The missing voice of the Olympic boycott

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Doing the bare minimum to uphold human rights is not an Olympic sport at the Winter Games, which start tomorrow in Beijing, but let’s assume it was. Gold medals would no doubt be awarded to the United States, Britain, Canada and the handful of other countries whose top officials chose to avoid the Games to protest China’s persecution. of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, claiming that the use of mass detention and forced labor constitute genocide. The money would go to countries like Austria, Sweden and the Netherlands, whose government officials attributed their absence from the Games not to human rights concerns, but to the pandemic. The bronze would go to countries like France and the Czech Republic, whose leaders have called diplomatic boycotts of the Games “meaningless” and a “hijacking of the Olympic idea”.

Muslim-majority countries, which have largely chosen to ignore the plight of the Uyghurs, would not step onto the podium at all.

The silence of the governments of Muslim-majority countries on China’s treatment of Uyghurs is not new. For years, countries that claim to be defenders of the world’s Muslims – including Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey – have largely sidestepped the question of China’s treatment of its Muslim population in the northeastern region. western Xinjiang, where the government is believed to have locked up at least 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in concentration camps (or, as Beijing prefers to call them, “re-education camps”). Some of these countries have even supported the Chinese government’s efforts in deporting Uyghurs living within their borders to China, where they are almost certain to face persecution.

The return of the Olympics to China, which relies on these Games to consolidate its global image and validate its authoritarian system, accentuates the silence of the governments of the Muslim world. While these countries are certainly not the only ones to have condoned or even encouraged China’s human rights abuses, they have essentially given the tacit blessing of the Muslim world to China to continue its mass atrocities. .

The Muslim world is not homogeneous, of course. It covers dozens of countries on several continents and includes a wide range of cultures, languages ​​and interests. But even with all their diversity, Muslim-majority countries sometimes find opportunities to speak with one voice. When it comes to issues like Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, and even the Prophet Muhammad cartoons in Europe, you’d be hard-pressed to find Muslim leaders who don’t want to speak out. But on the Xinjiang crisis, and more broadly on human rights abuses in China, the response from these countries has been more erratic. Although Turkey and Malaysia have sometimes lukewarmly criticized China’s treatment of Uyghurs, a much larger group of countries, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, have gone out of their way to possible to endorse Chinese policy in Xinjiang. . Indeed, the leaders of the four countries are among the international dignitaries who are due to attend the opening ceremony of the Winter Games tomorrow.

The words of Muslim leaders may be varied, but their actions are more unified. In the months leading up to the 2022 Winter Games, none of the world’s Muslim-majority countries responded to calls from activists and religious leaders to boycott the Games. “From an Islamic point of view, supporting an oppressor directly or by extension is not allowed,” Imam Abdullah Mu’mini, the chief of staff of the Iraq-based Global Imams Council, told me in an email. -mail. “Since we view what is happening to Uyghur Muslims as oppression, we have taken this position.”

The fact that Muslim leaders deliberately chose to ignore the plight of China’s Muslims speaks to Beijing’s growing influence. China is one of the most important trading partners for many Muslim-majority countries and, especially for the Gulf states, the main buyer of oil from the Middle East. Through its Belt and Road Initiative, China has invested billions of dollars in infrastructure projects across the Muslim world. In doing so, the Chinese government has not only ensured its influence; he also bought leverage.

Perhaps in no country is this leverage effect felt more acutely than in Indonesia. Despite being the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, Indonesia is one of the quietest countries when it comes to the persecution of Uyghurs. Pro-Uyghur activists attribute Indonesia’s stance to Chinese investments in the country and Beijing’s concerted diplomatic efforts to promote its version of events in Xinjiang. “Indonesia is one of the biggest beneficiaries of [Belt and Road] money, so it’s a huge incentive for Indonesia to shut up,” Emil, a Jakarta-based activist from the Indonesia Save Uyghur campaign, told me. (He asked to be identified only by his first name for fear of reprisals.) He noted that while public support for the Uyghurs has forced the Indonesian government to tread carefully on the subject, it hasn’t stopped him from working. with Beijing to deepen China’s objectives and its own. In 2020, the Indonesian government, at Beijing’s request, reportedly deported three Uyghurs who had been convicted of terrorism to China, in what Uyghur activists have called a gross violation of non-refoulement, the principle of international law that prohibits countries from returning refugees to places where they are likely to be persecuted or tortured.

“Indonesia is totally complicit in the persecution of Uyghurs in this sense,” Emil said. “No Uyghur is safe here.”

The same is true in much of the Muslim world. Since 2017, nearly 700 Uyghurs have been detained in other countries, many of them majority Muslim, according to a 2021 report by two Washington, D.C.-based groups, the Uyghur Human Rights Project and the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs. . Many of those detained, including Uyghurs living in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have been deported.

“Muslim-majority countries are not only silent on Xinjiang; I would say they are actively complicit,” Bradley Jardine, research director of the Oxus Society, which tracks China’s repression of Uyghurs around the world, told me. Even havens like Turkey, home to one of the largest Uyghur diaspora communities in the world, no longer seem so safe. Although Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was one of the first to equate the Chinese government’s policy towards the Uyghurs with “genocide” (in response to the 2009 communal riots in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang), his government has since adopted a more conciliatory approach towards the Uyghurs. China. A yet-to-be-ratified extradition treaty between Beijing and Ankara could put the country’s 50,000 Uyghurs at risk of being repatriated to China. Some have already been deported.

Another reason why the persecution of Uyghurs in China and beyond has not sparked mass protests in Muslim-majority countries is that with the exception of Turkey, which shares a similar language and culture, most Muslim-majority populations do not have many ties to Uyghurs beyond their common faith. People who live in more repressive countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt may also feel they cannot freely challenge their government’s relationship with China. “Many of these countries have their own problems; they also have their own human rights issues,” Peter Irwin, program manager at the Uyghur Human Rights Project, told me. In addition, audiences in Muslim-majority countries, many of which are arid, tend to show little interest in the Winter Games. These facts suggest that “you won’t get much out of [these] governments, if any, on the Olympics,” added Irwin.

This status quo might be sustainable in more repressive countries, whose leaders don’t have to worry about public opinion, but activists in more democratic countries rely on public pressure to force policy change. “The Olympics provide an opportunity for Muslims to put the Uyghur cause in the spotlight,” said Indonesia’s Emil Save Uyghur, who is planning protests in Jakarta during the Games. Idris Ayas, an Istanbul-based activist with the Score4Rights campaign, told me the group encourages Olympic athletes to show solidarity with Uyghurs and other targets of persecution in China by making a crescent-shaped salute to signify “hope for change”. “The idea, Ayas said, was inspired by John Carlos and Tommie Smith, the Olympians who raised their fists during the Black Power salute during the 1968 Olympics. A representative of the Chinese Olympic Organizing Committee warned that athletes who participate in such events would face “certain sanctions”. The committee did not respond to a request for comment.

Although activists I spoke with welcomed the diplomatic boycott of the Games by the United States and other countries (which “is the least you can do,” Irwin said), they view the protests as incomplete without majority approval. Muslim countries, whose collective voice could have a substantial impact. “If Saudi Arabia were to criticize China, it would be very powerful, given its position of influence within the Muslim world; the same goes for Pakistan,” said Jardine, of Oxus. There is no clear incentive for these countries to take a stand, nor is there an international movement advocating for Muslim-majority countries to use their collective voice. But without them, any Western-led effort to pressure China is unlikely to have the desired effect.

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