In the aftermath of 9/11, the “War on Terror” has become a ubiquitous feature of the global landscape. We know of it in the West, we know of it in Russia, in Myanmar, the Central African Republic – in most places surrounding the Islamic world. Here, it is mostly a code word for suppression of Islam and of Muslim minorities.
And of course, the “War on Terror” is everywhere within the Islamic world itself. Regimes are waging wars and everyone, especially the semi-secularized military dictatorships, are waging war on every “extremist” who is challenging their power, whether by demanding democracy, or by demanding regional autonomy in ethnic minority areas.
But one “War on Terror” that does not often make the headlines is the one China is waging on their Uighur Muslim minority in the western-most province of Xianjiang. That this is something that escapes international attention is both unsurprising, and extremely disturbing.
It is unsurprising for a number of reasons. First of all, it is already known and taken as a given that China will make use of extensive repression against its citizens. This is not just something the central government does against minorities, but really any individual or group which it sees at a “threat to stability”.
But there is also a well-established precedent on how China will deal with entire provinces and minorities it deems as potentially rebellious, in the well-publicised history of Chinese repression in Tibet.
China’s economic might and its increasing international assertiveness progressively puts it beyond criticism and international accountabilityAzeem Ibrahim
No iconic leaders
Unlike the Tibetans, however, the Uighurs are Muslims, and they do not have an internationally iconic leader like the Dalai Lama who can campaign and raise awareness on their behalf.
So although the methods of repression employed in Xianjiang are the same methods used in Tibet, except updated with newer technology, and they are implemented by many of the same Communist Party officials, the profile of these humanitarian abuses will inevitably be much lower. Both for the lack of “star power” and for the fact that the victims are Muslim.
A second reason why this is being overlooked is a lot more serious, however: China does not take kindly to international commentary on what it deems its “internal affairs”. We already know what this looks like from the experience of Tibet.
China has cajoled, intimidated, and deployed its economic power to pressure anyone who would meet with the Dalai Lama. And while America under Obama still had enough clout to resist such pressure, countries as powerful as the UK have long since buckled.
This despite the fact that the Dalai Lama has a very high and very positive profile in the West. There are therefore very many incentives for Western leaders to be seen with him and to speak sympathetically about the Tibetan cause when addressing their liberal domestic audiences. But as far as the Uyghurs are concerned, there are no similar benefits for speaking out.
Swamping the state
And so it is that China can institute controls and checkpoints targeted at the Uyghurs in Xianjiang more repressive than the Israeli ones in the Occupied Territories, that they can swamp the entire state of Xianjiang with Han Chinese migrants from the East.
This is aimed at reducing the distinctive character of the province (a tactic similar to the one employed in Tibet), that it can “criminalize” virtually every aspect of Uighur religious belief and practice, and that it can even go as far as banning Islamic names for newborn Uyghurs, with scarcely any censure from the international community, or even the supposedly humanitarian West.
In most places around the world, if such policies had been implemented, the United Nations and the West would have called the situation a clear case of ethnic cleansing: it certainly meets the criteria according to international law. But China’s economic might and its increasing international assertiveness progressively puts it beyond criticism and international accountability.
This is an extremely dangerous place to be. And not just for the Uyghur. This is just one more portend of the decline of Human Rights throughout the world. And the longer term consequences of this trend will be dire for most people everywhere.
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.