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All over the world, we witness public marches in support of the Palestinians from Gaza. Yet the Muslim Uighurs (and Myanmar Rohingya) attract virtually no attention, in fact Muslim leaders explicitly endorse the Uighur genocide. Why is this?

https://www.voanews.com/a/palestinian-leader-s-endorsement-of-china-s-xinjiang-policy-sparks-backlash-/7150767.html

https://www.axios.com/2020/10/08/un-statement-china-uighurs-xinjiang

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  • 1
    The use of internet memes in this question (and in general) is being discussed on meta
    – Philipp
    Nov 29, 2023 at 14:45
  • 1
    Removed the meme per the meta consensus.
    – JJJ
    Jan 12 at 9:46

11 Answers 11

37

Some points that are perhaps worth mentioning/adding here:

  • Unlike Palestine, the Uyghurs are not recognized as a country by anyone; so there's "but they're just separatists we're dealing with" argument.

  • China deftly oppresses the non-Turkic Muslims (Hui) less, so they can argue it's not all out anti-Muslim stuff they're doing.

  • Not surprisingly then, the Muslims that have protested the situation in Xinjiang the most seem to be the Turks, at least at the official level. (But Pan-Turkism is also viewed with suspicion by many Arabs, see e.g. (p. vii).)

  • A good number of Arab countries allied themselves with the USSR for realpolitik reasons, despite the general anti-religious tack of the latter. (Generally speaking, such USSR-aligned leaders/movements, including the PLO, were not hardcore Islamists, but had a more complex ideology, mixing nationalism with some socialist elements, on top of religion.) China is perhaps seen as not much different than the USSR was, overall, in those quarters. The new camps are possibly more worrisome, but the USSR also had gulags, internally deported Muslim minorities (e.g. the Tartars) etc. And, finally, on this point, China actually manages to have better/closer relations with some Arab or Muslim countries that even the USSR didn't have. This includes the Saudi ballistic missile program, built by China. The same goes, to an even greater extent, for Pakistan.

  • There's not a huge amount of press freedom in the Muslim world, in general. Coupled with the censorship of info at the source (Xinjiang) there's probably not a lot that reaches the average Muslim in re Xinjiang. Call this the double censorship effect, if you like.

  • Then, there's the means. A police state, even Guantanamo like images/footage, is still less striking than bombs falling on buildings.

  • Coupled with that, there's the Chinese effort for guided-tours "come and see for yourselves".

  • And, generally speaking, Muslim countries are not shining beacons of democracy and human rights. So the leaders thereof may not be exactly excited by a discussions of questionable policing practices when they sometimes do that themselves [on a lesser scale] to domestic political opponents, some minorities etc.

  • Some of those efforts like deradicalization camps in Saudi Arabia, are even praised by the West. So Muslim countries slamming China too much on something that China claims is just that [deradicalization, but] on a grander scale might backfire domestically, too. (Speaking of which, the Saudis give best tours of the latter.)


Somewhat of a coda here: some answers have made a point on the distinction between incorporating and granting citizenship (China) vs. how Israel treats the non-citizen Palestinians. But citizenship in a one-party state means much less than in a more pluralistic democracy.

Think carefully though what a China-inspired solution to the Palestinian problem could look like: a one party Likud state, with a pseudo-autonomy for the Palestinian territories that means even less in practice than the current setup: elections where Palestinians would just get to choose among a list of Likud-preselected candidates etc.

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32

In addition to the previous answers, I'm surprised nobody has pointed to the elephant in the room yet: The Chinese aren't Jews.

Islam has something to say about Jews in its holy texts. Not so much about Chinese. This gives the conflict a religious aspect that the Uighur-Chinese conflict lacks. Which makes it much easier for any political leader of a muslim country to use a religious narrative for his political purposes.

(again: This is not a complete answer, it is meant to complement the other answers.)

