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Why Muslim countries aren’t criticizing China Uighur repression



xinjiang uighur pray
men pray before a meal during the Corban Festival, also known as
Eid al-Adha, in Turpan, Xinjiang, in September


  • Muslim countries have been silent over China’s
    crackdown on its Uighurs, a Muslim-majority ethnic minority in
    the country’s west.
  • Experts and activists say it is because countries fear
    economic retribution from China.
  • Many also say it’s because many Arab states also have
    poor human rights records, and don’t want to draw attention to
  • Turkey has tried standing up to China in the past — and
    Beijing has not forgotten it.

China’s crackdown on its Uighur citizens, a mostly-Muslim ethnic
minority group, has faced heavy international scrutiny in recent

In August the United Nations said it was “deeply
” by reports that China had
forced as many as 1 million Uighurs into internment camps
Xinjiang, western China. In April, the US State Department

said it had heard
of Uighurs who had “disappeared” or were
unexpectedly detained.

Meanwhile, Muslim countries have been deafeningly silent.

Over the past year alone, activists have found evidence
of Chinese authorities
tracking Uighurs’ cellphone activity
and forcing them to

cut off their beards and dresses
. Others say China has
demanded the Uighur diaspora
hand over personal information
 — and threatened their
families if they do not.

Chinese officials have denied the the camps exist, though have
acknowledged a program of “resettlement” for people it refers to
as extremists. Business Insider has contacted the Chinese
government for further comment.

Xinjiang Uighur China
ethnic Uighur man has his beard trimmed after prayers in Kashgar,
Xinjiang, in June 2017. The circumstances of this trim is not

Kevin Frayer/Getty

It’s not as if Muslim countries haven’t spoken out about human
rights in the past. As Myanmar’s military ramped up its violence
against Rohingya
late last year, citizens in Jordan and Iran

staged multiple protests
in solidarity with the Rohingya.

Saudi Arabia’s mission to the UN also condemned
the situation online

The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, an international
consortium which calls itself “the
collective voice of the Muslim world
,” also
pledged this May
to set up a “proper investigation” into the
Rohingya crisis.

So why hasn’t anyone said anything about China’s Uighur issue?

china uighur uyghur security checkpoint police
mural in Yarkand, Xinjiang, in September 2012. The Chinese words
say: “Stability is a blessing, instability is

Eric Lafforgue/Art in All
of Us/Corbis via Getty Images

Money, money, money

Many Muslim-majority countries aren’t speaking out because they
don’t want to jeopardize their economic relationships in China,
experts say.

Several states in Central Asia and the Middle East are part of

China’s Belt and Road Initiative
(BRI), a massive project
launched in 2013 linking 78 countries across Asia, Africa,
Europe, and Oceania through a network of railroads, shipping
lanes, and other infrastructure projects.

Many of these deals entail China giving hefty loans to economies
with a bad credit rating, which countries
such as Pakistan
are already finding difficult to repay. And
it appears that these economic partnerships are stopping these
countries from speaking out about Xinjiang.

Simone van Nieuwenhuizen, a Chinese politics researcher at
University of Technology Sydney, told Business Insider: “Like
most states, many Muslim-majority countries have increasingly
close economic relations with China.

“There is a general consensus that speaking out about the
situation in Xinjiang might jeopardize the development of
economic ties, and it is therefore not in their interests to do

saudi china mbs xi
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Chinese President Xi Jinping
in Hangzhou, China, in September 2016.

Lintao Zhang/Getty

Alip Erkin, an activist in Australia who runs the Uyghur Bulletin network,
specifically cited BRI as a hindrance. He told BI: “Enormous
trade and investment opportunities, as well as debt burden from
China, through the BRI not only result in the tight lips of
Muslim states but also an active cooperation with China in Uighur

a BRI partner country
, has even appeared to help China with
its Uighur crackdown.

Last summer, Egypt detained dozens of Uighur students in the
country without giving a reason, denied them access to lawyers
and their families,
Human Rights Watch reported

Cairo also deported at least 12 Chinese Uighurs back to China
around the same time,
according to The New York Times

Peter Irwin, the program manager at the World Uyghur Congress,
told BI: “There is a certain expectation that Muslim-majority
countries would naturally lend support to Uighurs and criticize
China, but we just haven’t seen this, and I don’t expect we’ll
see this given China’s economic ambitions with the Belt and Road
Initiative, however successful the plan may or may not be.”

one belt one road land sea routes
showing the projects subsumed under the Belt and Road Initiative
as of December 2015.


