China’s Xinjiang province is home to approximately 8 million ethnically Muslim Uighurs, making up just under half of the 19 million strong population. August 2018 saw the publication of a UN report stating that roughly 1 million Uighurs are being held in ‘counter-extremism centres’ in the region. The human rights abuses occurring here are well documented:
‘Witness reports of life inside the camps and detention centres have told not only of unhealthy living conditions, but also of regular violence, torture and brainwashing.’
Furthermore, Xinjiang has become a surveillance state befitting of the Orwellian imagination. Uighurs are coerced into filling out surveys detailing their religious practices and cultural level in order for the government to determine the level of security risk they pose, and are at constant risk of invasive police searches.
While the Uighurs’ history in Xinjiang is one of struggle, their oppression has increased in recent months. James Millward, who has studied the group for over thirty years, claims ‘state repression in Xinjiang has never been as severe as it has become since early 2017’.
Who, then, is best placed to support the Uighur community and oppose the Chinese government in their actions? The case is often made that the United States can and should spearhead this effort in defence of the Uighur community. You can read my colleague Grayson Slover’s argument for this position here.
I do not propose to argue against American diplomatic efforts. The foundational premise that American defence of human rights is both beneficial to the US, and to the vulnerable groups across the world in need of international partners, is sound. Furthermore, Grayson Slover’s call for sanctions against culpable individuals and entities in China is also to be welcomed.
However, what the United States cannot do through direct confrontation with China is ‘address the widely-held belief among Muslims that America is at war with Islam’, as Grayson suggests. This perception can only be reversed by the empowerment of moderate Muslim voices from within majority Muslim countries. Michael Ignatieff emphasises the importance of empowerment in his book ‘Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry’:
‘Human rights is a language of individual empowerment, and empowerment for individuals is desirable because when individuals have agency, they can protect themselves against injustice.’
In other words, if we want to see a commitment to human dignity, we have to promote it locally, by empowering the best voices from within the community. Voices like these are plentiful in the Muslim world. Take the example of Queen Rania al Abdullah of Jordan, who has used her platform on the international stage to advocate for cross-cultural dialogue between the Arab world and other cultures. Or, Tawakkol Karman, Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2011, most known for her public advocacy in Yemen Change Square imploring the youth to stand up for their rights.
By adopting this approach, we also hold Muslim powers that do not champion the rights of their citizens to account, shining a light on their stance. It is clear that reluctance to criticise the Chinese government is to some degree due to financial factors. Most Arab states are a key economic partner of the Chinese, as Coca writes:
‘Part of the answer is that money talks. China has become a key trade partner of every Muslim-majority nation. Many are members of the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or are participating in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.’
What other reasons might there be for their silence? This is not a product of the Sunni-Shia division, as Uighurs are a Sunni group, and even Sunni-majority countries like Egypt go through the trouble of deporting Uighurs who escape their oppression and arrive on their shores. The better view is that the Uighurs’ plight is symptomatic of a wider struggle; the lack of voices being able to advocate loudly, and safely, for human rights in the Arab world. Without these voices entering the forefront of Arab dialogue, Islamic leaders will not speak out in defence of the vulnerable.
Demanding that the Chinese reverse course in Xinjiang is a positive step, but more fundamentally, the United States and the rest of the international community must lend a microphone to those already seeking to defend human rights for the Arab world, in the Arab world. As prominent human rights activist Su’ad Abdul Khabeer tweeted in 2017,
you don’t need to be a voice for the voiceless. Just pass the mic.’