Persecution of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang meets with silence on the arab street

  • Steven Weingartner

    Steven Weingartner

By Steven Weingartner
Guest columnist
Updated 1/8/2020 7:28 PM

In a previous article, LTC Sargis Sangari, CEO of the Near East Center for Strategic Engagement, discussed the "backyard wars" concept in terms of the necessity for the U.S. to continue applying economic pressure on China as a means of reining in the Chinese in their drive to dominate the western Pacific and Southeast Asia.

In this installment, I elaborate on this theme in the context of the internal unrest in the form of the "Uighur problem" in Xinjiang.


U.S. Middle Eastern policymakers, politicians, and military leaders have gone about their work for decades in considerable trepidation of the so-called "Arab street." Fearful of provoking the street's wrath by taking action deemed offensive to Islam, intimidated by the power it supposedly wields, they formulate plans and carry out operations limited by self-imposed constraints shaped by a nearly paralyzing excess of caution.

Such caution continues to dominate Western thinking about the Middle East, preventing meaningful engagement with the region's problems. But it is unwarranted. For the "Arab street" does not exist, at least not in monolithic form. The putative vox populi of Middle Eastern Islam speaks in many tongues, a cacophony of languages, a chorus of discord where the unity of thought and opinion is as ephemeral as a desert djinn; and the power it wields exists only in the minds of those who fear it.

If there were something even approximating a monolithic Arab street, one would surely expect it to voice outrage over China's treatment of Turkic Muslim Uighurs in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (UXAR). Known as East Turkestan and Uyghuristan to the people who make up its majority population, the victorious Communist Chinese "acquired" this region in 1949, during the waning days of the Chinese Civil War.

The Uighurs have never really reconciled to Chinese rule, but they are powerless to change the situation. Beijing is intolerant of dissent and not reluctant to impose harsh measures to suppress it. In Xinjiang, these measures have a genocidal cast. In recent years, some 1 million Muslim Uighurs have been sent to concentration camps, where they are "reeducated" -- a thinly veiled euphemism for physical and psychological maltreatment, including torture, starvation, and outright murder. Some 100 camps have been established for this purpose.

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Recently several Western nations and Japan signed a United Nations declaration stating their concern over the persecution of Xinjiang Uighurs and requested that the region be opened to human rights observers to monitor and report on the situation. But there are notable absences among the signatories: namely, the Muslim nations of the Middle East, i.e. the "Arab street." With the except of Bahrain, which came out against China on this issue this week, these nation have said nothing on behalf of their co-religionists in Xinjiang.

These are the same nations that do not hesitate to decry the U.S. as the "Great Satan" for supporting Israel or to advocate for the destruction of the Jewish state and its people, or to threaten and, if it is within their capabilities to do so, unleash violence against anyone who dares to criticize or mock Islam. On these issues, the Arab street may be counted on to loudly voice its outrage.

But when it comes to China's persecution of Xinjiang's Muslim Uighurs, the Arab street is worse than silent. Saudi Arabia, the self-proclaimed protector of the seat of Islam, endorsed the very nation that is destroying it. In one statement Saudi Arabia went from defender to co-conspirator in Islam's eradication.

The rest of the Arab street will not speak up for the Uighurs because the nations through which that street runs are afraid of offending China -- and thus of losing the economic benefits a submissive relationship with Beijing promises to bring.

Recognizing that this is the case will enable policymakers to better assess and deal with the real causes of Islamic outrage and violence toward the US.

Steven Weingartner is senior editor for Near East Center for Strategic Engagement and an award-winning military affairs writer and historian.

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