Mahmood Hasan Khan

Jul 15, 2021

5 min read

The Icy Silence about the Uyghurs of Xinjiang

I hear it. Prime Minister Imran Khan and many others in Pakistan, as Muslims elsewhere, are rightly shocked by the crime of hate against an innocent Muslim family in Canada. Islamophobia is not a new phenomenon in the West: it goes back to the days of the Crusades. [See: Norman Daniel, Islam and the West: The Making of an Image, Revised Edition. Oxford: Oneworld Publications. 1993.] Its recent manifestations, ranging from cartoons to physical assaults, are probably a backlash against the terrorist attacks by some self-appointed Jihadists starting in the late 1990s. Terrorism and Islam have become synonymous: preachers, intellectuals, and some in the media and on the internet have taken upon themselves the task of repeating the mantra that Islam is an existentially violent religion, going back to the days of the Prophet, and its core values are fundamentally and irreconcilably anti-democratic. The hijab-wearing women are symbols of male repression. And so on. (Muslims immigrants in the West who demand that they be allowed to govern their affairs by the Sharia are not helping the cause of Islam.)

In the name of free speech, Islam and Muslims have become favourite targets of satire, intellectual and physical assault, and much more. In every society, you find people with unstable and feeble minds who are ready to act out their anxieties, frustrations, anger, and hatred on individuals or groups belonging to visible minorities. Almost every recent case of violence against Muslims has been perpetrated by such individuals. The good news is that more people in the West are speaking out against hate speech and acts of violence. They are demanding that their governments take concrete measures against the preachers of Islamophobia and their followers. Hatred of Islam and Muslims runs counter to their moral sense. Consequently, governments are taking steps to educate the public and prosecute the perpetrators of hate against Islam and Muslims: Prime Ministers of New Zealand and Canada have set the good example. But remember that it is a slow and grinding process. Just look at racism and anti-Semitism. Regrettably, they are still with us.

What I do not understand is that Muslims, especially in Pakistan, do not speak out against the Chinese state for its repression of the Uyghurs, a Muslim community, in Xinjiang. On the contrary, Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan has recently endorsed the Chinese version of events in Xinjiang. While I do not think that, legally speaking, the Chinese policy in Xinjiang amounts to a genocide, it is undoubtedly a well-planned attempt to suppress, if not erase, the religious and cultural identity of an ethnic minority. The Communist Party has adopted a policy of forced assimilation of the Uyghur community into the Han cultural milieu. (There was a time when the same party and its leaders glorified the multiethnic make-up of China. But that is now history.)

The official line in China is that it is fighting terrorism, bringing stability to the region, and improving the standard of living of the Uyghur community. None of this is true. Xinjiang is not a hot bed of terrorism. There was no instability in the region so long as the Chinese government allowed relative freedom of religion, etc. Is economic progress, if there has been any, worth the cost the Uyghurs are being forced to pay? Contrary to the official claims, there is massive evidence of repression in various forms to wean away the Uyghurs from their traditions and way of life. This is not merely Western propaganda. Much of the evidence is irrefutable. If it is not, then why doesn’t the Chinese government let independent observers go to the region and verify the facts? What are the so-called retraining centres for if not to brainwash the men against their culture? Why are restrictions placed on religious teachings and practices? Why are the mosques and madrassahs disappearing? Why are the Uyghur families being forced to limit their size? What are the Communist Party’s (Han) vigilantes doing in Xinjiang? On what basis has the Prime Minister of Pakistan concluded that the Chinese version is more reliable than the one reported by the non-Chinese sources?

I can understand but not excuse the icy silence of governments in most Muslim countries — their economic interests are far more important than their moral responsibility to stand for basic human rights. The problem is that they are not great defenders of these rights in their own societies. But what about the attitude of the civil society institutions, especially the mass media and the Ulema (Khateebs and Imams)? Why are they silent? This is certainly the case in Pakistan. The voices of the government and the public are loud and persistent about India’s mistreatment of Kashmiri Muslims, and I am with them. The Indian government’s policy in Kashmir is reprehensible and cannot be defended. But I do not see any difference, morally speaking, between what India is doing in Kashmir and what China is doing in Xinjiang. In both cases, they are depriving the two minorities their right to freedom. In some ways the Chinese policy is more egregious because its purpose is to destroy the identity of an ethnic minority in a deliberately planned way. Muslim minority in China, outside Xinjiang, is in no better condition. (Sadly, the BJP government in India has adopted a similar course against Muslims outside Kashmir.)

The government in Pakistan has accepted the Chinese version while the civil society institutions are silent about China’s policy in Xinjiang. I think there are at least two reasons for this attitude. First, Pakistan started to cultivate the friendship of China in the aftermath of the Indo-Chinese war of 1962. Friendship with China was seen as a counterweight to India — your enemy’s enemy is your friend. But this friendship was of no help to Pakistan in the event of wars with India. The second reason is more recent and important: China’s commitment of massive investment in and economic aid to Pakistan — estimated at US$65 billion — for the energy sector, physical infrastructure, and the port at Gwadar. The true extent and composition of the package and the terms and conditions attached to it remain foggy. They are certainly not transparent. The experience of some other countries in Asia and Africa with the Chinese investment and economic aid has not been something to celebrate.

There is nothing inherently bad about doing business with China; most countries do it. What is wrong is to ignore the abuse of human rights in that country, especially for a country like Pakistan that claims to stand for the rights of Muslim community (Ummah) across the globe. We hear about the mistreatment of Muslims in Kashmir but not of those in Xinjiang. As a matter of principle, abuse of human rights needs to be condemned no matter which minority group or community is the victim. If the government is shackled and is on the side of the Chinese about its ignominious policy in Xinjiang, as is the case in Pakistan, should the civil society institutions also abandon their moral responsibility to defend the basic rights of individuals and communities? Is their silence a defensible answer? I do not think so, given the evidence we have about the repression of the Uyghur community.