Imran Khan and his ‘A-B-C’ approach to Uighur Muslim crisis

A Chinese policeman on guard as an Uighur Muslim family passes by in Urumqi, Xinjiang region. (File photo: AFP)
A Chinese policeman on guard as an Uighur Muslim family passes by in Urumqi, Xinjiang region. (File photo: AFP)

The old saying about there being no smoke without a fire stands vindicated because the continuous flow of news trickling from across the bamboo curtain regarding ongoing religious persecution of ethnic minorities that has ultimately galvanised the otherwise reticent international community to complain against Beijing’s highhandedness. The major area of global concern were reliable reports that Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang Autonomous Region (XAR) were being interned in ‘detention camps’, of infants being separated from their parents and how besides being physically and mentally abused, the detenues were also being forced to do things that were proscribed in Islam.

There are credible reports of how Uighur Muslims are being forced to eat pork and consume alcohol; about men not being allowed to keep beards and women prohibited from wearing hijab (head covering worn in public). Fasting during the holy month of Ramzan is discouraged and the Chinese national flag and portraits of Xi Jinping are required to be displayed in mosques and every Muslim household. Forced sterilizations and insertion of contraception implants against the victim’s will as well as reports of Uighur women being lured to marry Han men through material inducements are rampant. Even a simple thing like usage of the term ‘Halal’ (permissible under Islam) labelling for food products is criminalised.

So, in July 2019, when a statement signed by 22 countries submitted a notice to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) expressing concerns over widespread surveillance and repression in China and called upon Beijing to “refrain from the arbitrary detention and restrictions on freedom of movement of Uighurs, and other Muslim and minority communities in Xinjiang” many believed that China would be forced to end repression of its minorities. But as is its wont, Beijing not only refused to oblige but instead, displaying its characteristic arrogance, decided to brazen it out by going on the counter-offensive.

Playing the game by the same ground rules, Beijing countered the complaint against it by delivering a powerful riposte. After just four days, it handed over a letter to OHCHR that mentioned China’s “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights”. Signed by 37 countries, this communication went on to state that “Now safety and security has returned to Xinjiang and the fundamental human rights of people of all ethnic groups there are safeguarded.” But even though Qatar subsequently withdrew its support, Beijing was busy adding more signatories in its favour.

When this letter was resubmitted during the same month, 13 new states as well as the Palestinian Authority had come out in support of Beijing, bringing the total number of signatories to a whopping 50! But the irony here is that none of the 22 signatories who had demanded justice for the persecuted Muslim Uighurs were Islamic nations, but amongst the 50 countries that abandoned the oppressed people of their own faith by giving Beijing a ‘clean chit’ included almost two dozen states that boasted being Islamic nations or had a predominantly Muslim population.

The most shocking part is that the list of Beijing’s supporters also included self-proclaimed leaders and heavy weights of the Islamic world like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan; the two countries that keep waxing eloquence about their unconditional and consummate dedication to alleviate the suffering of ‘ummah’ (entire community of Muslims bound together by ties of Islam)! But this comes as no surprise because both the international community (in general), as well as Muslim countries (in particular) are well aware of this duplicity that plagues the ‘House of Saud’ and ‘Land of the Pure’ on this issue!

Three months later, another letter signed by 23 countries was handed over to OHCHR, which called upon China to “uphold its national and international obligations and commitments to respect human rights,” as well provide international monitors access to Xinjiang. But once again, Beijing had the last laugh when its ally Belarus came out with a statement on behalf of 54 countries that concluded with the “appreciation that human rights are respected and protected in China in the process of counter-terrorism and deradicalisation.”

Though the Belarusian statement claims support of 54 countries, its text includes the names of only six states. But while this may have been necessitated by a need for brevity, the order in which these names appear in the text are “Pakistan, the Russian Federation, Egypt, Bolivia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Serbia.” Listing Pakistan first is intriguing as it doesn’t make any sense, either from the alphabetical indexing or international standing status point of view. But diplomats don’t make careless mistakes and a bit of correlation does provide a plausible reason for this.

Readers would recall that just a week before the ‘Belarus statement’ was issued, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, while delivering his UNGA address took upon himself the onerous task of speaking up against Islamophobia on behalf of the global Muslim community. His passionate and lengthy discourse probably gave him the halo of what he subsequently referred to as “enlightened moderation” and so, putting Pakistan’s name even before the Russian Federation while expressing solidarity with Beijing makes sense, because the leading light of the Islamic world backing China adds ‘weight’ to the statement!

But it was Khan and his government’s crafty ‘A-B-C’ (A-avoid, B-bypass, C-confuse) approach towards the religious persecution of Uighur Muslims that proved to be his undoing. During an interview with Financial Times on March 28, 2019 when asked about China’s ill-treatment of Uighur Muslims, Khan simply chose to “avoid” the question by saying, “Frankly, I don’t know much about it.” Even when the interviewer reminded him that Pakistan’s close ally Turkey had termed Chinese atrocities against Uighurs as a “great shame on humanity,” Khan once again avoided answering by saying, “If I had enough knowledge about it, I would comment, but I don’t.”

In September 2019, there were news reports that during his meeting with Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan Yao Ping, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Noorul Haq Qadri told him that “The placement of restrictions (on Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang) increases the chances of an extremist viewpoint growing in reaction.” However, just two days later, Qadri too showed his great ability to “bypass” the Uighur ill-treatment issue, when he quashed all speculation by saying that “This (topic) was not discussed.” 

But ultimately, it’s Khan’s three-in-one ‘ABC’ response to the Uighur crisis given to Foreign Policy Magazine in January this year that takes the cake. When asked why he’s hyper about ill-treatment of Muslims in India and elsewhere but completely silent on the persecution of Uighur Muslims, Khan avoided, bypassed and finally confused the question. He ‘avoided’ the query by saying, “frankly, I don’t know much about it,”; then, by adding “whatever issues we will have with China, we will deal with them privately. We will not go public,” he ‘bypassed’ the reply, and finally, by opining that “it (the Uighur crisis) is nothing compared to what is happening in Kashmir,” Khan cleverly ‘confused’ the whole issue.

However, by saying “China came to help our government when we were at the rock bottom. So, we are really grateful to the Chinese government,” Khan has made it amply clear that his pain for the oppressed ‘ummah’ isn’t all-pervasive. Au contraire, it’s highly subjective and completely subservient to Pakistan’s ‘sweeter than honey’ friendship with China, and since the cricketer turned politician doesn’t dare rock the boat, he wants the world to believe that all is well with the Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang!!

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