Why Muslim governments are giving China a free pass on its abuses against Uyghurs

China chinese navy sailors Iran Chabahar
Chinese sailors wave while approaching Iran’s southeastern port city of Chahbahar, during naval drills with Iran and Russia in the Gulf of Oman, December 27, 2019.

  • Western governments and Muslim-majority governments have diverged in their responses to China’s persecution of its Muslim minorities.
  • Most Muslim-majority countries have strong relations with China, and the fear their relations with Beijing would suffer if they condemned that repression.
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A chorus of condemnation has risen in recent months from Western capitals in response to China’s persecution of the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

The United States, European Union, United Kingdom and Canada have imposed sanctions on Chinese officials, and US President Joe Biden has maintained his predecessor’s stance that Beijing is committing “genocide” in Xinjiang – a position that the Canadian and British Parliaments also back.

Yet, governments of Muslim-majority countries have so far largely refrained from criticizing China over its actions in Xinjiang. Why? There are justifiable fears that their relations with Beijing would suffer if they condemned the repression of the Uyghurs.

Virtually all Muslim-majority countries have strong relations with China, which have significantly deepened in the past few decades. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s tour of the Middle East in late March underscored these growing ties.

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Ethnic Uyghur men at a teahouse, July 1, 2017.

China has so much economic and geopolitical clout that most governments want to avoid risking any clash with Beijing, especially on issues that China’s government views as internal matters.

Indeed, some governments of Muslim-majority states have even defended Beijing’s heavy-handed approach as necessary to combat “terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism” in Xinjiang.

This wasn’t always the case. More than a decade before former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused China of genocide in Xinjiang, Turkey’s then-prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, did the same in 2009.

China had yet to begin constructing the network of internment camps – which it euphemistically calls “education and training centers” – in Xinjiang, but a diverse range of officials and politicians in Ankara were still vocal about the oppression of the Uyghurs, whom they refer to as “eastern Turks.”

Turkey’s secular nationalists viewed solidarity with a fellow Turkic-speaking people as an important priority, while the Islamists of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party framed the Uyghurs’ plight as a pan-Islamic cause for Turkey to defend.

Yet due to growing Chinese investment in Turkey – as well as the geopolitical fallout of the failed Turkish coup of 2016, which prompted Ankara to pivot away from its Western allies and build closer ties with China and Russia – Turkey’s leadership has muted its stance on Xinjiang in recent years.

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Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, after signing documents in Tehran, March 27, 2021.

In Iran, which recently signed a comprehensive cooperation agreement with China, few high-level political figures are willing to speak out on Xinjiang. Ali Motahari, a former Iranian lawmaker, is one of them. He complained in August 2020 that Tehran has remained silent on the “complete eradication of Islamic culture” in western China, due to fear of rocking the boat with Beijing.

In an interview with a local media outlet, Motahari said he had asked a Foreign Ministry official about the issue and was told the government needs to be silent “due to economic needs.” In light of Iran’s efforts to further integrate its economy with China’s through its cooperation agreement, it is safe to assume that Tehran’s position will not change, particularly if the US is leading the charge against China.

In Pakistan, one of China’s closest foreign allies, Religious Affairs Minister Noor-ul-Haq Qadri met with the Chinese ambassador in September 2018 and reportedly told him that Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang would fuel, rather than tamp down, religious extremism.

Yet only four months later, Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs downplayed international media outlets’ reporting on Xinjiang as efforts to “sensationalize” the issue.

At the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos, Prime Minister Imran Khan acknowledged that Pakistan’s close economic ties with China played a major role in shaping his government’s approach to Xinjiang. “China has helped us,” he said. “They came to help us when we were at rock bottom, and so we are really grateful to the Chinese government.”

Such statements are significant considering Islamabad’s indirect role in boosting the salience of Islam among the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. China and Pakistan partnered to build the Karakoram highway, one of the highest-altitude paved roads in the world, which was completed in 1979.

