Pakistan is an Islamic Republic, and over the last decades the polity has become increasingly religious in its character.
Religious rhetoric has long motivated the more extreme edges of the political discourse, but more and more of the political discourse in the country has become driven by religious identity politics – and conservative Sunni traditionalism has been the most politically outspoken of those religious identities.
The other most significant and consistent political development in Pakistan over the last decade or so has been the flourishing friendship with neighboring China. As an emerging global power, China is using its immense economic might to develop the trade links on which its prosperity depends. And part of those efforts are the huge investments China is making in developing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
The Chinese friendship is a remarkable aspect of Pakistani politics for at least two reasons: 1) it is one of the few issues on which most of this deeply divided country can agree on, and virtually all think it is a good thing for Pakistan; and 2) Chinese investment has done, is doing, and will continue to do more to improve the economic situation of ordinary Pakistani citizens than just about anything the Pakistani government themselves are doing – that Pakistanis see China in a positive light is therefore no surprise.
And yet, there is something very peculiar about this friendship: the Chinese government is virulently anti-Muslim, at least as far as Islam within its borders is concerned. Here I speak of the familiar troubles of the Sunni Uyghur people in Xinjiang province.
Even as we speak, the Chinese crackdown on Islam in the name of anti-separatism is seeing maybe as many as 1 million Muslims arbitrarily detained in “re-education camps” – out of 10-11 million Uyghurs in total in the province.
Uyghur newborns may not have “Muslim names”, and the authorities were even pressuring Muslims to show their loyalty toward the Chinese state by eating pork and drinking alcohol during Ramadan last year.
We even have a duty to do so to our Chinese friends in the spirit of friendship: we know from our own experience that oppressed Muslims sometimes tend to make for radicalized MuslimsDr. Azeem Ibrahim
The Pakistani government, as well as the Pakistani people, are typically very outspoken when Muslims around the world are persecuted. The poor relations with India are supposedly because of the way India is treating Muslims in Kashmir, or how Muslims have been attacked by mobs of Hindu nationalists in recent months.
Pakistanis will not waste a second criticizing Myanmar for their appalling treatment of the Rohingya – and rightly so. The cause of the Palestinians is loudly proclaimed, as are those of Chechens, Bosniaks and Albanians. But on the Uyghurs, all are silent.
So what about Muslim solidarity? Muslim solidarity certainly makes for a good and popular slogan for political leaders. And the people are all in favor of solidarity, so long as this requires little sacrifice on their part.
But when more than kind words are needed, well, things get complicated. The 350,000 Rohingya living in Pakistan may not be under immediate threat to their safety, but they have not been integrated in Pakistani society, and continue to be actively marginalized.
We are all for Palestinians, Chechens, or any other Muslim groups around the world, just so long as we do not have to give them refuge, or significant amount of aid. As for the Uyghurs next door? Well, let us not upset our “all weather” Chinese friends.
What the Chinese government is doing to the Uyghurs is no doubt a gross humanitarian abuse. And it is not just for Pakistan, but the entire international community to draw attention to it and to criticise it.
We even have a duty to do so to our Chinese friends in the spirit of friendship: we know from our own experience that oppressed Muslims sometimes tend to make for radicalized Muslims, and that is not good for China, not good for us, and not good for anybody.
But I do understand the reticence to take up this issue. China does not usually take advice on human rights well, even when it is well-intentioned and friendly in spirit.
But if that is the political judgement we are going to make, then let us not pretend that Muslim solidarity is all that important for us. At the very least, it seems that Chinese Yuan are more important.
But really, we all know, Muslim solidarity is great just so long as it does not cost us anything in general. Pakistan may have started as a country of refuge for Muslims across the region, but Muslim solidarity is something we have stopped actually caring about long ago.
Now it is but an empty political ritual for sale. But woe to anyone who would say as much, or question our Muslim purity!
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.