How to help China’s Muslims

The mass internment of minority Uyghurs in western China is just the latest assaults on Muslims and demands far more than denunciation. What’s needed is religious response to such religious intolerance.

People mingle in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 22.

One of the best opportunities for Islamic extremists to gain recruits is to point to the persecution of peaceful Muslims, whether by non-Muslims or other Muslims. When Myanmar’s military forced 700,000 Rohingya Muslims out of the country a year ago, for example, Malaysia warned that Islamic State would gain supporters in Southeast Asia. The region cannot leave the Rohingya “desperate and wanting,” said one Malaysian official in a plea for compassion. 

A response from the religious to religious intolerance is key to countering groups like ISIS that rely on hatred toward innocent Muslims to justify their violence. Many Muslim leaders, including those in Saudi Arabia, have spoken out to help the Rohingya. This week, more than 130 lawmakers in five Southeast Asian nations, including largely Muslim Indonesia, demanded that Myanmar be investigated by the International Criminal Court. In June, Bangladesh – where most of the exiled Rohingya live in camps – sent evidence of Myanmar’s atrocities to the ICC.

Of all the assaults on Muslims around the world, the largest right now may be in China. In a charged report at the United Nations in mid-August, the ruling Communist Party was accused of harsh discrimination against the Muslim Uyghur minority in Xinjiang region (see related Monitor story by Peter Ford). As many as 1 million Uyghurs are being interned in special camps and subjected to attempts to rid them of their allegiance to Islam, according to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. China has lately elevated the notion that it is strictly a Chinese nation.

Because of China’s rising clout, however, leaders in Muslim countries have been largely silent about the mass internment of an estimated 5 to 10 percent of the adult Uyghur population. One exception is Malaysia, which has so far refused a request from China to extradite 11 Uyghur men who escaped from a jail in Thailand last year. Another is a territory in Pakistan, Gilgit-Baltistan, which threatens to close its border with China unless Beijing releases some 50 Uyghur women married to men from the area.

It is not enough to simply denounce religious persecution. Worldwide, most people live in countries with high restrictions on religion. Exposure and rebuke of intolerance is not enough. As the US ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, Sam Brownback, said recently, “We must move to a place where people genuinely care and love one another no matter our differences.” Religion can unlock the “spiritual capital” of people, he said, in order to deal with issues such intolerance.

One of the best examples of a nation starting to overcome its faith differences is Iraq. The nation’s Sunni-Shiite divide has slowly ebbed since fighters from both brands of Islam joined the government effort to oust ISIS militants from Iraqi territory last year. After a recent election, political protests have revealed a cross-sectarian demand for secular governance.

Iraq’s most revered Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has reached out to minority Sunnis and invited them to join in forming a unified Iraqi identity. The cleric’s compassionate outreach is designed to isolate radicals in both camps. 

The world can learn from such examples as it now deals with China’s suppression of its Muslims. Most religions contain the tools of peace to curb the instruments of hate.

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