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Muslim-Majority Countries Need to Speak Up About the Uyghur Crisis

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“I WASH MY HANDS OF THIS,” echoed the silence of the Muslim countries on avoiding the Uyghur crisis.

Certain Muslim-majority countries have opted to for silence as mass atrocities against Muslim populations rises. Through the lens of the Uyghur crisis, this analysis aims to uncover the facade of “Muslim countries” existing in the twenty-first century. 

“There are much worse human rights issues in the world [than the Uyghur Crisis] which get no attention” Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan said about the Uyghur crisis.  

As presented by Imran Khan, each human rights issue is unique, complex, and deserves a resolution. However, as the leader of a constitutionally “Muslim” state, Khan’s dismissal of the Uyghur crisis reveals incongruity. Pakistan vocalizes its distaste towards India’s human rights violations against the Kashmiris, and Iran leads the criticism on Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims. However, critics argue that Muslim countries fall silent on China’s cruelty towards the Muslim-majority Uyghurs.

Since 2017, the Chinese Communist Party has forced Uyghurs into “re-education centers” where Uyghurs are forced to denounce Islam and Islamic doctrine. Over the years, reports on Uyghurs being electrocuted, raped, and living under surveillance, have risen.

Interestingly, “Muslim countries” are accustomed to criticizing injustice against Muslim populations perpetrated by, typically but not limited to, the west. 

Twenty-eight countries identify Islam as their official state religion in their constitutions. Therefore, although countries such as Indonesia, Turkey, and Tajikistan are synonymous with Islam in mainstream media, they do not self-identify as Muslim countries. And thus, they are exempt from this analysis. 

Interestingly, no “Muslim country” supported the German Ambassador Christoph Heusgen when he asked for China to “respect human rights” in Xinjiang and Hong Kong at the United Nations.

This analysis aims to explain how global power shifts and Chinese investments have prompted “Muslim countries” to be silent on the Uyghur crisis — therefore complicating the existence of these “Muslim countries.” 

Who are the Uyghurs?

The Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group native to East Turkestan, Central Asia. The Uyghurs are ethnically distinct from the Chinese Han majority population. In the lead-up to the Chinese October 1949 Revolution, the People’s Liberation Army gained control of the Xinjiang territory of East Turkestan.

The PLA created the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The XUAR is an ethnic-federalist state in the People’s Republic of China. As of 2021, twelve million Uyghurs reside in the XUAR.

The XUAR’s status as China’s economic Mecca explains the government’s hostility towards Uyghurs. The XUAR accounts for 40 percent of China’s coal reserves, 20 percent of China’s oil and gas reserves, and has trade routes to eight different countries. 

This is compelling because China frames its Xinjiang policies as a mechanism to tackle extremism and religious disputes. On the other hand, the Council on Foreign Relations found in September 2020 that China’s repression against Muslims targets Uyghurs as opposed to ethnic Chinese Muslims, such as the Hui population.

As international power dynamics shift, Muslim countries are mutual or aligning with China, even if this decision contradicts their previous activism.

Since 2017, the Chinese Communist Party has forced Uyghurs into “re-education centers” where Uyghurs are forced to denounce Islam and Islamic doctrine. Over the years, reports on Uyghurs being electrocuted, raped, and living under surveillance, have risen. It appears that the Chinese government aims to desensitize self-determined Uyghurs and eradicate cultural and religious differences to tighten China’s grip on the XUAR.

How do “Muslim countries” fit into the narrative? 

Ten of these 28 “Muslim countries” have openly defended China’s controversial domestic policies. From Iran and Pakistan to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, economically-astute and vocal Muslim countries commend China’s “people-centered philosophy” and “promoting and protecting [of] human rights.” Although Oman, Qatar, Somalia, and Algeria have withdrawn their defense on China’s domestic policies in 2019, no “Muslim country” has openly criticized China’s violation of human rights against the Uyghurs. 

Muslim countries are quick to denounce western intervention and violence against Muslims in independent states. When addressing the Uyghur crisis, Khan quickly denounced the narrative of the western media. Moreover, Iran, a country that has historically vocalized its distaste towards the mistreatment of Muslims, supports China in its global power race against the U.S.. As international power dynamics shift, Muslim countries are mutual or aligning with China, even if this decision contradicts their previous activism.

Most of these Muslim countries are postcolonial states and have been subject to western intervention. Thus, one can understand the appeal of maintaining favorable relations with China, a state which sponsors state sovereignty. So far, China continues to deliver on Li Peng’s, the head of the Chinese government from 1988 to 1998, denunciation of “encroachments perpetrated by one country on the sovereignty or territorial integrity of another.”

Even in 2021, China chose not to react to the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. In turn, the Taliban had assured that they would not support “acts detrimental to China.” As a result of China’s insular foreign policies, these post-colonial Muslim states are more likely to be recluse in the context of China’s domestic policies. 

Thus, in the 21st century, the term “Muslim country” is problematic. “Islam” is embodied in matters which challenge the west or countries which threaten the political interests of individual “Muslim” states. Nonetheless, as China rises and the persecution of Uyghurs continues, the term ‘Muslim countries’ becomes a facade.

Muslim countries are silenced when it comes to the Uyghur crisis due to China’s economic investments. Since 2013, China has invested financially in the development of African, Asian, and European states as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. Effectively, the amount China chooses to invest in a state depends on that country’s development and regional resources to offer.

Assumably, the Belt and Road Initiative makes China the “single largest investor” in eleven oil-rich Middle Eastern countries. As explained perfectly by Jeremy Garlick and Radka Havlova, “Beijing has successfully managed to dissuade governments … in Muslim-majority countries from providing … rhetorical support for Uyghur people.”

Muslim countries bide in silence, but activism from civil rights groups has brought the plight of the Uyghurs to global attention. Ahmad Farouk Musa, the founder of the Islamic Renaissance Front, organized protests and boycotts against Malaysia’s decision to deport Uyghur asylum seekers within Malaysia. In Pakistan, the Prime Minister continues to face backlash for deporting Uyghur asylum seekers and comparing the heinous violation of human rights against the Kashmiris in India to undermine China’s Xinjiang policies. As China refrains from intervening in state affairs and offers economic support to Muslim countries, it is opposition from below which will bring China’s crimes against humanity to light. 

where do we go from here?

The Uyghur situation has emboldened the problem with defining a country as Muslim. As global power shifts occur and economic prosperity is realized, the term ‘Muslim country’ is reduced to a facade. Questions arise, including do ‘Muslim countries have a responsibility to criticize injustice against Muslims? Can ‘Muslim countries’ choose to be selective in their activism against injustice?

Uyghurs are suffering, and it appears that their Muslim allies are choosing self-interest rather than choosing to criticize a nation for committing acts agent humanity. 

You Can Help By Staying Informed and Raising Awareness

It is critical to stay informed and spread awareness and resources on the Uyghur crisis. Below are some resources which may help you gain a deeper understanding of the Uyghurs struggle against oppression:

— Instagram: @FreeUyghurNow, @Foundation4UyghurFreedom, @UyghurTribunal, @CampaignForUyghurs, @UyghurProjectIG, @UyghurCongress

— Websites: https://foundationforuyghurfreedom.com, https://uyghurtribunal.com, https://campaignforuyghurs.org, https://www.saveuighur.org, https://www.uyghurcongress.org/en/

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