WASHINGTON’S economic sanctions on senior officials of the Chinese Communist Party in retaliation for the mistreatment of Uighurs should, on the face of it, be a source of deep embarrassment for Islamabad. After all, the leading advocate of Muslim rights in China is now the Trump administration.
“The United States,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said recently, “will not stand idly by as the Chinese Communist Party carries out human rights abuses targeting Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs and members of other minority groups in Xinjiang, to include forced labour, arbitrary mass detention, and forced population control, and attempts to erase their culture and Muslim faith.” This is in stark contrast with Imran Khan’s statement; when asked about the plight of fellow Muslims in China, “Frankly,” he said, “I don’t know much about that.”
But of course everyone knows what is happening. As many — mainly Western — think tanks and journalists have documented, the Chinese government has detained hundreds of thousands of its Muslim citizens in re-education camps. Most of them have never been charged with crimes and can’t challenge their detentions. Media reports suggest the detainees have been targeted for contacting people from any of the 26 countries China considers sensitive, such as Turkey and Afghanistan; attending mosques; having too many children (more than three); and sending texts containing Quranic verses. Often, the only ‘crime’ these people have committed is being Muslim.
The list goes on. Uighur exiles, who struggle to get published in Muslim countries, even speak of copies of the Quran being burnt. And yet no one in the Muslim world reacts to these actions. Which poses an awkward question: how can it be that when an American soldier burns religious verses, angry Pakistanis riot so violently that people die, but when a Chinese soldier does the same thing, they shrug their shoulders, and look the other way?
Pakistan has been silent on the mistreatment of Uighurs.
Pakistan is by no means alone in abandoning the Uighur Muslims. Most of the Muslim world has remained silent. The one Muslim country to show some solidarity — Turkey — has since backed down. In 2019, the Turkish foreign ministry issued a statement saying the Chinese treatment of the Uighurs was “a great embarrassment for humanity”. A few months later, President Erdogan resiled from that position, saying a solution could be found to help Muslims interned in Chinese camps “taking into account the sensitivities” of both sides. So much for the post Ottoman powerhouse.
But even if the failure of the Muslim world is a collective one, the failure to defend the Uighurs is especially poignant in Pakistan. When it was created back in 1947, many saw Pakistan as an ideological state; a leader of the Muslims around the globe. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Islamic summit held in Lahore in 1974 attracted kings, presidents and prime ministers from all over the Muslim world. Pakistanis revelled in their centrality to the ummah. And then, in 1998 the nuclear bomb tests cemented the idea that Pakistan was the vanguard of Muslim states, a leader of the faithful with international heft.
So how can it be that the Uighurs are more stoutly defended by American Christians than Pakistan Muslims?
The answer is not so hard to find. Pakistan and the US are in fact driven by similar impulses. It barely needs saying that the Americans have no genuine interest in Uighur rights. Washington has only raised the issue to advance is position in its trade dispute with China. If the US was really concerned about defending Muslims in western China it would have been campaigning on Uighur rights long before President Trump decided to launch his new Cold War.
Meanwhile, Pakistan says nothing because it wants to protect its trade, security and diplomatic relationship with China. In both cases, calculations about national interest have been taken more seriously than human rights.
The US is well used to being denounced as hypocritical. But Pakistan likes to think of itself as better than that. As a foreign correspondent visiting Pakistan, I have lost count of the times that government officials have cornered me to ask why the West shows so little interest in the rights of Kashmiri Muslims. I generally reply that the answer is obvious — India has a much bigger economy than Pakistan and foreign counties don’t want to jeopardise their trade relationship with New Delhi. It is a reply that is met with expressions of frustration about the perfidy and double standards of the West.
But I can now see a way to answer the question a little more clearly. Next time I am asked why Western governments don’t take more interest in Kashmiri rights, I will reply: for the same reason Pakistan doesn’t take more interest in Uighur rights.
The writer is a British journalist. His book The Bhutto Dynasty will be published later this year.
Published in Dawn, August 4th, 2020