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    Add to the fact that one conflict is located around holy sites of both religions, and the other one in a remote region nobody really cares about (except people living there). Nov 5, 2023 at 8:31
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    @PaŭloEbermann yes, good point as well.
    – Tom
    Nov 5, 2023 at 10:30
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The Uighurs are treated as a different case from the Palestinians for two reasons.

Firstly, China is attempting to absorb the Uighur people into China more fully, not chase them out of China.

Israel is not attempting to absorb the Palestinians.

The circumstances in Xinjiang are not really comparable to Gaza, insofar as no rockets can be seen to be raining down and people are not parched for water, and the Chinese would not do this because it would impair the intended absorption.

Israel does pummel Gaza (and has for decades already) because in its mental schema, it does not have to consider how Israelis might live together in one community with the Gazans later following this assault, because it does not ever intend for such an event to come to pass.

Secondly, Israel's main patron, the USA, is with some justification unpopular in the Middle East.

Iran's former leader Ayatollah Khomeini called the US and Israel the "great Satan" and "little Satan", respectively, to give you a flavour of the strength of anti-US feeling and the extent to which Israel is perceived to be linked to an axis centred on the US, but also including the European colonial powers in the same axis.

It's also just a couple of years since the US concluded it's last direct war and occupation, in Afghanistan, so memories are fresh.

China is not alienated from the Middle East region like this. I can't recall any history in which the PRC has been at war with the Middle East.

Therefore even if there is perceived wrongdoing by China, there is less of a multiplier effect with their established reputation.

These two reasons are why the Palestinians receive a lot of attention from the "Muslim world" (i.e. the states and masses in the Middle East geographic region, and their diaspora), and the Uighurs don't.

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24

Some reasons:

The Palestinian conflict has been in the public discourse for a long time. More than a hundred years. Uyghur issues are relatively recent.

The Uyghur conflict is mostly a purely internal issue of China. The Palestinian conflict has been part of international politics, including an important part of the Cold War, since the creation of Israel and mainly since the Suez Crisis. Nobody expects the Uyghur conflict to be the spark to World War III. Many people feared that Middle East would be. In fact, nowadays many people are afraid of the current situation leading to a regional war.

The above points mean that a lot more people knows about the Palestinian conflict than about the Uyghur's conflict. And positions are more entrenched.

There is a larger Palestinian diaspora.

Palestinian conflict can be seen as an offshot of colonialism (people from Western countries going to somewhere else to tell the locals that they have no rights to their own land, because the Western people had good reasons). Call it "ancestral home" or "white man's burden".

As stated in the other answer, the Uyghur conflict is an attempt to absorb a population. The Palestinian conflict is an attempt to remove a population from their land.

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There's a whole grab-bag of likely factors. Which ones motivates whom most is hard to say:

  • Xinjiang repression, or the awareness of it, is a relatively recent phenomena, starting around 2014 or so (if the news is even covered much in the Middle East). It just isn't as much part of the vernacular of Muslim issues as Palestine. The nature of the oppression is different as well: one group may be undergoing forced assimilation. The other is seen as having their land stolen from them. Over decades.

  • At this point in time, there is also a massive difference: one population is suffering mass casualties in a war zone, the other... isn't.

  • Despite not being a fan of China, and much, much, less of Hamas, hard to envision circumstances in Xinjiang being much worse than Gaza's, at least for non-resisters, and that's even before 10/7. That's not to say Xinjiang is great, but Gaza is a developmental disaster (and, no, the Middle Eastern "street" will not be blaming Hamas for it).

  • The world has massively greater media access to Gaza events than on Xinjiang. China maintains a press blackout. Xinjiang is also a very, very, remote part of China, next to also-despotic 'Stans. In contrast, NGOs and reporters report freely, if at considerable risk, on events in Gaza. Do Hamas local opponents get to say much? That's uncertain.

  • Islam, Christianity and Judaism are all Abrahamic religions, which have a long history of mutual distrust, dislike and warfare. In contrast, China is a relatively unknown factor so not as instinctively perceived as a threat, esp. if they play the innocent and claim to respect Islam.

