur diaspora community’s determination to maintain their cultural and linguistic traditions. As a result, I found more enthusiasm for this research topic among the Uyghur community in Istanbul than I had in previous years. On the other hand, the diaspora community is also experiencing a lot of psychological trauma because of the situation at home, and this permeated all of the interviews that I conducted. I don’t think I interviewed a single Uyghur person in Turkey who didn’t have multiple relatives in a “re-education camp,” or in prison, or “disappeared” — or a combination of these. In some cases, the interviewees had been in one of these facilities themselves.

Another change is that when I first became interested in Uyghurs, few people in the U.S. knew what a Uyghur is. However, because of the increased publicity in western media about the current situation in the Uyghur region, people are much more familiar with this ethnic group now. Unfortunately, this is an extremely sensitive topic within China, so talking about it publicly requires a great deal of finesse. This latter problem has also become much more challenging in recent years.

Do you plan to expand on this scholarship? What’s next for your research and teaching interests?
My research in Turkey is part of a larger work on Uyghur cultural transmission through non-formal education in different locations. The idea is that it will eventually be a book. I want to continue to look at themes surrounding immigration and diaspora in the future, but perhaps I will focus on other diaspora communities in other locations (i.e., not Uyghurs).

What are you excited to bring to the Department of Global Studies and Modern Languages?
Almost all of my professional career has been in international settings, but my academic background is in education. Education is an interdisciplinary field which relates to almost everything else — politics, economics, sociology, etc. — but oftentimes, people do not realize that the field of education has an international space. And yet, because education is considered as a key driver of international development, most international organizations prioritize education projects in the countries in which they are based. In other words, education as a field goes beyond just teaching; in fact, international education has many opportunities from an academic, research and professional perspective. I am excited to bring this lens to my new department.

Five Things to Know

  1. Uyghurs are a primarily Muslim ethno-linguistic group from China’s northwest Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Their mother tongue (also called Uyghur) is a Turkic language that utilizes a modified form of the Arabic script. Uyghurs are one of the 55 officially recognized ethnic minority groups in China, and also have large diaspora populations in countries like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkey. Washington, D.C. has the largest concentration of Uyghurs in the US.
  2. Like many diaspora communities, they are invested in maintaining their culture and traditions. While on sabbatical, I observed schools and interviewed dozens of Uyghurs about their efforts to maintain their cultures and traditions. The conversations often went to the Chinese political situation, because the political and the cultural are inextricably linked in this case. Unlike many other diaspora ethnic groups, which may be spread out over many countries, the Uyghurs do not have the option of returning to their homeland due to the current political situation in China. For that reason, the conscientious effort of the diaspora community to maintain their culture and traditions is even more significant.
  3. There has been a history of tension between Uyghurs and China’s majority ethnic group, Han Chinese. The “re-education camps” are a more extreme measure than we’ve seen in the past, but there has been tension between the Uyghurs and the majority Han Chinese for many decades. In fact, some ethnic violence in Xinjiang in recent decades was blamed on Uyghur terrorists, and the Chinese government says this is why they now need re-education camps — to counter Islamic extremism.
  4. Recent actions by the Chinese government do not only affect Uyghurs in China. The current situation in Xinjiang is very complicated, and there are many ways this situation is impacting Uyghurs outside of China. A recent study showed that 95 percent of Uyghurs in diaspora are experiencing a negative psychological impact due to stress related to the political situation in their home region. Most Uyghurs in diaspora have been cut off from their loved ones in China, losing both physical contact and, in many cases, also financial support.
  5. What can people do to help? There are Uyghur students enrolled at Drexel. They need support, but it’s very unlikely that they will ask for it. The Drexel community can help by becoming more aware of this issue, looking out for students who might be affected by it, and asking them what they need.

Drexel students: Want to take a course with Rebecca Clothey, PhD? She will be teaching the course “Reform and Resistance” (GST T280) in the spring quarter, from 12:30 – 1:50 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.