In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, initiating a wave of outrage across the Muslim world. Egypt, Gaza, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Malaysia were among the many sites of large protests related to the cartoons. Denmark suffered economic repercussions. Iran cut its trade ties with the country, for example, and Kuwait boycotted Danish dairy products.
This year, revelations about a network of detention camps in China’s western region of Xinjiang — built to compel members of Muslim minority groups to abandon their devotion to Islam and their distinct cultural identities — have created little more than a ripple of objections among Muslim communities in other countries. In one of the few protests to date, a small group of 150 people in Mumbai rallied outside a mosque in September to criticize the extralegal detention and forced indoctrination of up to a million Muslims in Xinjiang.
More than a dozen Western countries, including France, Germany, and the United States, called on China to shut down the camps at a recent UN Human Rights Council meeting, but political and religious figures in Muslim-majority countries have largely failed to comment on Beijing’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. In the aftermath of the UN meeting, the World Uyghur Congress issued a statement noting that “over 100 states including virtually every Muslim-majority state was silent or worse.” Some Muslim states have even been complicit in the abuses. Last year, Egypt deported dozens of Uyghurs to China, where they faced certain persecution.
Though the Uyghur people have deep cultural and linguistic ties to the largely Turkic and predominantly Muslim nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, Central Asian governments have yet to intervene on the Uyghurs’ behalf. Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry has pressed China regarding its own missing citizens, but the country remains cautious about challenging its powerful neighbor. Meanwhile, Chinese authorities continue to detain ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang, and hundreds of families in Kazakhstan with relatives detained across the border have called on their government to act.
An American Muslim scholar, Omar Suleiman, recently told Al-Jazeera that the Muslim world’s response to the mass detention of Uyghurs and others in Xinjiang amounts to a “complete abandonment.”
Explaining the Silence
The Muslim world has spoken out on issues including the Danish cartoons, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. Why haven’t the 49 Muslim-majority countries been equally vocal on the situation in Xinjiang? Part of the reason may be that the region and its people are on the periphery of the global Muslim community, isolated and far removed from most Muslims’ awareness. As Suleiman put it, “They’re ironically being tortured for being too Muslim by China while the Muslim world seems to not see them as Muslim enough to fight for.”
However, China’s enormous economic influence across the Middle East, Africa, and Asia surely plays a critical role in Muslim leaders’ calculations. In what has been termed a Marshall Plan for the Arab world, Chinese President Xi Jinping has pledged $20 billion in loans to Arab countries. Beijing has also committed to investing $60 billion in Africa and promised to cancel debt repayments for poorer African countries. It is no wonder, then, that many Muslim-majority countries regularly vote with China on UN resolutions rather than challenging their benefactor over its treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang.
Kazakhstan, home to the second largest Uyghur population after China, seems to have its hands tied for similar reasons: Investment in joint industrial projects by the two countries surpasses $27 billion.
Moreover, the governments of many Muslim-majority countries may fear that challenging China on its human rights abuses will cast a spotlight on their own violations. In an interview with Foreign Policy, Princeton University’s Dawn Murphy said, “I do think that the elite of these various countries are weighing their interests, and they are making a decision that continuing to have positive relations with China is more important than bringing up these human rights issues.”
A Lack of Public Awareness
Economic and political motives might explain the silence among the Muslim world’s leaders, but what about ordinary citizens in these countries?
The general population in the Muslim world seems to be largely unaware of the abuses in Xinjiang. Unlike the Danish cartoon affair, the mistreatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities by Chinese authorities is almost ignored by the Arabic media. Al-Jazeera has offered some coverage on the issue, but it remains mostly alone in doing so. Earlier this year, Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington, told Bloomberg that “even jihadis don’t dwell on it as much as they do about other conflicts.”
Restricted access to information within Xinjiang, home to one of the world’s most oppressive surveillance systems, has contributed to the scarcity of media coverage abroad. Earlier in November, James Palmer, the Asia editor for Foreign Policy, explained why it’s so difficult to cover the situation: “I cannot talk to people because they’re gone, I cannot reach them. Even Han Chinese in Xinjiang who were sources for people I knew have been arrested while talking to them.”
Despite these difficulties, international media outlets have widely publicized the treatment of Muslim minorities using the limited data available. It is unclear exactly why media in the Muslim world have largely failed to do the same, but many such outlets are controlled by governments in the region, meaning the same diplomatic and economic ties to China that have influenced government leaders could be affecting media coverage and public awareness.
Bucking the Trend
Not all Muslim-majority nations have been mute on Xinjiang. In September, Pakistan’s federal minister for religious affairs, Noorul Haq Qadri, told China’s ambassador that the restrictions placed on the Muslim population only “increases the chances of an extremist viewpoint growing in reaction,” undercutting Beijing’s claims that its repressive policies are meant to combat extremism. Under a new prime minister, Malaysia has adopted a tougher stance on China, releasing 11 Uyghur detainees despite China’s request to forcibly repatriate them. This gesture, along with the cancellation of $20 billion worth of projects allocated to Chinese companies, suggests that Malaysia may be willing to take further action.
These examples, however, are exceptions that prove the rule. The deep economic ties between China and the Muslim world, the lack of coverage by domestic media outlets, and the desire of governments in Muslim-majority countries to avoid drawing attention to their own human rights abuses are all contributing to the Muslim world’s muted response to China’s mass detention of Uyghurs and other minorities. So long as this silence persists, millions of people will remain subject to a violent program aimed at erasing their faith and ethnic identity, children will be separated from their parents, and those Muslims who are still able to pray will be forced to bow beneath Chinese flags — which represent an officially atheist regime — displayed above or even inside their mosques.
Samira Alim is a researcher at Freedom House.