Who politicizes Islam?

In an ethnic flare-up in the China’s Autonomous Republic of Xinjiang in 2011, more than 24 persons were killed and property destroyed. The attacks were brutal in Kashghar. Beijing accused the radicals among the Uighur Sunni Muslim community of Xinjiang of stoking the riots. It brought the onus of the violent upsurge to the doorsteps of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), who, it said, “receive training in Pakistan — an ally of China”, reported the Al Jazeera channel in its Asia Pacific newscast on 6 August 2011. Beijing had the inkling that ETIM could have some connection with the apex body of the Pakistani Taliban, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The militants of the latter group attacked Chinese nationals in Pakistan a few times in the past. In 2012, TTP murdered a tourist from China and argued that that was an act of “revenge for the Chinese government killing our Muslim brothers in the Xinjiang province”, reported The Diplomat of Sept 20, 2019.

China summarily executed a couple of Pakistani jihadists affiliated to Jaish-e-Muhammad, and one or two were repatriated to Pakistan, of course after concluding a deal. Observers should have no difficulty in understanding why last year China thrice vetoed the Anglo-American proposal at the Security Council demanding that the Jaish chief Maulana Masood Azhar be designated as an international terrorist. Azhar gave an undertaking to the Chinese that he would neither invite nor allow Uighur nationalists to the training camps of Jaish-e-Muhammad.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has been vocal about the “mistreatment” of Muslims around the world with particular reference to Kashmir. Stretching this narrative further, he and his foreign minister have initiated a worldwide propaganda campaign that India and its “Hindutva” are out to decimate Muslims. He even castigated the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) for not reacting as it should to the “atrocities perpetrated by India on the fraternal Muslim community in Kashmir”.

However, questioned by a reporter at the World Economic Forum (2020) in Davos, Switzerland why he speaks about only Kashmiri Muslims and not the Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang, Khan first claimed to not “know much about” the scale of the abuse but then in the same breath acknowledged that his government is indebted to Beijing because “they came to help us when we were at rock bottom,” reported the Business Insider of January 23, 2020. This shows that Pakistan’s real concern is the economy, and for that, religion can be sacrificed without demur.  Yet he laments of Muslims being “mistreated.”

The Chinese government has been accused of imposing a mass crackdown on millions of Uighurs, a mostly Muslim majority, by imprisoning them in detention centres in Xinjiang — where they are allegedly beaten, deprived of food and subjected to medical experiments — and promoting heinous crime of mass rape in the name of ethnic unity. China has denied reports of abuse at what the government calls “re-education camps” and decried its Western critics.

The Economic Times of December 4, 2019 reported that the US Congress overwhelmingly passed a bill seeking a tough response from the Trump Administration over reports of mass detention centres in China’s Muslim-majority Xinjiang province, prompting Beijing to threaten possible retaliation.

The US House of Representatives passed the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act, which, among other things, proposes that America redirect resources to address the mass internment of over 1,000,000 Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic groups in Xinjiang. “By passing this bill, Congress is showing that the US will not turn a blind eye to the suffering of the oppressed”, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy said. He added, “As with the Hong Kong Democracy and Human Rights Act, we are sending a simple but powerful message to the Communist Party: power cannot be maintained at the expense of the rights of the people without substantial consequences,” wrote The Economic Times of 4 December 2019.

In a BBC news broadcast, John Sudworth made some revelations on how the Uighurs internees are treated in Xinxiang. He says, “Harsh new legal penalties have been introduced to curtail Islamic identity and practice — banning, among other things, long beards and headscarves, the religious instruction of children, and even Islamic-sounding names. The policies appear to mark a fundamental shift in official thinking. It coincides with a tightening grip on society under President Xi, in which loyalties to family and faith must be subordinate to the only one that matters – loyalty to the Communist Party.” The BBC commentator went on to say, “The Uighurs’ unique identity makes them a target for suspicion. That view has been reinforced by credible reports that hundreds have travelled to Syria to fight with various militant groups. Uighur Sunni Muslims are now subject to ethnic profiling at thousands of pedestrian and vehicle checkpoints while Han Chinese residents are often waved through.”