China’s Uighur treatment may not offend Arab

It may be too simplistic to cite economic dependence on China as
the only reason why Muslim countries aren’t standing up to China
over the Uighurs.

Many Middle Eastern states also have a poor human rights record,
and prioritize social stability over individual rights, much like
China does, van Nieuwenhuizen said.

China justifies its crackdown on Xinjiang as protecting the peace
and preventing terrorism. Militant Uighurs have been accused of
starting deadly ethnic riots in Xinjiang and terrorist
attacks across the country from 2009 to 2014.

Many Arab countries “exhibit a similar understanding” of
prioritizing social stability over human
rights, van Nieuwenhuizen said.

She told BI: “Many Middle Eastern states have a poor human
rights record themselves — including when it comes to the
treatment of religious minorities. Many exhibit a similar
understanding of human rights to China’s — that is, that social
stability trumps individual rights.

“This is how the Chinese government has framed the presence of
re-education camps and other repressive measures.”

Erkin also told BI that although many Gulf states can afford to
make a political stand against China, they “are mostly
ultra-authoritarian states that advocate non-interference in
other states’ internal affairs to avoid the same interference in

He added: “The silence of the Muslim
majority countries over the horrific treatment of Uighurs,
especially the recent cultural cleansing drive in East Turkestan,
is both frustrating and unsurprising.”

East Turkestan is the Uighur term for Xinjiang.

He continued: “It is frustrating because the principle of
Muslim brotherhood has become a selective foreign policy tool
that has more to do with the international politics of Muslim
countries and less to do with its true message of

Business Insider has contacted the Organisation of Islamic
Cooperation for comment, but received no reply.

Xinjiang police
A policeman stands guard
as Uighur children play in Xinjiang.

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

What happened when Turkey tried to stand up to

Turkey, which is majority-Muslim, has spoken out against China’s
treatment of its Uighurs in the past — and China has not

In 2009 then-prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (who is now
president) described ethnic
violence in Xinjiang as “a kind of genocide”
and said: “We
have difficulty understanding how China’s leadership can remain a
spectator in the face of these events.”

Shortly after the comments were made, the state-run China Daily
newspaper ran
an editorial
warning Erdogan to take back his remarks, with
the headline: “Don’t twist facts.”

In 2015 Turkey also offered shelter to Uighur refugees fleeing
China, which China Daily
again warned
“may poison ties and derail cooperation.”

Although Erdogan has not spoken out recently, Chinese state media
has continued to threaten Turkey.

As the country witnessed a dramatic
economic crisis
 this month, the state-run tabloid Global
Times published an
unsparing editorial
offering Chinese economic support, but
warned it against making any more “irresponsible remarks on the
ethnic policy in Xinjiang.”

erdogan xi jinping
Tayyip Erdogan and Xi Jinping in Beijing in May

Jason Lee –

What Uighurs are saying

It’s hard to gauge what Uighurs in Xinjiang think about the
issue, because the Chinese government severely restricts
information flow out of the region, Maya Wang, a senior
researcher at Human Rights Watch, told BI.

But many other activists with ties to the region say that,
although many Uighurs and diaspora feel helpless, they are still
holding out hope for change.

Erkin, the Uyghur Bulletin publisher, told BI: “There is no doubt
that Uighurs in East Turkestan as well as in the diaspora feel
extremely helpless in the face of the current cultural cleansing
campaign in their homeland, and hope that the UN and other
powerful countries of the world call China out and defend their
basic religious and cultural rights as humans.

“But still, given the past political solidarity and migration
support from Turkey, many Uighurs would like to keep their hopes
alive about it being the defender of Uighurs when its
international relations are stabilized and economic woes are

Irwin of World Uyghur Congress added: “The Uighur community is
obviously disheartened by the lack of support, but it is
certainly not something that has been given up on.

“The United States, European Union and others need to remain
vocal on human rights and bring on larger contingents of
like-minded countries to collectively stand against these
policies,” he added.

“Although China seemingly flouts international norms of behavior,
the country’s leadership still remains particularly concerned
about how they are perceived internationally.”

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