The Uighurs are a vulnerable group living in China. This group is undergoing unethical suppression.

BBC World News has recently been banned in China for allegedly peddling ‘fake news’. Their ‘crime’? An explosive report of systematic rape of Uighur women in Xinjiang’s so called ‘re-education camps’.

History reveals that there is a certain paradox between the plight of the Uighurs and the Arab Spring, a decade earlier. This paradox helps explain why Muslim countries have stayed silent.


Is China getting off scot-free?

To say that the world was united in its condemnation of these allegations would be disingenuous. In fact, the reality is more complex. For a while now, there has been a steady flow of evidence leaking out of China as reporters, victims and whistleblowers try to shine a light on the disturbing practices taking place in Xinjiang. As well as the latest revelations, there are reports of forced sterilisation and Uighur Muslims being forced to eat pork and denounce their religion. The BBC’s reports of systematic rape have drawn the strongest response yet, with the likes of the US, the EU and the UK all issuing strongly-worded statements. But for all the rising rhetoric, there is still an absence of any real repercussions for China. When they do eventually come, they’ll probably be economic — and far too late for many Uighurs. Between 2015-2018, the growth rate of the population in the two largest Uighur prefectures declined by 84 per cent. The Uighurs are being actively wiped out.

Even amongst the vocal Western critics of China’s actions, there is still hesitancy. Just last week the UK government was accused of ‘thwarting’ a vote on a genocide amendment that would have given UK courts the power to advise on whether China’s actions amount to genocide. And then there’s the reason for turning to the UK courts in the first place, which is that China would veto any genocide claims referred to the international courts. It is at crucial moments like this when the international community is needed to mobilise the legal and political machinery it has set up, that its shortcomings are most apparent.

Silent witness

Saying this, there is another guilty party whose silence is as deafening as it is revealing: the Islamic world. Whilst inaction is complicity, many Muslim-majority countries have also been accused of actively deporting Uighur refugees back to China, in collaboration with Beijing. Aside from the obvious moral failings, there is a tragic and abhorrent hypocrisy in both the active and passive collusion of Islamic countries in the plight of the Uighurs. Their leaders at once claim power in the name of ‘defending’ Islam and simultaneously oppress their citizens, citing the same religion.

The persecution of Uighur Muslims is an inevitable extension of this policy of performative democracy that has existed in Muslim countries ever since the Arab Spring. One example of this chilling irony is the story of one Uighur woman who has not seen her husband in five years. He was arrested and deported to China whilst performing the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. The government of the home of the holiest site in Islam sent a pilgrim directly into the hands of guaranteed pain and suffering. The same government regularly jails protesters and democracy activists.

To be clear, responsibility for the horrendous human rights abuses suffered by the Uighur population lies solely at the feet of the Chinese government. But lessons of the Holocaust have shown that we are all active agents in atrocities.

Ten years on …

The connection between the Uighurs and the Arab Spring is more tangible than one might initially think. The current situation sees relentless oppression of this minority group. Ten years ago, decades of oppression at the hands of religious radicals led to multiple uprisings across the Arab world. Many can remember the pictures of Colonel Gaddafi being dragged from the sewers by the same people he’d reigned over for years. I could go on illustrating the tumult and upheaval that emerged in this period, but when thinking about how the Arab Spring indirectly led to this point where Muslim countries across the world have kept silent as the Chinese state systematically exterminates their fellow worshippers, we have to ask: what did the Arab Spring achieve?

In short, it was meant to achieve democracy. It wouldn’t be controversial to say that that vision has yet to be realised. Today, many of the countries that seemed to have, at the time, reached their watershed moment are now in a permanent state of turmoil. Yemen and Syria are now synonymous with war and death, Libya is quietly volatile, and Egypt under General Sisi has over 60,000 political prisoners — with extrajudicial killings and mass death sentences being a common occurrence.

What really emerged from the uprisings a decade ago was a dysfunctional fusion of religion, the military and democracy. The overthrow of various dictators left the familiar problem of a power vacuum, and democracy protesters fought against religious elites. Just as in the case of the Uighur Muslims now, the Arab Spring was just as much about an overall religious war (between Shia and Sunni Muslims) as it was about political forces. Although, in both cases, the two are inextricably linked.

It would be wrong to suggest that the outcome of the Arab Spring was the same across the Middle East. Generally, the attempt to reshape the geopolitical landscape of the region has resulted in the strengthening of religious radicals, with Islamist ‘state-building’ filling the void where the previous ‘state’ had failed. Of course, we can’t label every leader an Islamist, but even so, many of the leaders now are supported in their oppression of their citizens by the supply of funding and weaponry from others abroad who share this ‘pan-Islamic’ identity. At the extreme end is the terrorist group Islamic State, and to a lesser extent, but still devastating, is the proxy war fought by Saudi Arabia and Iran in Yemen, where Shia and Sunni militants have engaged in a prolonged battle. But if we take this example, it is clear to most that Saudi Arabia and Iran do not take part in this war purely in the name of religion. Rather, it is part of the latest chapter in their long-running power struggle.

This is what much of the Arab Spring has come to. It may have been triggered partly by a desire to completely overhaul countries in the region, but I’d say that this ‘restructuring’ is still ongoing and we are in a sort of intermediary stage where the change may or may not be happening. Currently, most of the countries are faced with quasi-religious dictators using Islam to crush any rebellion. Hence, the same leaders that cry blasphemy if someone utters a bad word about the prophet stay silent as the Uighur Muslims are wiped out in China.

Muslim ‘unity’ only interests these leaders if it means economic or political power. Criticising China risks huge economic damage — Saudi imports from China came to 46 billion in 2018. Even Turkey’s Erdogan, who has so far been the only major leader of the Muslim world to speak out against China, is set to be more muted in future as a result of economic ties. This is despite the fact that Erdogan keeps his own conservative supporters at home happy by playing the role of the Islamic defender. However, the discontent at the dire state of Turkey’s economy is indicative of the fact that this path only gets you so far.  A core part of China’s programme of economic expansion across the world is precisely to hold countries to ransom, but these Muslim countries are not so much being gagged as they are choosing to turn a blind eye. The Muslim ‘world’ is in fact an illusion.

Saudi Arabia too has a rich history of shameless hypocrisy. It recently released the female activist, Loujain al-Hathloul in a morbid show of ‘extending an olive branch’ to new US President, Joe Biden. But it has much to gain from this performative act, and much to lose in criticising China. Another kink in the Islamic Kingdom’s religious armour are the well-known hedonistic lifestyles of the various members of the House of Saud. Whilst imprisoning citizens who break the strict Islamic laws, their own relations indulge in excess across the world, from London to Paris.

At this very moment, the Uighur people continue to suffer unimaginable anguish at the hands of the Chinese state, and in plain sight of the rest of the world. The silence of the Islamic world, which preaches about its ‘brothers and sisters’ and threatens action over satirical cartoons, keeps its head down and its ears muffled. This is not only out of political expedience or economic necessity. At their core, many of the leaders of the Muslim world share the same mentality of oppression and tyranny as the Chinese state. Religion is power for these leaders. Ten years on, the Arab Spring has shown that despots prefer to use this power to repress their own, not free the Uighurs.

The Arab Spring was an attempt to break free from the shackles of religious tyranny. Now the Uighurs face tyranny for practising their religion. Where are the clerics coming to their rescue?