The ‘silence’ on Xinjiang of the Islamic world


Manzoor Ahmed
The OIC and its member countries have over the years passed numerous resolutions on Jammu & Kashmir, and Palestine and on virtually every nation in the world that houses substantial Muslim population. In as far as India is concerned, the OIC has always brought to bear attention on Jammu and Kashmir and at the 14th OIC Session that was held at the end of May 2019 in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the OIC appointed a Special Envoy for Jammu & Kashmir.
The Session’s Final Communiqué also reaffirmed the OIC’s “principled support for the people of Jammu and Kashmir for the realization of their legitimate right to self-determination, in accordance with relevant UN resolutions. It condemned the recent outbreaks of violence in the region and invited India to implement the relevant Security Council resolutions to settle its protracted conflict with its neighbour.”
Strangely, the OIC and its 57 member states issue many resolutions and communiqués on the so-called oppression of Muslims around the world, including Palestine, Syria and Turkey, but they rarely talk of the oppression of Muslims in China. The scarcity of words on China is surprising because the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, have close ethnic links to Turkey and in recent years have been stifled in every sense of the word.
Essentially, one aspect of China’s security approach to Xinjiang aims at reducing the influence of Islamic habits and way of life amongst the Uyghurs. The larger approach has become well publicised in the form of re-education camps in which over one million Uyghurs have been reportedly interned.
Turkey is the lone example in the Islamic world that has been known to have articulated its position on the condition of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and has even granted asylum to several refugees. The reasons for this have more to do with ethnic affinity with the Uyghurs and the geo-political game of extracting the best from China. However, the statements from Turkey are important enough to mention here in this context.
In February 2019, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy issued a statement to the effect that Turkic Muslim population faced “systematic assimilation” in Xinjiang and invited “Chinese authorities to respect fundamental human rights of the Uyghur Turks and shut down concentration camps." But beyond this strong statement by Turkey, there are very few Islamic countries that chose to criticise China.
The fact of the matter is that most Islamic countries around the world have close political and economic ties with China and have seldom rocked the boat and castigated Beijing for its treatment of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang. Even Turkey, one of China’s foremost critics in the Islamic world, does good business with China.
Take note of the fact that China continues to import of oil from Iran despite US pressure and sanctions. This demonstrates to the world that China is willing to offer help against the US and thus many turn to China for relief. In return, they guard China’s interests in organizations like the OIC.
However, one has to note that international pressure on China, particularly on Xinjiang, from the US and Europe, has had some impact in the Middle East also. In the case of OIC, pertinently, in early March 2019, one resolution of the 46th Session of the Foreign Ministers welcomed the outcomes of the visit conducted by the General Secretariat's delegation upon invitation from the People's Republic of China. It also commended the efforts of the People's Republic of China in providing care to its Muslim citizens. The choice of words in the resolution is interesting. It does not ‘condemn’, but ‘commends’ China in providing care to its Muslim citizens. Whoever drafted this knew that Saudi Arabia did not want to offend Beijing! But the mere mention of China and its Muslim citizens was an indication of the pressure on the Islamic world to abjure the silence it has maintained on Xinjiang so far.

In the past also, OIC resolutions have, referred to the matter. For instance, the OIC meeting in May 2007 in Islamabad made a request to its Secretary General “to make contact with the Government of China” on the matter “and to subsequently report on these consultations”. The Baku OIC resolution of June 2006 appealed “to give special attention to the conditions of Muslims in East Turkistan (Xinjiang) and to examine the possibility of working out a formula for cooperation with the Chinese Government.”

The OIC is aware of how much it can criticise China considering that it is a major power, and a permanent member of the UNSC. Moreover, China refrains from preaching to others about human rights or systems of governance. This suits the Islamic world. However, as China increases repression on its Muslim community, some reaction will emerge. Whether it is preventing the Uyghurs from growing beards or not letting them pray in Mosques, such actions are likely to be interpreted by the Islamic world as a threat to their way of life.

Some evidence of this was seen in the December 2018, 14th Regular Session of the OIC’s Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission (IPHRC) in Jeddah. But even here the OIC only discussed the situation in Xinjiang and the treatment of Uighurs and the Muslim minority in China, nothing further. Compared to the attention given by the OIC to the Rohingya in Myanmar, concerns of Saudi Arabia, Oman and others in the OIC on China are still negligible. The 15th Session of the IPHRC held in Jeddah in April 2019 was back to its quiet ‘commendation’ of China rather than ‘condemnation.

The Islamic silence on Xinjiang and the Uyghurs may well unravel in the near future. While economic compulsions currently hold the upper hand in the geo-politics of ties with China, it is only a question of time before, the force of religious sentiment in favour of the Uyghurs produces a new response from the Islamic world. It is time the silence was broken by the Islamic world on China and Xinjiang.