Ramadan Under Lockdown: The world may be experiencing a festivity deprived state of affairs for the first time but for Uighur Muslims in China, it’s nothing new.
While their brethren worldwide observe an unprecedented Ramadan due to the coronavirus pandemic, for the 1.5 million Uighur Muslims of China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang it’s just another year of being locked up. The majority Muslim ethnic minority of Uighurs continues to be forcibly detained in internment camps in Xinjiang as world leaders choose to remain silent.
These Uighurs have been stripped off of their right to practice their religion, forced to denounce their faith and embrace the Chinese Communist Party. With mosques closed, surrounded by razor wires and under constant surveillance, fasting or praying during Ramadan is strictly prohibited for the doomed Uighurs of Xinjiang. Displaying any signs of being identifiably a Muslim – wearing a headscarf, donning a beard, or reading the Quran – could get them locked up in what China describes as “re-education camps”.
China’s Re-education Camps – A Recap
The Communist Party headed by Chinese President Xi Jinping claims these camps were put in place to counter “Islamist extremism”. However, Dissenters from Xinjiang and Human Rights activists say the Chinese narrative could not be further from the truth. State repression of Uighurs has intensified in the past three years resulting in Uighur families being displaced or separated from their children. In many cases, the families have no information regarding the whereabouts of their loved ones are or whether they are safe.
The fact that the Chinese government uses violent force to curb religious freedom and the Uighur Muslim plight is now well-documented around the world. In-depth evidence leaked in the form of China Cables revealed the Communist Party’s deliberate campaign to oppress Uighurs. Yet, the moral high ground holding West and even the rich Islamic countries continue to ignore the atrocities.
Why the world is reluctant in helping the Uighur Muslims?
Economic gains including China’s lucrative Belt and Road Initiative is the prime reason for Middle Eastern states preferring to stay mum on the mass oppression of Uighurs by China. China has committed hefty sums in contracts with the participants. A major chunk of the Chinese MEA investments is directed towards local energy and manufacturing.
In addition, many countries have political and military ties with China. The countries have apparently decided against defending the human rights of Uighurs due to the risk of damaging the said relations. Pakistan, China’s largest ally in the Muslim world, abruptly stopped censuring Beijing over its unprecedented crackdown on Uighurs. China-Pakistan Economic Corridor passes through Xinjiang and experts attribute the increasingly tepid response of Pakistan to its absolute reliance on Chinese aid. Uighur leaders accuse China of buying Pakistan’s silence on their plight.
Pakistan is one of the largest recipients of Chinese aid and infrastructure contracts. The aid forms the lifeline to the Pakistani economy that faces mounting national and foreign debts. China justifies oppressive measures against Uighurs as counterterrorism and routinely calls the camps ‘free vocational training’ meant to turn them into “normal” Chinese citizens. Reports from the camp not that the detainees are forced to sing hymns to Chinese President Xi Jinping and renounce their religion.
Increasing pressure on the governments of the Muslim world
After an initial period of silence, some Muslim nations have started to speak out against the treatment. The United Nations has also condemned China. Pakistan, on the contrary, has increasingly muted its voice on China’s human rights record in recent times. Interestingly, Pakistan has Islam as its state religion with Muslims make up over 90 percent of the population. It is also the only Muslim nation with a nuclear arsenal. But Islamabad has continued the policy of turning a blind eye towards its friends in Beijing who continue to rewire Uighur Muslims’ political thinking, erase their Islamic beliefs, and reshape their very identities.
Although China’s authoritarianism experiments in Xinjiang caused outrage among many of Pakistan’s Muslims, particularly the radical ones, it isn’t often that one hears them talk about the plight of Uighurs. Even firebrand preachers turn cold on the issue of Xinjiang internment camps.
How long can Pakistan stay mum?
The plight of Uighurs can, therefore, be treated as a litmus test. Radical groups active in Pakistan that either stood up for Uighurs or had ties with East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a Uighur Islamist and anti-Chinese organization are of two categories: the international ones including Al Qaeda and Harkat-ul-Tahreer or the ‘internal’ ones. Their deafening silence over the issue of Uighurs clearly shows that these groups are close enough to the establishment to put their Islamic ideology on temporary mute and ensure the matter doesn’t hurt Islamabad’s relations with Beijing.
Global outcry over China’s treatments of its minorities notwithstanding, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan continues to remain tight-lipped on deplorable conditions of Uighur Muslims in China, saying Beijing is a “good friend” and has helped Islamabad in “most difficult situations.” Talking to Germany-based Deutsche Welle (DW) in January, Imran Khan highlighted the Kashmir issue but ducked questions on Uighurs and said Chinese are “sensitive” and Islamabad avoids discussing publicly the Uighur issue with the Chinese in public.