By Ira Rifkin
As with other religions, Islam embodies the concept of like-minded believers sharing a global destiny no matter which nation they live in.
In Arabic, this idea is known as the Ummah. Militant Islamists invoke it repeatedly to convince Muslims they are obligated to aid Muslims persecuted by, or even attacking non-Muslims, as an Islamic duty.
How does this work in practice? As with Christians (the extensive history of Christian nations fighting other Christian nations is hardly unknown), the idealized notion that co-religionists can count on fellow believers in stressful times is highly limited.
Witness the lack of global Muslim efforts to assist their Chinese Uighur co-religionists currently being brutalized by the Chinese government. Or the relative dearth of Uighur-related news coverage emanating from Muslim-majority nations.
Western media, on the other hand, have covered the Uighur story like a blanket — despite the geographic, logistical and political hurdles making it difficult to do so. Here at GetReligion, we’ve posted repeatedly on the Uighur situation the past few years.
One Western publication I think has done an excellent job with the story is Foreign Policy. The magazine has published, online, two strong pieces on the Uighurs in just the past couple of weeks.
Here’s one from late October that tells how China is planting strangers who absurdly identify themselves as “relatives” in Uighur homes to monitor them. Here’s the second, published last week, detailing that Uighurs are so desperate to escape Chinese persecution that some are actually fleeing to Afghanistan for safety.
Consider that for a moment. True, Afghanistan is a Muslim nation. But it’s also a land of continual warfare where even the innocent can become collateral damage at any time. So fleeing to Afghanistan hardly ensures peaceful sanctuary. And yet they do.
I’ve been watching for Uighur coverage in Muslim media for some months. This Bloomberg News story from August first piqued my interest.
After noting how the United Nations’ agencies and various Western nations had urged action to get China to back away from its persecution of Uighurs — a million of whom have reportedly been sent to “reeducation” camp’s — the story said:
By contrast, the leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan haven’t released public statements on the clampdown. Neither has Saudi Arabia. Even Turkey, which has in the past offered favorable policies to Turkic-speaking groups and hosts a small Uighur population of its own, remained silent as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan grappled with an economic crisis.
In fairness, it should be noted that Pakistan later did issue a mildly critical statement. It should also be noted that Al Jazeera English (the language barrier prevents me from commenting on the outlet’s mainstay Arabic-language coverage) has several Uighur stories bunched together on its website.
Moreover, Times of India picked up the Bloomberg story the day after it was published. That’s no small thing since India, dominated by Hindus, of course, still has the world’s third largest Muslim population. Indian Muslims account for about 11 percent of the global Muslim total.
So, and despite the minimal exceptions I just cited, why is the Uighurs’ predicament receiving scant media attention in the Muslim world?
Because of trade, aid and – last but certainly not least – the general dearth of press freedom that permeates the Muslim world.
In short, that means that if nations — which is to say their despotic rulers — such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt decide it benefits them more not to criticize China in a substantive way, journalists in those nations whose jobs and perhaps even their lives depend upon government approval are, shall we say, dissuaded from pursuing the story.
Here’s how the above mentioned Bloomberg article put it:
[This] underscores how China’s position as a key trading partner and aid provider to many Muslim-majority nations – as well as its longstanding policy to avoid commenting on the internal affairs of other countries – is now paying off. The alleged abuses are also occurring in one of China’s most remote and heavily policed frontiers, making it hard to acquire first-hand evidence, such as photos and videos, that might sway public opinion in the Islamic world.
“China generally has friendly relations with most Muslim countries, mostly around trade,” said Hassan Hassan, senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, a Washington think tank. The Muslim world is largely unaware of the situation in Xinjiang, he added. “It’s not covered almost at all in Arabic media, and even jihadis don’t dwell on it as much as they do about other conflicts.”
China argues that the crackdown of its minority Uighur population is part of the fight against global Islamic terrorism. And it’s true that some Uighurs have violently opposed Beijing’s oppressive rule and that some Uighurs have joined ISIS and other terrorist groups.
However, China’s bottom line is primarily, I believe, a response to the Uighurs’ desire for self-rule. That’s something Beijing will not countenance, just as it won’t allow it for Tibetans and does all it can to undercut Taiwan’s independence.
So it uses its economic power and the threat of its military might to kneecap whatever Muslim-world sympathy for the Uighurs naturally exists among their co-religionists.
The ummah will just have to wait.
What we have here is another case of money and politics trumping human connections, religious or not.