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Arab silence on the Uyghur genocide is no surprise

March 10, 2020 at 11:09 am

People gather to stage a demonstration in support of Uyghurs in Bursa, Turkey on December 20, 2019 [Ali Atmaca / Anadolu Agency]

Arab silence on the looming genocide of the Uyghur Muslims in China is deafening. Supposedly influential and powerful Arab states look on as the persecution continues. There are an increasing number of testimonies from Uyghur refugees and asylum seekers documenting the most unimaginable forms of cruelty, but when the opportunity arose to address the issue at the UN, every Arab government in the Gulf region and beyond opted to ignore or express support for China’s human rights violations. The international community has all the information and evidence it needs to know that genocide is taking place, and yet punitive measures against China are still not in place.

The predicament of the Turkic-speaking Uyghurs is much more dangerous with the coronavirus outbreak. In China alone, almost 111,500 people have been infected, and more than 3,000 have died, as the World Health Organisation declared the epidemic to be a “public health emergency of international concern”. Despite this, the “re-education” camps in Xinjiang province — where possibly as many as three million Uyghurs and other indigenous peoples are detained — are still in operation and at risk of becoming death chambers, in the Chinese government’s favour.

Sadly, beyond condemnations and public statements, very little is being done about this at an international level. Even meaningful condemnation is in short supply, much less proscriptive measures.

The Arab world’s silence should come as no surprise, though, given the virtual abandonment of solidarity with the Palestinians, Rohingya and Muslims in India. In 2017, the governments of Muslim-majority nations were accused repeatedly of being soft on Myanmar over the treatment of the Rohingya, of whom around three-quarters of a million have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh where they live in the “world’s biggest refugee camp”. Many thousands more have been killed by the Myanmar army in Rakhine state.

Myanmar, China and now India: Is Muslim dignity so cheap?

Critics have pointed to the Middle East’s deep financial and political ties to Myanmar in order to explain why so-called Muslim states have not done more to protect Rohingya Muslims. Saudi Arabia’s lack of solidarity was demonstrated by an unforgiving crackdown on Rohingya refugees who reportedly entered the country on pilgrimage visas but overstayed and tried to work in the Kingdom. As many as 1,000 Rohingya refugees, including hundreds of children, were forcibly deported to Bangladesh after being held in detention centres.

The Rohingya are now stateless, with few allies willing to stand up for their human right; much like the Palestinians, in fact, and very much the way that right-wing Hindu nationalists would like to see India’s Muslim citizens. It is quite possible that the mobs attacking Muslims in India, and the politicians who allow it to happen, feel empowered to act by the inaction of the Arab regimes in the face of injustices against the people of occupied Palestine, the Uyghurs and the Rohingya.

Rohingya Muslims who fled from the ongoing military operations in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, line up for food aid at a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh on September 20, 2017 [Safvan Allahverdi / Anadolu Agency]

Rohingyas, who fled from the ongoing military operations in Myanmar, line up for food aid at a refugee camp in Bangladesh on 24 September 2017 [Safvan Allahverdi/Anadolu Agency]

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who took office in 2014, has a record as Chief Minister of Gujarat State of inciting an anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002. He has pushed through a new citizenship law that “creates a legal loophole” for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians, but not Muslims, to be eligible for citizenship. Critics from all communities “claim that the law threatens India’s secular democracy” as part of a “Hindu nationalist agenda”.

What is common in occupied Palestine, Myanmar and now India is that those behind the oppression of minorities are on the far right of the political spectrum. Ethnic cleansing is the order of the day.

READ: Not all Uyghurs are terrorists, Turkey tells China

Muslims worldwide have watched for decades as the Palestinians have been displaced, subjected to collective punishment and denied statehood, all in the name of Israel’s “security”, “self-defence” and “the war on terror”. Allegations of terrorism or support for terrorism are common wherever governments need an excuse to oppress Muslim minorities.

Today we see Arab regimes being open about their normalisation of ties with the occupation state of Israel. They want to benefit from Israeli expertise in the security, military and intelligence fields, as well as Israeli weapons and ammunition which have been field-tested on live Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank.

This brazen normalisation, even after the publication of Donald Trump’s “peace plan” that is heavily weighted in Israel’s favour, is raising concerns that the Arab states are sidelining the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation in order to protect diplomatic and business relations with the White House. The same factors can be seen in the fact that the Gulf States count China among their main trading partners — especially for crude oil — so it’s easy to work out why defending the Uyghurs is not worth the risk for Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and the others. Hence, the Arab regimes refrain from condemning Beijing’s genocidal treatment of the Uyghurs.

In an aggressive campaign to prevent discussion of the Uyghur Muslims, Chinese officials have convinced many countries to support their government publicly on the issue. Shamefully, the most notable among them are the Muslim states in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

READ: As China bows to global solidarity over coronavirus, it’s time for action on the Uyghur genocide

China’s ongoing Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) aims to build a trade and infrastructure network to connect Asia with Europe and Africa along ancient trade routes, many of them in the Middle East. To date, Beijing has signed BRI cooperation agreements with eighteen Arab countries, and Chinese companies have signed contracts worth $35.6 billion there, $1.2 billion of which is directed towards local energy and manufacturing sectors. Trade between China and the Arab world trade was valued at $244.3 billion last year.

When Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Beijing last summer, he hailed the new “Silk Road” bridging Asia and Europe and welcomed Chinese investments to boost his beleaguered economy. He was silent — in public, at least — about the ongoing treatment of the Uyghurs by the Chinese government.

During a podcast discussion with Nury Turkel, a US-based attorney and Uyghur rights advocate on The Intercept, Mehdi Hassan pointed out that the Chinese government isn’t just powerful at home, it’s powerful abroad. “Its economic clout and sheer size mean that governments, including Western governments, can’t or won’t do much to help the Uyghurs. As a Muslim, it is deeply depressing to me to see the countries of the Muslim majority world not just silent on this looming genocide against the Uyghurs in China, but actually coming out publicly and backing the Chinese government.”

READ: Uyghurs in Saudi Arabia facing an impossible choice

At times like this, keeping silent is to be complicit with the oppression; it is not, as South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously insisted, a neutral stance. The Arab regimes have sold their fellow Muslims in China for the price of their business links with the oppressor.

It is time for the world to stand up and be counted. Oppression is happening in occupied Palestine, Myanmar, India and China today. Who will be the victims tomorrow? Every citizen in every country must know that they could be the next Palestinians, Rohingya, Indian Muslims and Uyghurs unless human rights are taken more seriously by the international community, and are not allowed to be eclipsed by financial considerations.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.