Spare a thought for China’s Muslims this Ramadan

Posted By Sameer Published: May 30, 2019, 1:23 pm IST Updated: May 30, 2019, 1:30 pm IST–TJK7bitthKqtjTG4

Spare a thought for China’s Muslims this Ramadan

Xinjiang: Xinjiang has ceased to exist for much of the civilised world. For nearly a century, China has done everything to help the world forget about the existence of its huge and once economically vibrant and culturally rich Muslim region. Like the fictitious Lost World, Xinjiang has been conveniently forgotten by the world, including by China’s Muslim neighbours as well as the rest of the Islamic world.

While China has tried to suppress the Islamic identity of Xinjiang and its fiercely proud Turkic Muslims before and during the Communist rule like a dirty secret, what amazes one most is the appalling indifference and wilful ignorance of the international community in response to the systematic dispossession and obliteration of the Uighurs, known for their distinct Islamic culture and heritage. Forget the basic rights and liberties that the rest of the world takes for granted; the Uighurs cannot even pray freely and join the rest of the Islamic world in the mandatory fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.

As much of the world media has reported over the past year or so, China has incarcerated millions of Uighur Muslims in what the United Nations and US have condemned as concentration camps to “re-educate” its long persecuted minority and free it of its Islamic beliefs and values.

Not only has China detained millions of Uighur Muslims in these large prisons in most deplorable conditions, it has forced many of its officials as “guests” on Muslim homes where they live with the hosts to observe and report if they are faithfully following the state diktats! The Nazis would be proud of these inventive tactics.

Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch published a report entitled “China’s Algorithms of Repression”, on a mass surveillance app that has been used by the Chinese authorities to track citizens leading to thousands of arrests. On Wednesday, the rights body urged the Trump administration to urgently impose punitive sanctions on China for its continuing persecution in Xinjiang.

A group of US lawmakers last month slammed the Trump administration for failing to impose sanctions over China’s persecution of its Muslim minority and called for punitive measures against senior Communist Party officials and Chinese companies. The lawmakers called on the administration to apply sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. The law allows the US government to target human rights violators around the world with freezes on any US assets, US travel bans and prohibitions on Americans doing business with them.

This may be the only way to rein in China. By looking the other way, the world community has enabled the ruthless purge of a great people and culture. As for the Islamic world, the less said the better. It has been so preoccupied tending to the ever bleeding Palestinians and fighting its own little turf wars that it has had little time or patience to think about anyone else.

Even the ineffective angels of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), who have over the years passed those perfunctory resolutions expressing grave concern over the predicament of the Palestinians, Syrians, Afghans and Kashmiris have not had much to say about the faithful in Xinjiang.

The magnitude and intensity of the uprising in Xinjiang in 2009 therefore came as a huge surprise to the world, reminding it of the existence of China’s forgotten Muslims. You cannot suppress a people, however powerless and dispossessed, forever even if you have one of the world’s most powerful armies and resources at your disposal. Ask Israel. Ask Uncle Sam, still stuck in Afghanistan. The Russians are still licking their wounds sustained in Afghanistan.

If Beijing thinks it could “integrate” Xinjiang by force into the so-called One China, just as it did in the case of Tibet, it had better think again. The spectacular protests in Xinjiang’s capital Urumchi or Urumqi in 2009 reminded the world that the brute force and tanks and endless indoctrination cannot crush a free-spirited people’s will to live life their own way.

Hotan, Xinjiang: The facilities have come under international scrutiny, with rights activists describing them as political re-education camps holding as many as one million ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities (AFP)

In the global village where time and space have lost their meaning and borders are increasingly shrinking, you cannot keep a people locked away against their will forever. Like life and nature, freedom finds a way even in the most repressed corners of the world. And when it does so, nothing can stop it. Not even the most fearsome armies, or their awesome weapons. No matter what China might have persuaded the Uighurs all these years but they are not willing to part with their Islamic identity and still see themselves as an integral part of the Islamic world.

The Uighur Muslims have clearly suffered long enough and cannot take it any longer. With Han Chinese systemically taking over their lands, homes and jobs, the Uighurs are facing an existential crisis that is not very different from what has happened in Palestine. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey was not far off the mark when he accused Beijing of perpetrating ‘genocide’ in Xinjiang following the 2009 crackdown. Turkey has always had a strong emotional connection with the people of Xinjiang as the Uighur Muslims are not only of Turkic stock, their culture, language and heritage share close affinity with the Ottoman country.

Yet given the strong economic relations that Turkey enjoys with China, just as so many Arab and Muslim countries do, even Erdogan has not been as forceful as he is often known to be in confronting China. As for Pakistan that sees itself as the champion of the world’s Muslims, it has maintained its deafening silence all along in the face of persecution that the Uighurs have faced at the hands of its trusted friend and ally.

This is nothing short of a tragedy given the rich past of Xinjiang. As the once vibrant centre and destination of the global trade along the fabled Silk Route, Xinjiang had once been one of the richest civilisations in the world.

This is the land that attracted hordes of traders from the Middle East, Africa and Europe for thousands of years including the legendary travellers such as Marco Polo and Ibn Batuta. The region with its ancient cities like Kashgar had once been part of an integral part of the Islamic world.

No wonder Kashgar was a constant point of reference for Iqbal as the poet philosopher talked of the Muslim glory from the river Nile to the edges of Kashgar (Nile ke sahel se lekar taba khak-e-Kashgar). It’s a real disgrace therefore what a mess successive Chinese regimes have made of this ancient centre of civilisation and culture and its proud people. It’s all the more unfortunate considering China historically has had excellent relations with the Islamic world.

Some of ancient China’s top generals and statesmen have been Muslims (one such hero is celebrated by Dubai’s Ibn Batuta Mall reliving a little known piece of history). Even today, a whopping majority in the Arab and Muslim world sees the Asian giant as a friend and a healthy counterweight to the West’s tyranny.

After 9/11, the Arab and Muslim countries have increasingly reached out to China investing heavily in its exploding industries and markets. China’s direct trade with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and other Arab states has multiplied incredibly fast over the past few years. It is a shame therefore how China has been treating its Uighur community. The ancient wisdom and eternal common sense that the Chinese are known for seem to desert them when it comes to dealing with its long repressed Muslims.

By Aijaz Zaka Syed

Aijaz Zaka Syed is an award winning journalist and former editor. Twitter: @AijazZaka

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