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Arab nations should press China on Uyghur Muslim abuses

Saudi Press Agency via AP
In this photo made available by the Saudi Press Agency, Chinese President Xi Jinping is greeted by Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman, after his arrival at Al Yamama Palace, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Dec. 8, 2022.

Uyghur Muslims face mass atrocities, if not genocide, at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). With Chairman Xi Jinping visiting Saudi Arabia this week to meet with Arab leaders, these Muslim-majority countries have an opportunity to advocate for oppressed Muslims. Their fellow believers in China need their help.  

China’s abuse of Uyghur Muslims is well documented, but unfortunately, most Muslim-majority nations have been silent. Indisputable evidence from the United Nations documented a war against faith. In August 2022, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued an assessment on human rights in Xinjiang. Months in the making, it found: 

“Serious human rights violations have been committed in XUAR in the context of the Government’s application of counter-terrorism and counter-‘extremism’ strategies. The implementation of these strategies, and associated policies in XUAR has led to interlocking patterns of severe and undue restrictions on a wide range of human rights. These patterns of restrictions are characterized by a discriminatory component, as the underlying acts often directly or indirectly affect Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim communities.” 

While not going as far as to label the situation as “genocide,” it was nonetheless a damning assessment of the treatment of Uyghurs because of their religion and ethnicity, documenting mass detentions, bans on prayer, sexual assaults, family separations, and other forms of persecution. Other documents uncovered by activists show how Xi pushed policies to destroy Islam in the western state of Xinjiang, where 12 million primarily Muslim Uyghurs live. In this campaign of destruction, the government forces hundreds of thousands into “reeducation” camps. Families are broken apart; allegations of torture and rape are common. In addition, Tibetan Buddhists, Christians, Falon Gong and others have suffered mightily. 

Yet, despite these facts, exceedingly few Muslim governments have spoken out. Activists argue they have abandoned the Uyghurs. Many were disappointed by the inability of the UN Human Rights Council to agree to a simple discussion on the UN’s report on Uyghur persecution in China. The outcome came about when no Muslim-majority nation voted in favor. Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Mauritania, Pakistan, Sudan, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Uzbekistan all voted “No.” Just two changes would have made a difference.  

In contrast, Muslim nations have rightly denounced Burma’s persecution of Rohingya Muslims and discriminatory policies in Europe and North America. But in the face of contemporary genocide in China, they are silent toward Beijing’s policies. And the silence is deafening.  

The lack of action is a choice, one they have made for some time. When I visited the headquarters of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Saudi Arabia in my former diplomatic role focusing on religious minorities for the State Department, I invited the OIC to join U.S. condemnations of Beijing’s abuses. Unfortunately, my overture was met with polite silence. Instead, OIC members looked the other way or actively expressed support for China’s policies.  

Notably, silence instead of advocacy is not limited to the Muslim world; many non-Muslim governments also succumb to China’s intimidation and dollar diplomacy. Democracies such as Argentina, Brazil and India abstained on the Uyghur report vote at the Human Rights Council. Hungary has blocked European Union criticism of China.  

Yet, the United States, Canada and many in Europe are taking steps against China — speaking out and disengaging economically and technologically — because of the genocide and rights crackdown. This cannot be the West’s fight alone.  

Muslim nations speaking out would make a difference. China fears losing the Arab world. In October, China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, described Saudi Arabia as a “priority” in their regional diplomatic strategy. The fact that Saudi Arabia is the largest oil exporter to China is a significant reason.  

Consequently, the leaders meeting with Xi in Saudi Arabia have leverage — perhaps more than they realize. Muslim countries joining as a block with Western criticism would shock Beijing. It could possibly cause China to change course and allow Uyghur Muslims to live out their faith peacefully. China responds to strength, and there is strength in numbers. What is missing is the voice of governments representing Muslim-majority nations. We know criticism by the West alone is not working.  

Uyghur Muslims face torture, mistreatment and even death. The dire situation in China presents an opportunity for Muslim-majority countries to demonstrate a commitment to their co-religionists and basic human dignity. With Xi’s meetings in Saudi Arabia, now is the time for them to step forward.  

Knox Thames served at the U.S. State Department during the Obama and Trump administrations in a special envoy role focused on religious minorities. Follow him on Twitter @KnoxThames.  

Tags China human rights abuses Middle East Saudi Arabia-China relations Uyghur genocide Uyghur Muslims Xi Jinping

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