Where in the world are Muslims most actively persecuted for their faith? While it’s a hard question to answer definitively, one thing is certain: China’s Xinjiang province has to be on anybody’s shortlist for this dubious distinction.
In my most recent Wall Street Journal column — read it here — I point out China’s double standards on Islam and Islamist terrorism. At home, Beijing persecutes members of the Uighur minority merely for practicing their faith. Overseas, China supports Masood Azhar, a hardened Pakistani jihadist blamed by the US, the UK, and other major Western democracies for fomenting terrorism against India.
Jaish-e-Mohammed, the group Azhar founded in 2000, took responsibility for a February 14 suicide car-bombing that killed more than 40 Indian paramilitary forces and set off a round of tit-for-tat air strikes between India and Pakistan that could have escalated to a war.
According to Human Rights Watch, and other international observers, China has herded a million Uighurs into re-education camps in an ongoing assault on their distinctive culture. In the WSJ, I sum up some of the most widely reported methods of Chinese repression: “Communist authorities view the Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim minority of about 11 million in northwest Xinjiang province, as a potential security threat. Since 2014, Beijing has stepped up efforts to suppress Uighur religion and culture. To that end it has built a high-tech police state in the province that uses tens of thousands of cameras, biometrics including DNA and voice samples, artificial intelligence and big data.
“In Xinjiang, signs of Islamic piety—such as growing a beard or donning a headscarf—can land a person in trouble. So can praying at home, teaching one’s children about Islam, and traveling to any of 26 ‘sensitive’ mostly Muslim-majority nations (including Pakistan). The government bans parents from giving their children ‘overly religious’ Muslim names, including Saddam, Imam and Mecca. According to Human Rights Watch, ‘the government’s religious restrictions are so stringent that it has effectively outlawed Islam.’”
China’s apparent double-standard can be explained by a mixture of Communist Party amorality and realpolitik. The persecution of the Uighurs reflects the Chinese government’s deep mistrust of Islamic religiosity. Beijing backs Azhar not out of ideological affinity, but in solidarity with its “iron brother” Pakistan, and in order to keep India off balance and hemmed in by violence.
China’s unremitting assault on the Uighurs creates an awkward dilemma for Pakistan. Historically, Islamabad has championed pan-Islamic causes worldwide. In large part, as I wrote about here, this goes back to Pakistan’s creation as the world’s first modern nation based solely on Islam.
Pakistan is the principal backer of the Afghan Taliban. Its military has long viewed wresting the Muslim-majority province of Jammu and Kashmir from India as part of the unfinished business of Partition. Islamabad steadfastly opposes Israel at global fora; anti-Semitic tropes are common in Pakistani politics and public discourse. Prime Minister Imran Khan has railed against the so-called “Jewish lobby.” From Bosnia in the 1990s to the current Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, Pakistan has never hesitated to speak up for Muslim causes.
Except for now. In January, a journalist from Turkey’s TRT asked Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan if he would raise the Uighur issue with the Chinese government. Khan’s response: “I do not know the exact situation of this…to be honest, I actually don’t know much about the situation…I would deal with it in a different way with the Chinese. I would approach them and speak to them confidentially. I would never talk about it in public because that’s how they are.”
If the Uighurs of Xinjiang want help they shouldn’t look to Pakistan next door. After seven decades, the unstoppable force of Pakistani pan-Islamism has met the immovable object of Islamabad’s alliance with China. In this clash of ideologies, the Chinese communists have won.
This article was originally published in American Enterprise Institute.