In the Middle East, Little Outcry Over China's Uighurs

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David Gray / REUTERS

Armed Chinese paramilitary police in riot gear disembark a truck outside a mosque in Urumqi in China's Xinjiang region on July 13, 2009

The fatal stabbing of an Egyptian Muslim woman in a German courtroom two weeks ago sparked anger across the Muslim world and fueled demands for a formal apology from Germany. But while the region rages about the story of the "headscarf martyr," holding her up as a symbol of persecution, the plight of China's Muslim population has provoked a more muted response.

On July 5 police cracked down on a demonstration by minority Muslim Uighurs in the city of Urumqi, capital of China's western Xinjiang region. Hundreds of Uighur young men rioted, attacking majority Han Chinese civilians with knives, clubs and bricks. In the end authorities say 137 Hans, 46 Uighurs and one member of the Chinese Muslim Hui ethnic group were killed. But, says Diaa Rashwan, a political analyst at the government-backed Ahram Center for Strategic Studies in Cairo, "there is not a lot of interest or attention paid to these events in the Arab and Muslim world."

Many Arabic news media covered the story only sporadically or failed to pick up on it until days after the riots began, and opinion writers — who were especially prolific in defense of the headscarf martyr — had very little to say about the Muslims in China. An article over the weekend in Saudi Arabia's Arab Times likened the struggle of their Uighur "co-religionists" to that of the Palestinians and compared the Han Chinese to the Jews; and an editorial in Egypt's state-run Al-Ahram newspaper last week urged the international community to pay more attention to the crackdown. But calls for Muslim and Arab leaders to condemn the violence in China remain conspicuously absent from the regional press.

Which isn't necessarily surprising. Most of the region's governments — and what is largely a state-sponsored press — have several reasons to ignore China's ethnically and religiously charged clashes. To some Arab regimes, the bloody images of riot police clashing with Uighur protesters in Xinjiang's capital last week were strikingly familiar, because the same thing happens at home. "They make the same systematic separation of opponents, of Islamic groups, of opposition groups, and they arrest many and they kill many," says Essam el-Erian, a leader of Egypt's opposition Muslim Brotherhood, comparing Arab regimes to the Chinese government. "How could they criticize the Chinese? They are in the same boat."

Indeed, the Uighurs and the popular Islamist Muslim Brotherhood have much to commiserate over. The Uighurs complain of religious and cultural persecution and economic marginalization by China's Han-dominated government. Not unlike Egypt's heavy-handed treatment of the Brotherhood — which is banned from participating in politics, and whose members are frequently subject to arrests and interrogations — China also limits the Uighurs' international travel and maintains a degree of control over the sermons they provide at local mosques.

So far, Turkey has been the only government in the region to offer strong condemnation of China's actions, with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan likening the crackdown to "genocide." Turkey shares linguistic and cultural ties with China's Uighurs, and its leaders' criticism of the Chinese government is made easier, says el-Erian, because "they have a democratic system."

This week, some signs of protest were also evident in Jordan, where, according to U.S.-funded Arabic satellite network al-Hura, 40 Jordanian lawmakers submitted a letter to the head of parliament calling on the government to formally condemn the events in Xinjiang. Meanwhile, the Jordanian Moderate Islamic Party encouraged Arab and Islamic governments to take a stance on the "practices against Muslims in Germany and China." But no formal government statements have followed.

A large factor in the regional silence, according to local analysts, is trade. "There are other political and economic interests and challenges," says Hala Mustafa, editor-in-chief of Egypt's government-affiliated Al-Ahram Quarterly Democracy Review. China has a significant economic presence in the Middle East, particularly where it fills the gaps left by U.S. sanctions. According to U.S. government statistics, China is both Iran and Sudan's biggest trade partner, and either the main or secondary source of imports for most of the other countries in the region.

There is also a potential double standard to consider. In the case of Egypt, "China is not involved in or critical about any of the political challenges in Egypt, and it doesn't interfere on this level," says Mustafa. "That makes Egypt more reserved toward any clashes that Muslims are involved [with] in China."

Even so, some predict the official reaction will come — in time. "I think in the next days and weeks there will be more attention, because it just started in the Arab media," says political analyst Rashwan, adding that Muslim organizations in the Middle East will also start to publicly voice support for the Uighurs. In the most extreme case yet, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb this week called for attacks on Han Chinese in North Africa in retaliation for Muslim deaths.

And while the Iranian government, which waged its own violent crackdown on opposition protesters last month, has remained relatively mute on the issue, several of the country's high-ranking Shi'ite clerics have spoken out against China's actions. "Defending the oppressed is an Islamic and humanitarian duty," Ayatullah Jafar Sobhani said on July 15, according to the Tehran Times.

Still, the chances that the region's heads of states will follow suit seem unlikely.