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OIC must condemn China’s mass internment of Uighurs


Omer Kanat

COMMENT | China is conducting one of the largest mass internment campaigns known to history.

Journalists, academics, and activists have brought to light the extent of the human rights violations in East Turkestan (formally known as Xinjiang), including deaths in custody, torture, and systemic political indoctrination.

Legislators and officials from the United Nations, the United States, and the European Union have publicly called on China to end the repression. US Senator Marco Rubio and Congressman Chris Smith have called for sanctions against Communist Party Secretary of the Xinjiang, Chen Quanguo, under the provisions of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.

However, governments and civil society in Muslim-majority states remain largely silent. Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Indonesia, among others, have kept quiet as fellow Muslims in East Turkestan undergo the systemic eradication of their religious and ethnic identities.

Little can be expected from some of these governments given the kinds of human rights violations perpetrated against their own people; nevertheless, these administrations do speak out on occasion, as in the appalling case of the Rohingya. Uighurs were encouraged by this stand and believed that over time they too would receive support.

The silence of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which describes itself as the “collective voice of the Muslim world,” is particularly disappointing.

Let us be clear. What is happening in East Turkestan has nothing to with controlling Islamic extremism, as the Chinese authorities claim. It is an all-out war against a Muslim people.

At one time, the OIC declared the need to protect Uighurs in China. In the aftermath of the 2009 unrest in Urumchi, the OIC issued a diplomatically worded statement asking China to confront some of the root causes of tension in the region.

Since then, the OIC has pivoted to promoting the economic opportunities of Xi Jinping’s One Belt One Road initiative. In May 2018, as estimates placed the number of Uighurs interned in indoctrination centres at approximately one million, the OIC hosted a delegation from the Xinjiang Culture and Communication Center, including officials from China’s Ministry of Education.

The OIC Charter commits it to safeguarding “the rights, dignity and religious and cultural identity of Muslim communities and minorities in non-member States.” For years, the Uighur Human Rights Project (UHRP) has documented the systemic denial of Uighur religious freedom.

As one former internee of the camps told UHRP, during indoctrination sessions Uighurs were forced to reject their belief in Islam, make pledges to consume alcohol and tobacco, and tell other Uighurs about the evils of Islam.

Silent and ignorant

Uighurs are a part of the Muslim world. Our history, language and culture are embedded within Islam. Our music, literature and philosophy are hailed as great Muslim achievements. So why are Uighurs now excluded from the care of the Islamic community?

Muslim majority countries, the OIC and Muslim communities, who are so outspoken and react so strongly to incidents of defamation of Islam by individuals in the West are silent and ignorant to the Chinese government’s attack on core values of Islamic belief and the efforts to eliminate the Uighurs’ Muslim identity.

Uighurs do not oppose trading relations between Muslim states and China. However, trade should not buy indifference to egregious human rights abuses. It should not buy complicity in China’s assault on Uighurs, as in the case of one OIC member, Egypt.

In 2017, Egyptian intelligence services rounded up several Uighur students and deported them at China’s request. At least two of those students died in Chinese custody.

Recently, reporters from Bloomberg contacted the governments of Turkey, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Malaysia, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, asking for comment on the Uighurs situation. None responded. While this is not a surprise, it is a stark abdication of their commitment to defending the rights of fellow Muslims.

The fact that “[m]ultiple phone calls to the OIC for comment were not answered” is unacceptable. Further silence from the OIC and Muslim majority states will invite allegations of acquiescence with Chinese rights violations against the Uighurs and history will judge these actions with limited understanding.

The OIC has a responsibility to respond to the Uighur human rights crisis. Given China’s rejection of criticism from western states and China’s reverence for ‘South-South’ relations, the OIC’s concern will have an impact. We have no clear idea of when the campaign of mass internment and indoctrination will end.

The spectre of human rights violations of an even graver nature in the near term is not out of the question. Timing is key in humanitarian interventions to protect the welfare of vulnerable groups. The time to call China to account regarding the mass-internment of Uighurs is now.

OMER KANAT is director of the Uighurs Human Rights Project.



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