Arabs and the plight of Muslims

About three weeks ago, an op-ed in a Saudi newspaper cast doubt on claims that Muslims in China are persecuted. The reaction to that can be considered a case study in how Arabs view the situation of Muslims worldwide. Some comments supported the article’s argument, but most were extremely critical, even shocked to see such an opinion in a Saudi newspaper.

The arguments between supporters and detractors of the op-ed reveal not only a different understanding of the facts about Muslims in China, but also a fundamental difference in the value system that shapes the attitudes and positions of Saudis - and more generally Arabs - toward Muslims worldwide.

We all have different attitudes or positions toward the plight or persecution of other people. Most of us claim to be driven by a sense of shared humanity or moral reasoning, but often many of us act is if we believe only certain humans deserve our empathy or moral responsibility. This seems to be the case in Arab countries.

The op-ed’s supporters emphasized state sovereignty and considered Uighurs’ plight a consequence of their quest for autonomy or independence, almost denying wrongdoing in the Chinese government’s response.

The detractors emphasized Muslim responsibility to support the freedom of all Muslims, especially if they are governed by non-Muslims. They cited abuses against Chinese Muslims, one even saying they are being forced to eat donkey meat and drink its milk. The detractors also highlighted the plight of Muslims worldwide, especially in Kashmir, Burma and Palestine.

Often many of us act is if we believe only certain humans deserve our empathy or moral responsibility. This seems to be the case in Arab countries

Abdullah Hamidaddin

In the discussion on the op-ed, it was clear that oppression was acknowledged or denied based on a political value rather than a moral or humanitarian one. This was almost a discussion on ethnic solidarity, not human rights or morality, with one group defining the ethnic group based on sovereign borders, and the other defining it based on commonality of religion.


As significant, this was also a debate between two narratives set against a debate on the situation of Muslims in non-Muslim countries. The first, older and more popular narrative believes the world is divided into two camps: non-Muslims and Muslims.

In this narrative, non-Muslims are continuously conspiring against Muslims - who are too weak and divided to protect themselves - and the duty of all able Muslims is to support weaker Muslims then turn the tables on the conspirators. The second narrative divides the world into nations that compete or cooperate based on interests. This narrative pledges allegiance to the sovereign state above all, seemingly even above human rights.

Both narratives have many consequences. One is nurturing Islamic radicals inside and outside the Arab world. The second is a key factor in accepting human right abuses in many Arab countries, which in turn promotes nationalist radicalism. Together, they nurture and sustain a radical outlook to political and social life in Arab countries.

There is a third narrative that divides the world into individual humans who have a moral responsibility toward each other’s wellbeing. However, those subscribing to it seem to be decreasing in number or in visibility due to the weight of political polarization.

Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1


Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:49 - GMT 06:49
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