Also known as the China-Pakistan Friendship Highway, it connects Xinjiang with the Pakistan-administered province of Gilgit-Baltistan. This has led more Uyghurs to be exposed to the Saudi-inspired conservative interpretations of Islam that are prevalent in Pakistan, encouraging more overt expressions of religiosity in Xinjiang.

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Ethnic Uyghur and Han shopkeepers are trained in security measures, in Kashgar in Xinjiang province, June 27, 2017.

Many Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries also have important roles to play in implementing China’s ambitious infrastructure development strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, which seeks to build regional trade and transport connectivity.

These countries, many of which are ruled by autocratic regimes, understand that there are no human rights litmus tests that must be passed to cooperate with Beijing on its projects. This approach is welcome for countries like Saudi Arabia, which have faced pushback in the West due to their human rights abuses.

Authoritarian regimes in the Middle East also have deep concerns about political Islam, which may factor into their decisions to give Beijing a pass on Xinjiang. Their support, in turn, gives China valuable political cover from governments of Muslim-majority countries, especially those that claim religious authority in the Muslim world, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

These two countries, along with the United Arab Emirates, claim to promote “moderate Islam” – an approach that, in practice, is used to discredit any expression of Islam not sanctioned by the state. The demonization of non-state-sponsored forms of Islam aligns conveniently with the objective of the Chinese government: to characterize expressions of faith among the Uyghurs as potential signs of dissent, violence or even terrorism.

Given its own concerns about the perceived threat of Islamist activism, the UAE has been particularly supportive of China’s “Strike Hard” campaign in Xinjiang.

When the UAE’s de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Zayed, visited Beijing in July 2019, President Xi Jinping thanked him for his country’s “valuable support” when it comes to Xinjiang. Mohammed bin Zayed told Xi that the UAE would be willing to work with China to “jointly strike against terrorist extremist forces.”

A host of Middle Eastern governments also have concerns about their own separatist movements, which pushes them further into the pro-China camp on this issue.

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An Uyghur man, his son, and women in front of the Id Kah Mosque, China’s largest mosque, in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, July 31, 2014.

“Beijing claims that the Uyghur controversy is a Western-propagated conspiracy aimed at hindering China’s progress by creating ethnic minority divisions within its borders – similar to the situation in many Arab states, where governments tend to view Kurdish and other minority movements as Western-fueled attempts to sow internal strife and separatism,” Haisam Hassanein, a former fellow with The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote in 2019. “Arab and Chinese leaders alike are firm believers in suppressing any such movements within their borders.”

Many Muslim-majority countries go beyond supporting China rhetorically. There are documented cases of Egypt deporting Uyghurs to China. The same is reportedly true for Saudi Arabia, the UAE and even Turkey – although Turkish authorities have purportedly opted to deport Uyghurs to Tajikistan, from where they were sent back to China.

Uyghurs seeking to flee China are generally safer in Western countries than in the Muslim-majority states of the Middle East. Yet the relative difficulty of gaining entry to countries in Europe and North America has left Uyghur refugees with few safe havens.

A final factor in Muslim-majority states’ tepid approach to Xinjiang is Global South solidarity. Segments of many Arab and African countries see China as an anti-imperialist power and for this reason would oppose their governments joining the West in attacking Beijing for its human rights abuses.

When 22 mostly Western countries issued a joint statement condemning the treatment of Uyghurs in 2019, 37 other states, mostly from the Global South, signed a letter to the UN Human Rights Council praising China’s contributions to human rights.

“In many countries, criticizing China is the new blasphemy,” wrote Nick Cohen, a columnist for The Observer. “Nowhere can you see the power more nakedly displayed than in Muslim-majority regimes.”

Indeed, from the perspective of these governments, the parallels between China’s goals and their own increasingly make Beijing a more attractive partner than Washington. This means that the Uyghurs will continue to find greater support from Western nations than from governments comprised of their fellow Muslims.

Annelle Sheline is the research fellow for the Middle East at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Follow her on Twitter @AnnelleSheline.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy that focuses on the Middle East. His writing has been published by Al Monitor, LobeLog and the Middle East Institute. Follow him on Twitter @GiorgioCafiero.

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