China’s egregious continuing campaign of oppression against its Muslim population in the northwestern province of Xinjiang has incensed human rights organizations worldwide. Last year, Human Rights Watch accused Beijing of subjecting the region’s 13 million Turkic Muslims (which include Uyghurs and other Turkic language-speaking minorities) to “forced political indoctrination, collective punishment, restrictions on movement and communications, heightened religious restrictions, and mass surveillance.”
While Turkey strongly denounced China’s flagrant violations of international law in February, Muslim countries that have received loans from Beijing, including Pakistan and Indonesia, have largely ignored its human rights violations. However, Muslim countries’ disregard changed to license during an Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) meeting hosted in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on March 1 and 2.
The Ultimate Betrayal of China’s Muslim Minority
During the 46th session of the OIC’s Council of Foreign Ministers in Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s capital, a resolution emphasized that the protection of the rights and identity of Muslim communities and minorities in non-OIC states is the primary responsibility of those states.
During the 46th session of the OIC’s Council of Foreign Ministers in Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s capital, a resolution emphasized that the protection of the rights and identity of Muslim communities and minorities in non-OIC states is the primary responsibility of those states. In an unexpected turn of events, the 57-member Islamic bloc, which had been a vocal defender of the Rohingya and Palestinian cause, praised China’s efforts to “provide care to its Muslim citizens.”
The international community has been waiting a long time to see how the OIC, which describes itself as the “collective voice of the Muslim world,” would choose to respond to the Chinese government’s treatment of the country’s Muslim minority. Farida Deif, director of Human Rights Watch’s Canada office, expected the OIC’s recent meeting to be a defining moment for the organization. It was indeed. It produced a surprising victory for Beijing and a great disappointment for millions of Chinese Muslims.
Foreign Policy has likened China’s violations of Turkic Muslims’ religious freedoms in Xinjiang to the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany and the Soviet gulag system. To date, China has detained up to one million Turkic Muslims in so-called “political education” camps, where they are forced to learn Mandarin Chinese and celebrate the country’s communist party.
Now that the OIC has seemingly abandoned the cause of China’s Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim populations, it seems that Beijing will be able to continue to oppress the religious minority without ever being called to account by Muslim countries.
Who are the Uyghurs?
Uyghur Muslims are a Turkic ethnic group which has inhabited the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China, also known as East Turkestan, for thousands of years. The province, which spans roughly 635,000 square miles, borders China and Mongolia to the east, Russia to the north, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India to the west, and Tibet to the south.
Uyghurs embraced Islam in 934 CE during the Karahanid Kingdom. The Islamic Uyghur Kingdom of East Turkestan maintained its independence until the Manchu Empire of China invaded the territory in 1876. After eight years of bloody war, the Manchurian Empire invaded China and annexed East Turkestan on November 18, 1884. After the invasion, the empire renamed the region Xinjiang, which means “new territory” or “new frontier.” In the early 20th century, the Uyghurs briefly declared independence, but communist China eventually seized full control of the region in 1949.
In the last 70 years, a large number of Han Chinese—the largest ethnic group in China—have migrated to Xinjiang, causing a substantial demographic shift.
In the last 70 years, a large number of Han Chinese—the largest ethnic group in China—have migrated to Xinjiang, causing a substantial demographic shift. Uyghurs used to make up 75 percent of the region’s population, whereas Han Chinese accounted for only nine percent. Now, they account for 45 percent and 40 percent, respectively. Like Tibet, the Xinjiang region is ostensibly an autonomous region within China. However, the Uyghurs have no real freedom, and they fear Beijing will slowly succeed in destroying their culture and way of life.
China’s Formal Position on Religion
The Chinese Communist Party has dealt with Uyghur resistance in Xinjiang in different ways over the years. In the 1990s, it was mostly seen “as an ethno-nationalist ‘separatism’ fueled by pan-Turkic ideology.” After 2001, China took advantage of the U.S. “war on terror” and the global rise in Islamophobia to justify its religious discrimination. The Chinese government began to speak more frequently about how “terrorism” was supposedly bred by religious “extremism.”
Although China officially guarantees religious freedoms in its constitution, these rights only exist on paper. Politicians in Xinjiang issued a series of procedures to address a rise in “religious extremism.” The April 2017 legislation expanded standing rules. For example, the new law requires employees in public places, such as stations and airports, to “dissuade” women who fully cover their bodies or their faces, from being in these spaces. It also requires employees to report these women to the police.
Authorities in Xinjiang also banned the “abnormal growing of beards,” a widespread practice among Muslim men, among other things. Even though Uyghurs have traditionally practiced “a more relaxed form of Islam,” experts say that outward displays of Islam, including the veil, have increasingly been used to express opposition to Chinese state control in recent years.
Beijing’s Marketing Campaign in the Islamic World
Before the OIC meeting in March, the Islamic bloc’s Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission gathered in the Saudi city of Jeddah.
Before the OIC meeting in March, the Islamic bloc’s Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission gathered in the Saudi city of Jeddah. During the meeting, member states voiced concern about China’s detention camps and the “disturbing reports on the treatment of Uyghur Muslims” in Xinjiang. The commission also stressed the need for China to protect human rights and due process guarantees while countering terrorism.
Soon thereafter, China began a publicity campaign in Muslim countries to counter this narrative. Earlier this year, Beijing took eight OIC officials on a 10-day tour of Xinjiang. A human rights advocate told the New York Times that the tour included visits to hand-picked detention facilities in the region. Despite the OIC foreign ministers’ differing accounts of the camps, they allegedly unified their narrative to avoid offending China at the Islamic bloc’s meeting in Abu Dhabi, according to the rights advocate.
After various other efforts, China concluded its publicity show in the Islamic world by sending 10 diplomats to the OIC’s gathering in March to pressure the organization’s foreign ministers to avoid publicly denouncing the country’s mistreatment of Uyghurs.
Beijing’s successful gambit does not bode well for the country’s Muslim minority. By praising China’s treatment of the Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims, the OIC has inadvertently undermined its credibility as an Islamic organization while simultaneously endangering the lives of millions of Chinese Muslims in the process.