Daughter of Uyghur scholar fights for his freedom

Close-up of dark-haired young woman (© Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
Jewher Ilham is the daughter of a prominent Uyghur academic arrested by Chinese authorities. (© Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Jewher Ilham was 18 when she and her father were set to board a plane to visit the United States in 2013 and Chinese authorities stopped and arrested him. At her father’s insistence, Jewher got on the plane without him.

She has spent the last five years trying to free her father, Ilham Tohti, who was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison for advocating respect for Uyghur culture.

Jewher and Tohti are Uyghur Muslims. Her father is an internationally known writer and economist in Beijing who wrote about cross-cultural issues between Uyghurs, Han and other Chinese ethnic groups.

“He wanted to create a bridge to help people understand each other,” said Jewher, who was in Washington attending the State Department’s Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. The July 16–18 event brings together leaders from different governments, organizations and religions to address religious persecution.

Two women in crowd crying and embracing (© Ng Han Guan/AP Images)
Uyghur women grieving after a series of arrests in Xinjiang, China (© Ng Han Guan/AP Images)

However, Tohti’s “exercise of free speech, his intellectual defense of religious freedom, his fight for the Uyghurs to be treated equally could not be tolerated by the Chinese,” Jewher said. Instead of working with the Uyghurs, “the Chinese government decided to eliminate our culture.”

Since 2017, Chinese authorities have imprisoned more than 1 million Uyghur, Kazakh and other members of ethnic Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, China. There they are tortured, forced to renounce their religion and required to praise the Chinese Communist Party.

Coming to America was the “best decision I have ever made,” Jewher said. In China, the “government only wants you to believe in the government;” they think if you have faith “you will be harder to control.”