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Muslim-Majority Countries’ Complicity in the Uyghur Genocide

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The Debate | Opinion

Muslim-Majority Countries’ Complicity in the Uyghur Genocide

The Muslim world is quick to denounce Islamophobia in the West, but has been markedly silent of China’s attacks on Islam and Uyghur culture. 

Muslim-Majority Countries’ Complicity in the Uyghur Genocide
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

When an extremist burned a copy of the Quran outside a Stockholm mosque, it ignited strong reactions from the Islamic world. This act led to Morocco withdrawing its consul from Sweden and condemnation from countries like Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) called for a meeting to discuss and condemn the event. This reaction raises questions about the Islamic world’s response to different provocations, particularly when juxtaposed with the silence over China’s genocide in East Turkestan (officially known in China as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region). 

Notably, over 8,450 mosques have been reportedly destroyed in this region, home to Uyghurs and other Muslim communities. Despite evidence from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) indicating damage to a total of 16,000 mosques in East Turkestan, Muslim-majority countries such as Iran, Qatar, Morocco, and Iraq have not spoken out. This contrasting response underscores a profound failure within the Muslim world to uphold its principles, especially in the face of the ongoing genocide of Uyghur Muslims.

The situation reflects a deviation from the teachings of solidarity among Muslims, as highlighted by a renowned hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, which stresses mutual support and empathy: “The believers, in their mutual love, compassion, and sympathy are like a single body; if one of its organs suffers, the whole body will respond to it with sleeplessness and fever.” However, this principle appears neglected, especially when economic and diplomatic interests are involved. This is evident in the response of Muslim-majority countries and organizations to China’s treatment of Uyghurs.

Currently, the international community, including the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, recognizes the severe human rights violations in East Turkestan as crimes against humanity. Over 15 countries’ parliaments have labeled these atrocities as genocide. The proliferation of concentration camps since 2017 has led to the forced relocation and oppression of millions of Uyghurs. Inside these camps, Uyghurs suffered severe torture and indoctrination, aiming to erase their religious, ethnic, and cultural identities. The stories of Uyghur women who faced detention, rape, and forced marriages are especially harrowing.

Despite these well-documented atrocities, the OIC has been notably indifferent to the Uyghur genocide. In a 2019 meeting in Abu Dhabi convened by the OIC, the foreign ministers of Muslim countries issued a joint statement disregarding the Uyghur genocide, with only Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu abstaining from this stance. That same year, 28 out of 51 countries supporting China’s human rights record at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights were OIC members. The OIC continued its support for China, as seen when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was a guest speaker at a 2022 meeting in Islamabad, where the Uyghur genocide was not addressed.

This indifference also extends to the global stage. In July 2019, 22 U.N. member states highlighted human rights violations in East Turkestan, but 37 Muslim-majority countries, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Syria, countered with a letter applauding China’s progress in human rights. In an October 2022 vote, 19 nations, including Muslim-majority countries, blocked a U.N. Commission on Human Rights debate that would have discussed China’s crimes against Uyghurs.

The OIC’s recent visit to East Turkestan in August 2023, led by Dya-Eddine Bamakhrama, avoided the genocide issue, instead praising the Chinese Communist regime. This reflects a prioritization of economic, political, and diplomatic relations with China, often driven by the need for Chinese aid and influence in energy markets and projects like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China’s pivotal role in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) energy markets, and the significant sums that come with its BRI projects, have largely entrapped the Muslim countries. This situation highlights a significant ethical dilemma within the Muslim world, as economic and political interests seem to override the commitment to defending fellow Muslims in East Turkestan.

The Chinese Communist Party’s influence on Arab nations, primarily through economic ties, is evident in the League of Arab States’ visit to East Turkestan in June 2023. Over 30 officials from 16 Arab countries participated, and Chinese media portrayed the visit positively as refuting the Uyghur genocide. Mohammed Haj Ibrahim, the delegation head, praised China’s contributions to fighting terrorism and extremism.

The alignment of Muslim NGOs and Islamic scholars with China has contributed to the silence on the Uyghur genocide. The Chinese regime strategically invites these groups to East Turkestan, offering support to promote its anti-terrorism narrative. In January, the World Council of Muslim Communities, led by Ali Rashid Al Nuaimi, and scholars from various Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bosnia, Serbia and Tunisia visited East Turkestan, endorsing China’s stance and denying the Uyghur genocide. The Center for Uyghur Studies reported that many Islamic dignitaries, including the Mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Rector of Al-Azhar University, failed to condemn China’s actions during such visits.

China’s influence extends to media outlets in Muslim countries, pressuring them to align with its narrative. Financial incentives have turned networks in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE into Chinese propaganda instruments. Collaborations between Chinese and Middle Eastern media, such as the partnership between China Intercontinental Communication China (CICC) and the UAE’s Image Nation,, further disseminate China-centric content. Chinese officials strategically use media appearances to counter criticism, as seen with Chinese Consul General Tan Banglin’s defense in Saudi Arabia, Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s interview in a Saudi state-controlled newspaper, and Consul General Zhao Lying’s statements in Egypt. 

Kuwaiti and other Middle Eastern media often portray East Turkestan positively, framing Western criticism as a ploy against China. Representatives from media outlets, like Kemal Gaballa from Al Ahram, are taken to East Turkestan and contribute to China’s narrative, dismissing the severity of the situation. Similar narratives are echoed in state- publications in Qatar and Jordan.

Social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), and TikTok are crucial communication channels, and the Chinese regime targets influencers on these platforms for propaganda, especially regarding the denial of the Uyghur genocide in East Turkestan. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) report highlights the use of Western social media influencers in spreading CCP propaganda. These influencers, operating outside traditional journalism standards, participate in state-sponsored trips to Xinjiang and produce content that Chinese state-controlled accounts amplify. 

The ASPI study found that 156 Chinese state-controlled accounts on U.S.-based social media platforms shared over 546 Facebook and X/Twitter posts from sources like CGTN and Global Times. This content, mainly videos by foreign influencers, was repackaged and promoted online by Chinese state entities, with over 50 percent of activity on Facebook.

Another ASPI report focuses on the use of Uyghur and Kazakh social media influencers. It analyzed around 1,700 videos from 18 popular YouTube channels, showing young ethnic minority women portraying Xinjiang positively. Some videos attacked Western critics, including an influencer denying genocide accusations at a CCP-organized press conference.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs organizes conferences in Muslim nations to sway public opinion on the Uyghur issue. Uyghurs participate in these events, presenting a facade of contentment and happiness. These conferences, amplified through speeches and imagery, target Muslim nations as part of the CCP’s systematic propaganda via social media. This campaign disseminates content in 38 languages to 180 countries, reaching 68 million users. In one such conference, Pakistani government spokesperson Qassim Suri praised China’s achievements and criticized Western information sources.

The Uyghur genocide in East Turkestan is unfolding with support from the Muslim world, influenced by China’s strategic interests in oil and the Belt and Road Initiative. Indeed, the Uyghur diaspora fight against the genocide is often depicted as a Western maneuver to hinder China’s progress. The Chinese president’s recent visit to East Turkestan, following the BRICS summit in South Africa, demonstrates China’s commitment to continuing the oppression of Uyghur Muslims, ignoring Western appeals to stop the genocide.

To improve the human rights situation for Uyghurs – and avoid being labeled in history as accomplices to the Uyghur genocide – Muslim nations must swiftly distance themselves from the CCP and stand by the Uyghur Muslims. Failing this, they risk betraying the principles set forth by the Prophet Muhammad by handing over their suffering Muslim brothers and sisters to an oppressor.