Unrest in Xinjiang: Where's the Muslim outrage?

Muslims around the world have largely remained silent about last week's deadly riots between Han Chinese and Uighurs. What makes this case of 'oppression' of Muslims different than others?

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    Paramilitary police officers patrol on the main street in Urumqi, western China's Xinjiang province, Monday.
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Shhhh! I think I just heard a pin drop.

Nope. It's just more deafening silence from the Muslim Street in the wake of last week's ethnic riot that killed more than 184 in China's restive Xinjiang Province, home to the Uighurs, a Muslim minority group.

According to the Chinese government, the majority of the victims in the riot were Han Chinese, attacked by Uighurs who've complained for decades about being marginalized, abused, neglected, and oppressed ever since former Communist leader Mao Zedong launched a campaign to flood Xinjiang with Han Chinese in 1960s. But many of the victims were Uighurs, too, and thousands of Uighurs were arrested as a result of the melee. Many could face execution.

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China also closed mosques last week – just one of many strict limits on freedom of expression in Xinjiang.

It’s the kind of stuff that would arouse passionate protests if a Western country were the one cracking down. (Remember the apoplectic protests over the Danish cartoon of Prophet Muhammad?)

But there were no Chinese flags burned in Karachi. No effigies of Hu Jintao smoldered in Cairo. No “Death to China” chants echoed through the streets of Tehran.

Not that the Monitor would ever be in favor of such protests against any country. But why does it seem as though there such a different reponse for China?

The Uighurs' "spiritual mother," Rebiya Kadeer (profiled here by the Monitor’s Beijing Bureau Chief Peter Ford), has some ideas.

“So far the Islamic world is silent about the Uighurs' suffering because the Chinese authorities have been very successful in [their] propaganda to the Muslim world … that the Uighurs are extremely pro-west Muslims - that they are modern Muslims, not genuine Muslims," she said at a press conference Monday in Washington.

Ms. Kadeer contrasted a lack of action from Muslim countries with the support Uighurs get from Western democracies and called on Muslim nations to do more.

Turkey drops the G-word

Days later, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan called the situation “genocide” and thousands of Turks protested China’s treatment of Uighurs on Sunday. Turks share ethnic and cultural bonds with the Turkic-speaking Uighurs, so the support in Turkey goes beyond sympathy for fellow Muslims allegedly being oppressed by non-believers.

Iran’s clerics speak out

Iranian critics are starting to get into the act, too.

Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, a high-level cleric, demanded that Iran’s foreign ministry quickly condemn what he described as the Chinese government's "horrible" backing of "racist Han Chinese."

The news website Tabnak, backed by, Mohsen Rezai, conservative challenger of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, accused the government of hypocrisy in ignoring violence against fellow Muslims: “When Israel was striking Gaza, state radio and television aired round-the-clock reports and analyses about the massacre of Muslims, but now only short reports are heard. . . . During the Israeli invasion of Gaza, nearly 1,000 died in 20 days – or 50 per day. In China's riots, nearly 100 Muslims were killed in a day. Our government is silent regarding clear carnage.”

But, by and large, the Muslim Street has been just as silent.

A plea from the Palestinian territories

“Muslims around the world have an absolute religious, moral, and human duty to identify with their oppressed brothers and sisters in [Xinjiang],” journalist Khalid Amayreh in an opinion piece on Islam Online, comparing the Uighurs’ plight to that of the Palestinians. “Muslims, as the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, must never betray or abandon other Muslims, especially in time of distress. Unfortunately, however, Muslim states and Muslim peoples alike have been largely silent in the face of these atrocities in [Xinjiang].”

Will this change? We'll see.

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