The following article was written and researched by Rachel Harris, teacher of ethnomusicology at SOAS, University of London, and leader of the Leverhulme research project, Sounding Islam in China; and Aziz Isa Elkun, London-based Uyghur writer and blogger actively engaged in promoting Uyghur culture and history. The views expressed and research presented in this blog are those of the writers and not of Freemuse.
The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China is currently undergoing a major security crackdown, largely shielded from the outside world by tight controls on foreign media. Ostensibly aimed against “Islamic extremism”, the crackdown has targeted all aspects of daily religious life amongst the Muslim peoples of this region, as well as restricting freedom of expression, movement and association. Thousands of people have been detained in “rehabilitation centres” and many more arrested.
Most recently, the campaign has extended in scope to target Uyghur writers and artists who have in some way promoted Uyghur ethnic identity in their work. Now one of the most popular and influential Uyghur singers, Abdurehim Heyit, has now been detained and held without formal charge in the regional capital, Urumchi.
In autumn 2017, prominent Uyghur poet Tahir Hamut arrived in America and alerted the overseas community that Heyit had been arrested in April 2017 and was being held without charge in Urumchi.
“The situation is very serious in the Uyghur region now. Many people are being arrested, and no specific reason is given for their arrest,” Hamut told us.
According to Hamut, Heyit’s arrest was most likely in connection with the song “atilar” (Fathers):
“The police came to visit him several times before they finally arrested him. I heard about it from his work unit, the Xinjiang Song and Dance Troupe. The police asked all about that song: when he sang it, why he composed it, who wrote the lyrics. The poet who wrote those lyrics, Abdurehim Abdulla, was arrested at the same time. The problem with the poem was that it used the phrase “jenglerde shehit” (martyrs of war); that’s why it was sensitive. Actually, the main message of that song was about remembering the sacrifices made by our fathers and criticising the way young men these days go around partying … but they said that it was connected to jihad.”
Many of Heyit’s songs reflect on Uyghur history and culture, and he uses his booming voice to powerful effect, bringing to life iconic texts by respected modern Uyghur poets, such as Abdurehim Otkur’s “uchrashqanda” (When We Met).
“He never even wrote his own lyrics”, one of Heyit’s students said. “All the poems he used were published by government approved presses, and all the lyrics were approved again by government censors before he recorded them. There is nothing in that text to encourage jihad or radicalism. When it talks about the sacrifice of our fathers, it’s talking about the past. You can’t apply it to the situation today. There’s no basis for his arrest. They misinterpreted that song”.
Born in 1964 into a devout religious family in the southern town of Kashgar, Heyit became a much-loved singer, virtuoso performer on the Uyghur dutar (traditional long-necked two-stringed lute) and composer of numerous songs. He studied at Kashgar Arts College and worked in the prestigious Central Nationalities Ensemble in Beijing between 1986 and 1993 before returning to Urumchi to join the Xinjiang Song-and-Dance Troupe, where he performed many songs promoting unity and friendship among the peoples of China.
“He was a professional musician. He was employed by the state troupes. It was his job to perform in the Uyghur language and represent Uyghur culture and history. It was his job to sing songs that people loved to listen to. He was a true peoples’ artist. I remember when I was young, in Kashgar, the street food sellers used to copy his cassettes and play them, because they loved his versions of the old folk songs,” one of his students said.
He also independently released a series of solo CDs featuring Uyghur folk songs and his own compositions, and became a popular and influential figure among Uyghur audiences, as well as a leading exponent of the “new folk” style of the 1990s. He released his entire back catalogue in 2011 with the prestigious Nationalities Recording Company on a 9-CD collection called “Duttarim” (My Dutar):
Under the current crackdown in Xinjiang, expressions of ethnic pride – even those previously approved by state censors – are being conflated with ethnic separatism and criminalised as Islamic extremism. Xinjiang police have taken a single phrase from the hundreds of verses sung by Heyit and used it to brand him a religious extremist. This accusation masks the real reason for his detention, which is all about the way that he has used his powerful voice over several decades to promote a proud vision of Uyghur history and culture. It is an indicator of how extreme the campaign has now become that a high profile and popular artist like him could be detained on such a flimsy pretext.