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CFR: The Uighurs and the Question of Muslim Solidarity

The below article was published by The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), photo credit: CFR

Facing genocide by China, the Uighurs, who are Muslim, benefit from near zero solidarity from their co-religionists.

Twenty-five years ago, American Christians showed extraordinary solidarity with Christians half a world away and with whom they had nothing in common except their faith. As one study put it, “In the 1990s and early 2000s, the civil war in Sudan and the fate of Christians there became the abiding international preoccupation of US evangelicals.”

Similarly, one can recall the decades of efforts by Israel to rescue Ethiopian Jews and bring them to the Jewish State. More than 85,000 Ethiopian Jews were resettled in Israel over the years.

This Christian and Jewish solidarity came to mind recently as I read a VOA news item entitled “Report: Beijing’s Repression of Uyghurs Spans Globe.” The facts are obvious and have been for years; in 2018 a United Nations panel said it had credible evidence that a million Uighurs were being held in internment camps. As a CFR backgrounder states, “Much of the world has condemned China’s detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. UN officials have demanded access to the camps. The European Union has called on China to respect religious freedom and change its policies in Xinjiang.”  In January 2021, then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that China is committing crimes against humanity and genocide against Uyghurs; President Biden used the term genocide to refer to China’s abuses while campaigning, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken has affirmed Pompeo’s declaration.

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But the CFR report also carried these striking lines:

In July 2019, after a group of mostly European countries—and no Muslim-majority countries—signed a letter to the UN human rights chief condemning China’s actions in Xinjiang, more than three dozen states, including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, signed their own letter [PDF] praising China’s “remarkable achievements” in human rights and its “counterterrorism” efforts in Xinjiang.”

In fact, with rare exceptions (Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia) Muslim states helped defend the genocide, and even those three refused to join in the letter from Western countries. The Washington Post editorialized that the letter from 37 Muslim nations “represents a shameful capitulation by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria and other majority-Muslim states that frequently pose as defenders of the faith — especially when it involves condemning Israel.”

Why? Why the absolute lack of solidarity with co-religionists? Nick Cohen in The Guardian wrote that “the main reasons why Muslims suffer in silence is that the Muslim-majority countries that raged against Rushdie, Jyllands-Posten and Charlie Hebdo have decided to stay silent. They use the idea of Muslim solidarity only when it suits them.”

It has suited them, to some extent, when it comes to the Muslim Rohingyas in Burma, and there have been mass protests in some Muslim countries. But Burma is weak and China is strong. As an editorial in a publication in Turkey put it,

The situation in Xinjiang differs from the predicaments of Palestinians, Kashmiris, and Rohingyas because of how Muslim-majority countries have reacted to it. The leaders of the Islamic nations have largely ignored the cries of their brethren in Xinjiang, which has to do with economic and political reasons. In essence, China has quickly made herself a key trade and diplomatic partner to nearly all the powerful Islamic nations.

Simple enough, but that is of course an explanation rather than a defense or justification. And indeed realpolitik is perhaps the main explanation—but it is not the only one. It may be that for the Arab world, Uighurs do not evoke solidarity because they are not Arabs and perhaps because they are somehow regarded as less than authentic Muslims. They do not look like Arabs, the original Muslims; they do not speak Arabic. The treatment of non-Arabians in early Islam is a complex subject; after all, the non-Arabians were conquered peoples. (See for example the discussion in “Mawlas: Freed Slaves and Converts in Early Islam,” by Daniel Pipes, chapter X in Slaves and Slavery in Muslim Africa, volume I, by John Ralph Willis.) It should be unsurprising that there are today various forms of Arab collective consciousness and cultural identity, and that these affect national policy. It should be unsurprising that there is more solidarity among Arabs than among Muslims more broadly (though one can of course also question the degree of pan-Arab solidarity), even if Islam suggests the absolute equality of all believers.

But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that that solidarity is today mostly employed when raisons d’etat make it useful, and otherwise ignored. The losers are people like the Uighurs, who so badly need solidarity and support from fellow Muslims. And for others, the lesson is perhaps to dismiss statements that are called principled expressions of solidarity – with Palestinians, for example – when it does seem that solidarity is expressed in accord with no principles at all.

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