Uyghur PEN is for debate and dialogue - and against silence

About Uyghur PEN and International PEN

The International PEN Uyghur Center (Uyghur PEN) is one of 145 International PEN centers across the globe dedicated to promoting freedom of expression, thought and information for all. It stands in solidarity with writers everywhere who have been forced into silence by censorship. It also campaigns for the release of imprisoned writers, for free media, for the right to one's mother tongue, and for other rights related to freedom of expression. Uyghur PEN's focus of expertise is on western China and Central Asia.

As a chapter of International PEN, Uyghur PEN sees the right to express ourselves as essential to a free and just world. It recognizes that literature is essential to understanding and engaging with other worlds. If you can't hear the voice of another culture, how can you understand it?

International PEN's history dates back to 1921. As a writers' association, its membership is open to all published writers who subscribe to the organization's charter, regardless of nationality, race, mother tongue or religion. It is a non-political and non-religious nonprofit organization and has special consultative status at the UN and UNESCO.

Like International PEN, Uyghur PEN's membership is open to all writers. Its members, mostly Uyghurs, bring a wide spectrum of experience and work in fields ranging from academia and media to film production, translation and literature.

Uyghur PEN is based in Lund, Sweden, but its board and members are scattered across the globe - particularly in Central Asia, northern Europe and North America. International PEN is based in London.

Uyghur PEN's history

Kurash Kusen

Uyghur PEN was founded in Stockholm, Sweden, in 2006 by Uyghur folk musician Kurash Kosen - also known as Kurash Sultan - and other Uyghur writers in exile.

The years of dedication that Kurash put into planning and creating a new PEN center came to fruition on Oct. 18, 2006, with Uyghur PEN's formal establishment. Eleven days later, Kurash passed away. His passing was a tragedy for all who knew him.

Kurash believed in peaceful dialogue in the face of ethnic tension, suspicion and hatred, and this remains the core of Uyghur PEN's philosophy. Today, his dream of a PEN center dedicated to promoting free speech in western China and Central Asia is thriving. Our membership is steadily growing, as is our program. In 2009 we helped launch the Ural-Altaic PEN Network and in February 2010, Uyghur PEN opened an office in Lund, Sweden.

Uyghur Pen

2010 also marks our first international campaign for the release of a writer, Nurmuhemmet Yasin. We are also working on a public Web database to track the harassment and imprisonment of writers in Xinjiang.

Uyghur PEN's program

Uyghur PEN believes lack of free speech is a grave problem not only in China, but in most of Central Asia. Restrictions on freedom of speech, thought and information hinder discussions about the problems our world faces and thus hinder solutions. In China, heavy censorship is exacerbating ethnic and other tensions and preventing any dialogue about public grievances.

Our program includes researching censorship and the persecution of Uyghur writers in western China; campaigning for imprisoned writers; and encouraging civil society and intellectual exchanges across Central Asia.

In 2009, Uyghur PEN and other PEN centers teamed up to create a new regional PEN network, the Ural-Altaic PEN Network. The network groups a string of countries across Europe and Asia (from Finland and Hungary in the west to Korea and Japan in the east) where Uralic or Altaic languages are spoken.

The goal is two-fold. The network promotes literary and academic contacts among these countries that foster debate and intellectual exchanges in a variety of fields. These exchanges can challenge our assumptions and lead to new perspectives. The network also brings together veteran and young PEN centers on a variety of projects.

Who are the Uyghurs?

Uyghur people

Only a few years ago, news reports about Xinjiang province (also known as East Turkestan) were rare and few people outside of the region knew about the main ethnic group there, the Uyghurs. This has been a contributing factor to why China has been able to maintain some of its harshest policies in this region. Information abroad is increasing, however, as Uyghurs in exile become a voice for their people, communicating through NGOs and media. That trend must continue in order to ratchet up pressure on the authorities to respect fundamental rights.

Uyghurs are a Turkic people who practice a moderate form of Sunni Islam and speak Uyghur, a language closely related to Uzbek and more distantly to Turkish. Government restrictions make it impossible to verify how many Uyghurs live in China today. China puts the figure at 8 million, but academics examining census data have estimated the figure could be around 15 million.

Uyghurs are heavily marginalized economically, politically and culturally. Although the Chinese government has a formal policy of protecting their culture, regional authorities have said they hope to replace the Uyghur language within a century. Minors under the age of 18 are not allowed to practice Islam, and all mosques are state-controlled. There is no independent media and access for international journalists to Xinjiang is restricted. All literature and academic research into Uyghur history, culture and language is heavily censored.

Uyghur Pen

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