The silence on Xinjiang

While the Islamic world is quick to highlight global Muslim oppression, it has been oddly reticent about the treatment of China’s Uyghurs. Syed Ajmal Hussain reports

The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation(OIC) and its 57 member countries have, over the years, passed numerous resolutions on Jammu & Kashmir, Palestine and on virtually every nation in the world that is home to a substantial Muslim population.

As far as India is concerned, the OIC has always drawn attention to Jammu and Kashmir, and at the 14th OIC Session, held at the end of May this year in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the OIC appointed a Special Envoy for Jammu & Kashmir.

The Session’s Final Communiqué reaffirmed the OIC’s ‘principled support for the people of Jammu and Kashmir for the realization of their legitimate right to self-determination, in accordance with relevant UN resolutions. It condemned the recent outbreaks of violence in the region and invited India to implement the relevant Security Council resolutions to settle its protracted conflict with its neighbour’.

Strangely, while the OIC and its member states issue many resolutions and communiqués on the so-called oppression of Muslims around the world, including in Palestine, Syria and Turkey, they rarely talk of the oppression of Muslims in China. This omission is surprising because the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, an autonomous territory in northwest China, have close ethnic links to Turkey and in recent years have been stifled in every sense of the word.

Essentially, one aspect of China’s security approach to Xinjiang aims at reducing the influence of Islamic habits and way of life amongst the Uyghurs. One example of this has become well publicised: re-education camps, where over one million Uyghurs have been reportedly interned.

Turkey is the lone example in the Islamic world known to have articulated its position on the condition of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and has even granted asylum to several refugees.The reasons for this have more to do with their ethnic affinity with the Uyghurs and the geo-political game of extracting the best from China. However, the statements from Turkey are important enough to mention here in this context.

In February 2019, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy issued a statement to the effect that the Turkic Muslim population faced ‘systematic assimilation’ in Xinjiang and invited ‘Chinese authorities to respect fundamental human rights of the Uyghur Turks and shut down concentration camps’. But beyond this strong statement by Turkey, very few Islamic countries have chosen to criticise China.

The fact is that most Islamic countries around the world, given their close political and economic ties with China, have seldom rocked the boat by castigating Beijing for its treatment of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang. Even Turkey, one of China’s foremost critics in the Islamic world, does good business with China.

It is worth noting that China continuesto import oil from Iran,despite US pressure and sanctions. This demonstrates to the world that China is willing to offer help against the US and thus many turn to China for relief. In return, they guard China’s interests in organizations like the OIC.

However, one has to note that international pressure on China, particularly on Xinjiang, from the US and Europe has also had some impact in the Middle East. In the case of the OIC, pertinently, in early March 2019, one resolution of the 46th Session of the Council of Foreign Ministers welcomed the outcomes of the visit conducted by the General Secretariat’s delegation upon invitation from the People’s Republic of China. It also commended the efforts of the People’s Republic of China in providing care to its Muslim citizens. The choice of words in the resolution is interesting. It does not ‘condemn’, but ‘commends’ China in providing care to its Muslim citizens. Whoever drafted this clearly knew that Saudi Arabia did not want to offend Beijing. But the mere mention of China and its Muslim citizens was an indication of the pressure on the Islamic world to abjure the silence it has maintained on Xinjiang so far.

In the past also, OIC resolutions have referred to the matter. For instance, the OIC meeting in May 2007 in Islamabad made a request to its Secretary General ‘to make contact with the Government of China’ on the matter, ‘and to subsequently report on these consultations’. The Baku OIC resolution of June 2006 made the appeal ‘to give special attention to the conditions of Muslims in East Turkistan (Xinjiang) and to examine the possibility of working out a formula for cooperation with the Chinese Government’.

The OIC is aware of how much it can criticise China,considering that it is a major power, and a permanent member of the UNSC. Moreover, China refrains from preaching to others about human rights or systems of governance. This suits the Islamic world.However,as China increases repression on its Muslim community, some reaction will emerge. Whether it is preventing the Uyghurs from growing beards or not letting them pray in mosques, such actionsare likely to be interpreted by the Islamic world as a threat to theirway of life.

As China increases repression on its Muslim community, some reaction will emerge

Some evidence of this was seen in December 2018 at the14th Regular Session of the OIC’s Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission (IPHRC) in Jeddah.But even here the OIC only discussed the situation in Xinjiang and the treatment of Uyghurs and the Muslim minority in China, nothing further. Compared to the attention given by the OIC to the Rohingya in Myanmar, the concerns of Saudi Arabia, Oman and others in the OIC on China arestill negligible.The 15th Session of the IPHRC held in Jeddah in April this yearwas back to its quiet ‘commendation’ of China rather than condemnation.

The Islamic silence on Xinjiang and the Uyghurs may well unravel in the near future. While economic compulsions currently hold the upper hand in the geopolitics of ties with China, it is only a question of time before the force of religious sentiment in favour of the Uyghurs produces a new response from the Islamic world. It is time that world broke its silence on China and Xinjiang.

Syed Ajmal Hussain is an Urdu-language journalist based in Delhi

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