An expert's point of view on a current event.

Mute Muslims

Why doesn't the Islamic world speak up about the Uighurs?


Where are the fatwas? The angry marches in front of embassies, the indignant speeches? Where are al Qaeda’s videos? In short, what does China have that Denmark did not? China has been actively discriminating against Muslims, and recently a number of them have been killed in violent street riots.

In Denmark a newspaper printed cartoons of the prophet Mohammed and the Muslim world erupted in anger. Today that same Muslim world seems to be mute, deaf, and blind, and is oblivious to the violence and discrimination suffered by the Uighurs, a Muslim minority group, at the hands of the Chinese government.

The reaction to the cartoons was swift and furious. Eleven ambassadors from Muslim countries formally protested to the Danish government, which offered the obvious response: In Denmark, freedom of the press is deeply respected and the government had nothing to do with the images that caused the offense. The reply was as obvious as it was futile: The Danish consulate in Beirut was burned, and several people died in violent street riots in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia. Newspapers in Norway and elsewhere decided to print the cartoons in an act of solidarity, which inevitably fueled the wave of violence. In Damascus, a large crowd burned down the Danish and Norwegian embassies. In Tehran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad retaliated with an alternative cartoon exhibit mocking the Holocaust. Threatening fatwas thundered against the journalists, publishers, and editors who went into hiding and had to seek police protection. Al Qaeda’s videos and Web sites explained that the offensive cartoons were simply another example of the continuous crusade of the West against Islam.

Meanwhile …

Since the 1990s, the Chinese government has been carrying out systematic policies that discriminate against Uighurs. Their language is forbidden in schools; government employees cannot have long beards or head scarves and are not allowed to pray or fast during working hours. Uighurs also face strong discriminatory practices in education, healthcare, housing, and employment. Young Uighurs are often forced to work in faraway provinces, while Han Chinese — who comprise about 90 percent of China’s population — are encouraged to move to Xinjiang, the autonomous region where Uighurs are the largest ethnic group. More than 2 million have settled there.

Any protests against these practices are harshly repressed. The repression of the Uighurs intensified after the September 11 attacks, when many of their political leaders were jailed, accused of having links with foreign Islamist terrorists. Since then, any individual or group convicted of terrorism, religious extremism, or separatism has received draconian sentences.

The recent troubles in the streets of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, have left 184 dead, about a thousand injured, and thousands more detained. These are official figures; Uighurs claim the real numbers are much larger.

Chinese repression of Uighurs has been going on for a long time. What have Muslim leaders worldwide said or done so far? Not much.

As Foreign Policy has reported, in different countries, mullahs, imams, and assorted clerics have found the time to issue fatwas condemning among other practices, Pokémon cartoons, total nudity during sex for married couples, and the use of vaccines against polio, not to mention Salman Rushdie. They have yet to find the time to say anything about China’s practices toward Uighurs.

The same applies to the Arab League, governments of Muslim countries (where are the 11 ambassadors of the countries that issued their angry protests to the Danish government?), and Muslim organizations in Europe and Asia. They have either been mute or their reaction has been too little, too late.

Take, for example, the case of Turkey. Although the Uighurs have close ethnic, cultural, and linguistic ties with the Turkish people, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has not deemed their plea as urgent or worthy of his attention as that of Palestine. At the same time that Erdogan was actively trying to get the international community to recognize Hamas, his government was denying a visa to Rebiya Kadeer, the exiled leader of the Uighurs (though last week Erdogan has softened his posture and said that she would be allowed to visit Turkey). Only recently has Erdogan’s government, which has been criticized at home for its tepid support of the Uighurs, started to express its concern about the situation in Xinjiang. Ahmet Davutoglu, the country’s new minister of foreign affairs, said late last week that Turkey "cannot remain silent in the face of what is happening [in Xinjiang]."

This did not go well in Beijing. On July 10, Global Times, an official Chinese press outlet, published an article by Mo Lingjiao titled "Turkey, another axis of evil!?" It noted that "After the riots in Xinjiang, many governments around the world are very cautious making comments, including the American government. But the Turkish government is an exception. As Urumqi is on its way to recovery, this arrogant country has never stopped lashing out at China. In fact, both the Turkish government and its nongovernmental organizations were harsh on China. … Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, ‘We have always seen our Uygur [as] brothers, with whom we have historical and cultural ties…’" The article concluded: "Turkey’s support for the Uygur separatists and terrorists can only cause public indignation in China. If it does not want to ruin the relationship between two peoples, please stop standing behind those mobs and separatists, stop being an axis of evil!"

In politics, blindness and deafness are often induced by an acute awareness of where one’s main interests really lie. China will clearly make efforts to clarify to the governments that express too much concern for the Uighurs what their real interests are. And the continuous silence about the situation of the Uighurs that may ensue in coming months and years will offer an eloquent demonstration of Beijing’s ability to persuade.

<p>Moisés Naím is editor in chief of Foreign Policy.</p>