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Op-ed: The UTSU, The Uyghur Genocide, and International Politics

A note from the UTSU President on the UTSU’s commitment to solidarity with the globally oppressed
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JESSICA LAM/THE VARSITY
JESSICA LAM/THE VARSITY

On Thursday, July 25, the University of Toronto Students’ Union’s (UTSU) Instagram account was hacked. The hacker deleted a statement reaffirming the UTSU’s solidarity with Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims undergoing a genocide in the Uyghur homeland and uploaded a mocking apology in what can only be perceived as an attempt to undermine the organization.

There is no question in our minds that the UTSU was directly targeted for speaking out against the genocide of Uyghur and other Muslims in the Uyghur homeland and the persecution of our Uyghur Muslim peers on campus. We strongly condemn this hack alongside any other attempts to censor individuals and organizations speaking out in support of the Uyghurs. Such actions only serve to silence meaningful discourse and intimidate dissenting voices. 

By censoring our support for the Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims, the hacker has only energized us to continue using our platform to speak out against the ongoing atrocities. The UTSU has a duty to ensure that Uyghur and other Muslim students who are facing harassment and censorship at our university feel welcomed, safe, and acknowledged on campus while their families and relatives are in camps. We will continue to fight for what is right and we will continue to support our peers on campus who have been persecuted for doing so.  

Students’ lives are continuously being impacted by a variety of factors and occurrences around the world. An ongoing genocide of a student’s culture, religion, loved ones, and community is an atrocity that would impact all aspects of that student’s life.

While some people have questioned the relevance of speaking to events occurring across the world, the UTSU has consistently regarded it as our responsibility to advocate for justice globally. We are cognizant of the fact that campuses and student unions have historically been at the forefront of pushing the public discourse constructively — this was the case decades ago, when the South African apartheid was a contentious issue and the UTSU took a stance, and remained the case some months ago with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

It is not a responsibility we take lightly nor one we are willing to surrender. To do so would not only be a betrayal of our principles and legacy, but an abandonment of those in our community who are directly impacted by these tragedies.

The UTSU categorically condemns Islamophobia, anti-Asian racism, and Sinophobia in all of their forms. However, it maintains that conflating the Chinese government with Chinese people and students is itself engaging in the bigotry we have condemned here and elsewhere. In criticizing a government, we are not criticizing a people. 

Support of the Uyghurs should not be in the same conversation as anti-Asian discrimination or Sinophobia; conflating mention of the Uyghur genocide with anti-Asian racism facilitates a dangerous and problematic assumption that this genocide is supported by and perpetuated by all Chinese people. Both are profoundly important issues that the UTSU has consistently prioritized. 

Recognizing this reality alongside that of the ongoing genocide, the UTSU would like to reiterate our unequivocal denouncement of the Chinese government for its actions in the Uyghur homeland alongside any and all actors who have benefitted from Uyghur slave labour. 

The UTSU is in the process of articulating and designing a more fulsome and robust response throughout the coming year, particularly through our equity-related events and programming. The eXpression Against Oppression programming in November will include educational workshops on Uyghur culture. In the winter semester, we are organizing an Asian Alliance Conference going off of the Anti-Asian Racism Alliance Recommendation Report that was recently submitted to U of T’s administration, as well as working with the team that coordinated its efforts.

The UTSU will continue to advocate for, listen to, and learn from Uyghur students and advocates who have been brave enough to voice their needs, while ensuring that we are updated on events taking place and avenues for supporting students. We will continue to stand in solidarity with those who are facing these injustices. We will also continue to condemn acts of Islamophobia, Sinophobia, racism, and violence. 

I encourage any students who have felt unsafe speaking out about this issue, or any other, to reach out to the executive committee or myself at [email protected].

Omar Gharbiyeh is a fifth-year student at St. Michael’s College studying political science, history, and Near and Middle Eastern civilizations. He is the president of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) for the 2022-23 academic year.