Notoriously, and arguably quite shamefully, last year, over thirty Muslim-majority countries signed a letter commending China on its human rights record, whilst innocent Uighurs in the Xinjiang region were being detained in modern day concentration camps for engaging in anything that was deemed Islamic: whether that is mandatory acts of worship, bearing the name ‘Muhammad’, or owning a compass (to determine the direction of prayer). Global Muslim leaders have turned their back on the Muslim minority that they should be caring about most right now, in a bid to preserve their economic interests with China.
Algeria, Angola, Bahrain, Egypt, Eritrea, Kuwait, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates, were among the first to step forward to sign the 2019 letter of support for China’s behaviour towards the Uighurs. Since then their ranks have been joined by the Government of Palestine who all applaud China’s ‘counter terrorism and anti-extremism’ measures. A phrase which has been used by China to justify its maltreatment of some one and a half million Muslims, including upwards of one million Uighurs who are being subjugated by enslavement as forced labour, and the systematic sterilization of their female population.
The region of Xinjiang where the Uighurs reside was briefly independent between 1944 and 1949 until its re-annexation led by Mao Zedong. In 1955 the People’s Republic of China created the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region as a concession to the non-Han population and in parallel with similar arrangements for Tibet and Inner Mongolia. Since then, the communist government has been trying to shape the Uighur culture to reflect their own by infiltrating more and more Han people into the territory. This policy has been only intensifying over the years, with its biggest impact being felt in the early 2000s, whilst the world was distracted by the international ‘war on terror’ led by President George W. Bush in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
The legitimisation of events in Xinjiang by the world’s Muslim political leaders is not just harmful for Uighurs, but potentially for other Muslim minorities around the world. It sends a sign of approval to other global leaders that it is lawful to exercise similar anti-Muslim policies in their respective countries under the banner of dealing with ‘Islamic terrorism’. The likes of such can already be seen in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi who introduced a citizenship law last year allowing non-Muslims who entered the country before 2015 to become legal citizens – and by default denying Muslims the same privilege. Research shows that terror attacks carried out by people of a Muslim background already receive on average 357 percent more media coverage than acts committed by any other group. To remain silent in the face of blatant discriminatory practices against Muslim minorities is to perpetuate the dangerous concept that Muslims pose a security threat everywhere and that they deserve to be repressed.
The complacency that global Muslim leaders have shown on this issue does not align with Islamic principles. These are leaders who proudly defend Islam within their own borders but have nothing to show for it in the international arena by limiting their own agency in response to the Uighur cause. The recent boycott of French products within the Middle East gives a glimpse of the action that could be taken against Chinese imported goods if Muslims were to mobilise on the issue. However, this depends on momentum garnered by Muslim leaders in response to China’s activities, which has failed to materialise. Economic insecurity coupled with weak diplomatic relations of most Muslim-majority countries means they are wilfully succumbing to global powers like China for investment and foreign aid, rendering them powerless, overly dependent, and in denial of the Uighur issue. The Western countries that have condemned China’s policies at the UN this year have once again shown themselves to be more considerate of human rights, and ironically, more in line with true Islamic values than an overwhelming number of Muslim leaders.
Perhaps, this isn’t a question of benevolence on behalf of global leaders, but rather a question of who has the capacity to challenge China, a country that is growing in wealth every year and has expanded its outreach in the world by investing in places like the Western Balkans, Africa, and the Middle East, regions that all share a degree of economic instability. Western economies can be crowned the champions in this regard. But it also serves as a gloomy reminder that one’s material conditions are to be put first before much needed action is taken in solving issues elsewhere. One thing is for sure: global Muslim leaders must be reminded of the duty specified in the Qur’an upon all Muslims to be upholders of justice even if it may entail going against their own self-interests and those of their kinsmen. This includes economic and political gain; a reminder that now holds stronger than ever for Muslim leaders in response to China’s treatment of the Uighurs.