Who will speak for China’s persecuted Uyghurs?

We published a satirical article saying Muslim leaders don’t care if China kills Muslims as long as they don’t draw the Muslim prophet. Chinese Uyghurs found it plausible.

By: /
January 25, 2021
A Uyghur kebab chef works in Kashgar’s old city on June 30, 2020 in Kashgar, China. David Liu/Getty Images

Late last year, my colleagues and I at Alhudood, a satirical Middle Eastern news site, wrote a parody article about the silence of Arab and Muslim governments and their loyalist press regarding China’s repression of Muslim Uyghurs in China.

This deafening silence contrasted with their enthusiastic condemnation, echoed on social media, of France and its president, Emmanuel Macron, who resolutely defended freedom of speech after a terrorist beheaded French schoolteacher Samuel Paty last October. Paty had shown his class cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad that were published by the magazine Charlie Hebdo and considered offensive by many Muslims.

“Muslims ignore Uighur plight as China may have killed a thousand Muhammads but has yet to draw one,” read the article’s headline.

It quoted a made-up official at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a collective body whose fecklessness is on par with that of the Arab League, declaiming that Chinese authorities “can kill one thousand Muhammads, sterilize a thousand women who were going to give birth to Muhammads, and abort a thousand Muhammads, as long as they do not denigrate or mock our symbols or dare to draw a caricature of the Prophet.”

Sadly, and tellingly, the article was circulated among Uyghur activists, who shared it believing it to be plausible. It speaks to the depth of the abandonment of the international community that even a statement as callous as the one attributed to the OIC official was not considered beyond the pale.

The Uyghurs are a 13 million-strong Muslim ethnic minority based in the region of Xinjiang in northwestern China. Since 2014, they have endured extensive surveillance by the Chinese Communist Party following a terrorist attack in the city of Urumqi. In recent years, however, reporting by western news organisations has uncovered a vast state apparatus to “re-educate” the Uyghurs and eradicate their culture.

In addition to detention camps housing hundreds of thousands of men and women, other human rights violations reportedly include forced labor, forced abortions and sterilization, forced renunciation of the faith, separation of children from their families and many others crimes. Dozens of global brands, including Apple, have been accused of benefiting from forced Uyghur labor through their local suppliers.

In November, a Canadian House of Commons committee concluded China’s treatment of the Uyghurs amounted to genocide. Based on extensive research and testimony, including by camp survivors, it concluded that the campaign against the Uyghurs was intended to “eradicate Uyghur culture and religion.”

A House of Commons committee report concluding China is committing genocide did not result in Canada taking serious action against Beijing.

The report did not result in Canada taking serious action against Beijing or senior Chinese Communist Party officials for their role in this alleged genocide — although Canada and Britain have since announced measures to prevent the import of products made forced labour in Chinese camps.

Canada’s relationship with China is of course complicated by the China’s ongoing detention of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in apparent retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei. Canada is reluctant to act without coordinated international support. Little of that is forthcoming. The new U.S. administration, in particular, has enough on its hands as it deals with internal instability and a real threat of attempted insurrection by Donald Trump supporters.

Arab and Muslim governments, for their part, sheepishly avert their gaze from one of the gravest mass atrocities of our time, despite a well-demonstrated ability to drum up anger over something as innocuous as a few cartoons. This is due to growing trade and political ties with China, which increasingly asserts itself on the world stage even as America, at least during Trump’s presidency, retreated from it.

In July 2019, several Arab countries joined hands to defend China at a UN Human Rights Council session, arguing that its actions in Xinjiang constituted counterterrorism and deradicalization efforts. These countries included Egypt, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and even Saudi Arabia, which hosts Islam’s holiest sites. During a 2019 state visit, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman took a break from signing multibillion-dollar trade deals to say it was China’s right to protect its national security through anti-terrorism measures. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a self-declared defender of Muslims, has occasionally criticized China’s actions but may soon finalize an extradition treaty with Beijing.

So, who will save the Uyghurs, if even their coreligionists, so eager to exploit apparent Islamophobia, have abandoned them? 

Ottawa has a role to play. Canada can save lives and live up to its commitment to stand with victims of human rights abuses, even if it must do so on its own.

Canada should replicate its policy toward Syrian refugees. In 2015, as so many other countries either abandoned Syria to its genocidal dictator, bombed it in pursuit of a military solution to its ongoing civil war or turned back its displaced, Canada welcomed thousands of Syrian refugees to its shores. It should do the same for Chinese Uyghurs. Safer here than they could ever be back home, China’s Uyghurs could build new lives and testify to the suffering and persecution they have escaped, at least until the world is ready to do something about it.

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On January 28, The Canadian International Council’s Edmonton branch is hosting a webinar about the repression of Uyghurs in China and international responses. It will feature Conservative MP Garnett Genius and Mehmet Tohti, executive director of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project. Please register here.