“Sorry, but I do not wish you a good Ramadan,” wrote the head of the Uighur Institute of Europe in Paris, in a cri de coeur railing against Muslim countries’ indifference to the plight of Uighurs in China’s far-western Xinjiang region, published by French weekly L’Obs in May.
In November, Dilnur Reyhan furthered this message in an open letter to Emmanuel Macron ahead of the French president’s trip to Beijing, co-written by the essayist and MEP Raphaël Glucksmann published in the left-wing French paper Libération. “Great crimes feed on silence,” she asserted: “The Uighurs have fallen into a kind of black hole – a legal black hole in China.”
A form of “black hole politics” is operating in the world, the open letter continued: the Uighurs are “barely mentioned in our countries’ exchanges with Chinese leaders”.
After the publication of troves of official documents leaked to The New York Times and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, outlining a systematic policy of mass internment in Xinjiang, Muslim countries have shied away from supporting the Uighurs.
There is a dividing line at the UN between defenders and critics of the Chinese state’s actions in Xinjiang. At the end of October, 23 countries including France, the UK and the US denounced the repression of the Uighurs at the UN Committee on Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Affairs. Nevertheless, Beijing won the support of 54 countries, who praised the Communist Party’s management of Xinjiang.
A similar thing happened in July: 22 states called on China to put a stop to arbitrary detention in the province. Then 37 countries rushed to Beijing’s defence, praising its “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights”. Amongst them were 14 members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) – including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, the UAE, Qatar and Algeria.
In 2017, the OIC responded very differently to the Myanmar military’s crackdown on the country’s Rohingyas. Many Muslim countries – including Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey – rallied to the defence of the Muslim minority group in Myanmar. Indeed, the OIC took an active role in condemning the treatment of the Rohingyas at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
By contrast, the last OIC statement on the Uighurs dates back to a simple communiqué in 2015, in which the 57-member group of Muslim countries said it was “concerned” about whether they would be able to celebrate Ramadan.
“There is less solidarity than there is for the Palestinian or Rohingya causes,” noted Sophie Richardson, director for China at Human Rights Watch. “China has managed to win these countries’ support because they need Chinese investment.”
Saudi Arabia demonstrated this in February, expressing its “respect” for Chinese leader Xi Jinping before signing major commercial contracts. Egypt, which wants Beijing to finance its infrastructure, went so far as to allow Chinese police to come and interrogate Uighur exiles on its soil in 2017. Even Pakistan – which has spoken out for the Rohingyas with particular alacrity – has been silent on the Uighurs while the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative proceeds in the country.
For a long while, Turkey was the exception to this silence on China’s actions in Xinjiang. Most notably, Ankara decried the detention of Uighurs in “concentration camps” as a “great cause of shame for humanity”. But since then, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has enacted a U-turn: focused on trade talks with Beijing, the Turkish president refrained from signing the 22 states’ letter condemning the repression in Xinjiang.
“There is a lot of sympathy for the Uighurs in Turkey, but the reality is that Erdogan needs China as an ally for economic reasons and to counteract the West’s diplomatic pressure on issues like Syria,” said Rémi Castets, a political scientist specialising in China at the Bordeaux-Montaigne University. It’s a matter of “realpolitik”, he continued.
At the same time, the Chinese state has worked hard to give the Uighurs a bad press. In 2014, Beijing launched its “Strike Hard Campaign Against Violent Terrorism”, justifying its tight grip on Xinjiang by presenting it as a necessary measure in the fight against Islamist extremism.
It seems that many Muslim countries are receptive to this way of framing the issue: at the UN committee meeting in July, the letter signed by OIC members praised Beijing’s “counter-terrorism and deradicalisation measures” in Xinjiang. “Now safety and security has returned to Xinjiang and the fundamental human rights of people of all ethnic groups there are safeguarded,” it continued.
The arrest of Uighurs in Taliban networks during the war in Afghanistan, their incarceration at Guantanamo, and the apparent presence of Uighur contingents in al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria have all fueled this discourse presenting China’s actions as a crackdown on terrorism.
But human rights campaigners dismiss this as a pretext for the Chinese Communist Party’s campaign to subjugate the Uighurs. “Using terrorism to justify oppression is a classic technique of authoritarian regimes,” said Bénédicte Jeannerod, director of Human Rights Watch France. “The presence of Uighurs in extremist groups does not justify the arbitrary and systematic oppression of more than one million Uighurs, classed as suspects simply because of their ethnicity and religion.”
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