The sectarian violence that recently erupted in the Chinese Xinjiang region, inhabited by a Muslim Uyghur majority, brought the issue of the Chinese Muslims and their old and renewed crisis to the forefront of events. These Muslims, a Turkic-speaking people, are facing organized sectarian and racist violence undertaken by the Chinese majority and especially by the Han and the Hui ethnicities. The violence meted out to Uighur protesters in Urumchi, capital of Xinjiang, comes as a shock. It is unclear how many of them have died but there are reports of at least 180, with more than 800 injured.
The government's claims of conspiracy by pro-independence exiles echo the handling of rioting across Tibetan areas in March last year, which Beijing also called a plot hatched abroad. The unrest underscores the volatile ethnic tensions that have accompanied China's growing economic and political stake in its western frontiers.
Ever since the 1990s, the Chinese government has been applying harsh repressive policies against the Uyghurs. Their language has been wiped out of the local educational system, and religious practices such as fasting during the month of Ramadan have been prohibited in the public sector. There is also discrimination in access to health facilities, education, housing and jobs. Young Uyghurs are often pushed to get a job in some far away province whereas millions of people are encouraged by the central government to move to Xinjiang by means of promises of job opportunities and other incentives. More than two million people have already responded to these inducements.
Given this situation, one would expect that the Muslim world would have responded with indignation and showing its full support for the Uyghurs’ cause. Instead, apart from some feeble official steps taken by Turkey, that shares with the Uyghurs common cultural roots, the rest of the Muslim world kept surprisingly silent.
There were no fatwas, no protesting marches, no rallies in front of embassies. And what about the speeches full of indignation? Even Al-Qaeda had nothing to say. It would be interesting to know, what does China have that Denmark does not? In China Muslims are discriminated against and killed; in Denmark the publication of some satirical cartoons concerning Prophet Mohammed made masses of Muslims descend to the streets to express their fiery outrage.
In the case of the satirical cartoons, 11 ambassadors from Muslim countries presented a formal protest to the Danish Prime Minister. He explained that in Denmark exists something called free press and that the Government had nothing to do with either it or the whole affair. To no avail. A few days later, the Danish consulate in Beirut was set to fire and in Pakistan and Somalia violent manifestations ended up with some casualties. When a few Norwegian dailies also published the cartons as gesture of solidarity towards their Danish colleagues, crowds in Damascus set fire to the Danish and Norwegian embassies there. In Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad decided to respond to the caricatures with other caricatures. The subject? To make fun of the Holocaust. For its part, Al-Qaeda cried that the cartoons were one more sign of the Crusade that the West had launched against Islam, and clerics issued fatwas for inflicting unspeakable punishments on the people responsible for the cartoons.
For the plight of the Uyghurs, nothing was heard from the Arab League or any other Arab or Muslim government. Not a word from the Islamic organizations in Europe or Asia. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after a timid reaction, chose to lower the tone of his protest. When Erdogan uttered some form of support for the Uyghurs, the reaction from the official Chinese press was swift: “The support offered by Turkey to Uyghur separatists and terrorists can only cause indignation in China. If Turkey does not want to ruin the relations between our two countries, it must stop supporting that separatist mob”. The Turkish Prime Minister rapidly changed course.
China has become an important economical partner for many of the countries of the Muslim world. The Chinese do business with any regime. They do not ask questions and they do not want to be asked questions. In the weeks to come it will be possible to observe with how much efficiency the Chinese will be able to make clear to the leaders of the Muslim world where their real interests are. And the silence over the tragedy of the Uyghurs will speak for itself.