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Who speaks for persecuted Muslims?

  • Choose a posture, and stay true to it

Shireen Mazari, our new Minister of Human Rights, recently snapped at Human Rights Watch (HRW) for being too critical of ongoing human rights violations in Pakistan. Yes, this is a strange sentence.

As HRW implored the new PTI government to direct focus towards key human rights issues, like abusive laws that curtail religious freedoms, and repugnant overuse of the death penalty. Mazari responded with a puerile non-answer; refusing to acknowledge the specifics of the letter, and deflecting attention towards violations in Kashmir and Palestine (both of which HRW has also strongly condemned).

If the minister of human rights insists on using a smoke screen, why not draw attention towards the treatment of Muslims by the Chinese government? The forsaken followers of Islam in China, decidedly not as dear to us as the Muslim brethren of Kashmir and Palestine, have long faced persecution for their beliefs. Pakistan, due to its strategic partnership with China, has kept its vow of silence.

Imagine Holland punishing a Muslim man with six-years imprisonment for keeping a beard, and two years to his wife for wearing a veil. This incident took place in Kashgar many years ago – a city romanticised in Iqbal’s poetry as a Muslim bastion. Had a similar bout of Islamophobia come from a Dutch court, we can make a safe bet that our new prime minister would have something to say about it.

The oppression has become much worse. A scathing article in The Atlantic offers a detailed examination of the hair-raising persecution faced by Chinese Muslims, particularly in the Uighur region. According to former inmates, these camps specialise in forcing Muslims to abandon their religious beliefs, and even abuse their religion to prove that they’ve ‘corrected’ their ways. Persecution methods, as described by survivors, include intense psychological torture.

We feign guardianship for the Muslim ummah as its strongest and most militarised state

The root of Chinese intolerance towards Islam in the region is not difficult to trace. It began with operations against Uighur separatists who were predominantly Muslim. It grew as a general disdain for even benign and subtle expressions of Islamic faith. The Chinese establishment seemingly views Islam as a political instrument being used to stoke distrust and even rebellion against the ruling power. This disdain is so intense, the Chinese establishment has been accused of pathologising religion and treating Muslims as if they are “ideologically ill”. The aforementioned camps, for example, are sometimes referred to by Chinese officials as ‘hospitals’.

The establishment defends these operations as action against religious extremism, and not religion itself. We have witnessed this feeble apologia before. It does not work for the Trump administration and its blanket ‘Muslim bans’, and it does not work for the Chinese. Furthermore, the methods being employed – which include penalising people for benign exhibitions of Muslimness, like keeping beards and refusing alcohol – indicates a deeper problem. In fact, there is every conceivable indication that the operations come from a place of deep-seated prejudice against Muslims themselves, rather than a precise crackdown on violent extremists.

The standard method of oppression usually involves equating feeble acts of resistance, with mass-violence and oppression by the state. In occupied Kashmir, the Indian forces justify their routine oppression by citing an occasional freedom fighter who turns violent. Brutality against Palestinian protesters is absolutely unacceptable, but the IDF defends its barbarism on account of the fact that the oppressed Palestinians sometimes throw rocks. China follows the same rule, and points at occasions of Islamic extremism to justify mass-abduction, incarceration, and torture.

Although these transgressions are completely ignored by the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, they have not gone unnoticed by the Human Rights Watch. “It’s completely unlawful — the authorities provide no legal documentation to the families and there are no time limits (on the length of detention),” said Maya Wang, Hong Kong-based senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch

We feign guardianship for the Muslim ummah as its strongest and most militarised state. But our decisions on which state to condemn and which country to embrace as a friend, have little to do with religion. It’s politically profitable for Imran Khan to wag a finger at Holland, but unbearably expensive for him to take a stand for millions of Muslim brethren being tormented in territories under Chinese control.

Muslim blood is not cheaper up north in China, than it is in Kashmir or Palestine. The worthy ideal of ‘defending Islam’ cannot be adopted or discarded based on whether the offender is Iranian or Saudi, Israeli or Burmese, Indian or Chinese. Choose a posture, and stay true to it.

Faraz Talat

Faraz Talat is a medical doctor from Rawalpindi and an ardent traveller who writes frequently about science, social politics and international relations.

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