In September 2019, the US criticized Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan for not highlighting the plight of the Uighurs the same way he spoke about the Kashmiris. Alice Wells, US acting assistant secretary for South and Central Asia, said in New York that “Khan’s comments on Kashmir were unhelpful, reported The Economic Times of September 26, 2019.

How Pakistani Prime Minister and most of the Pakistani radicalized organizations including those designated by the UN are tight-lipped about the most egregious persecution and ruthless Sanitization of Uighur Muslims is best reported by the Business Insider of January 23, 2020. It writes: “Despite reports about Uighur rights abuse, many Muslim-majority countries, afraid of incurring China’s wrath have stayed mum. The 57-country Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in December mentioned: “disturbing reports” of China’s Muslim crackdown in a series of tweets. It then backpedalled by releasing a report saying that it “commends the efforts of the People’s Republic of China in providing care to its Muslim citizens and looks forward to furthering cooperation between the OIC and the People’s Republic of China.”

This situation was mirrored in Pakistan in September when Noor-ul-Haq Qadri, the country’s religious affairs minister, slammed Beijing for battering Uighurs in the name of counter-terrorism — only to have Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi attack the media for “trying to sensationalize” the ongoing in Xinjiang. Amusingly, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said his government had decided to deal privately with issues that may arise with Chinese leaders. Nevertheless, he would go about drumming up “Kashmir Muslim case” anywhere and everywhere on the globe. Obviously, in either case, the economy not religion is the real decisive factor and Islam is a political ply. Imran Khan treats Uighur Muslims differently from the rest of the Muslims of the world just because they live in China and Kashmiris live in India.

Comparing Uighur persecution to that of India’s retraction of Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status, Imran Khan vexed eloquent saying China’s campaign against the Uighurs is “nothing compared to what is happening in India, in Kashmir. You cannot compare the scale.”

Well, if the comparison is the criterion and religion is the subject then one may ask, “How many mosques in Kashmir have been closed or pulled down; how many people have been prevented from praying in mosques; how many Kashmiris are barred from observing Ramadan; how many Kashmiri Muslim women are told not to wear the veil; how many are forbidden from naming their kids as Muhammad and how many seminaries (Jamaat-i-Islami madrasas/darsghs) have been told to shut down? One may ask Imran Khan to tell us how many piggeries have been opened in Kashmir, how many “vocational re-education camps” have been set up in Kashmir to accommodate even one-tenth of the one million internees in such camps in Xinjiang who are subjected to brainwashing, sent as factory labourers or subjected to sexual assaults? 

This comparison plus a host of other facts prove only one thing that it is the Islamic pretenders alone who are brazenly politicizing Islam and using it as an instrument of misleading people. In July 2019, a group of 22 countries including 18 from Europe and joined by Japan, Canada, New Zealand and Australia wrote a letter to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urging China to uphold its laws and international obligations, and stop arbitrary incarceration of Uighurs and other Muslim and minority communities, and permit freedom of religion. China experts, drawing on official Chinese documents, satellite imagery and the testimony of families whose relatives have been detained, estimate that China has detained a million or more people in re-education centres and has imposed intrusive surveillance,” wrote the New York Times of  July 10, 2019. None among the major Muslim countries signed the letter.

And what is more, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan sent separate letters to Beijing profusely praising China for her good treatment of Muslims of Xinjiang and at the same time profusely appreciating Beijing for coming down with a heavy hand on “Uighur terrorists.” Consider, the Uighurs struggling for the preservation of identity are labelled as “terrorists” by the two Islamic countries, and the Kashmiri insurgents fighting for seceding from India and joining Pakistan are labelled as “nationalists and freedom fighters.” This is what we mean by asking who politicizes Islam?


Prof. K.N. Pandita
Prof. K.N. Pandita
Prof. K.N. Pandita is the former Director of the Centre for Central Asian Studies, University of Kashmir. Prof. Pandita was awarded Padma Shri by the Government of India for his contribution in the field of literature and education.

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