  • Chinese dictatorship is basically not so very different from most of the Middle East's political systems and has courted them for the last 10-20 yrs: they're not gonna rock the boat. Nor are Middle Eastern governments, often presiding over unfree press systems, likely to criticize a fellow dictatorship much. As Australia for example has experienced, China will push back, hard, on what it considers disrespect to Chinese affairs: state-controlled media outlets will be careful in what they say.

  • China is very, very, good at playing the Global South defender, anti-colonial power. The West, and Israel, generally suck at this game. Until China develops as robust a history of real and perceived misdeeds in the Middle East and Africa as the US, Europe and Israel, they will tend to get the benefit of the doubt from the population.

  • Distance aside, Uyghurs are Turkish-related. Turks, perhaps thru the Ottoman Empire history, perhaps thru linguistics, may not be perceived as the closest of cousins. In contrast to Palestinians who are definitely part and parcel of the immediate Umma/Caliphate area (in the old, benign sense of the term).

  • Some of these factors probably also apply to the Rohingya who also really don't seem to cause much trepidation in the Muslim world, despite Myanmar having negligible leverage on Middle Eastern opinion. The relative neglect of civilian casualties in Yemen, due to a proxy war waged by regional powers, also gives one the impression that Israel gets more blame than others.

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14

Question

Why is the Muslim world obsessed with Israel's conflict with the Palestinians, yet express virtually no interest in the Uighyrs?

Short Answer:

The Uighurs genocide is playing out inside China which actively suppresses stories about it inside and outside there borders. This suppression has been very effective and involves economic penalties for companies and countries, and physical attacks against people; who pursue it.

The Palestinian Israeli troubles are playing out in the center of the Muslim world on the TV news and in news print globally. For the Arab world it's personal as many there have family members and acquaintances who were casualties in fighting against Israel from the many wars dating back nearly 80 years. Also the M.E. has a long and troubled past with long term colonialization and occupation. For many the Israeli occupation bares similarities with British, French, and Turkish occupations of the recent past. Finally it's really not just the Muslim world which is horrified by the carnage, their outrage is magnified by the global focus and attention gathering due to the predominantly civilian casualties inflicted by the Israeli response.

Answer:

The modern genocide going on against the Uighurs is relatively new, began in 2014, camps opened up in 2017. It's clandestine china doesn't allow stories to be printed nor cameras in the camps. Even when important governments take exception to the genocide it rarely makes the news or stays in the public conscience for very long.

CHINA 2022 INTERNATIONAL RELIGIOUS FREEDOM REPORT.

United States State Department

In February, the United States declined to send diplomatic or official representation to the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics due to concerns over what the presidential press secretary described as the government’s “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses.”

Known foreign journalists can't get within hundreds of miles of the camps and even then they have minders limiting what they can see. What we know really comes from word of mouth of survivors who face immense risks for telling their stories. with private foundations seeking out testimonials from these few who have escaped. The Uighur genocide is also not the only genocide China is currently pursuing. China is committing genocide against multiple religious groups inside it's borders not just Muslims but include:

Religious Freedom Conditions in China | USCIRF

US Commission on International Religious Freedom (.gov)

Religious freedom conditions in China continue to deteriorate. The communist Chinese government has created a high-tech surveillance state, utilizing facial recognition and artificial intelligence to monitor and harass Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, Falon Gong and other religions. Independent experts estimate that between 900,000 and 1.8 million Uighur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and other Muslims have been detained in more than 1,300 concentration camps in Xinjiang.

The Uighur's genocide is also occurring thousands of miles away from any other major Muslim population center. Nobody knows how many Uighurs have been detained in education camps, murdered, or had their body parts forcible harvested and sold to domestic or international organ markets. Even to know that much, which most don't, one would need to do more than just keep up with current events. Anyone with first hand knowledge who speaks about it with western journalists faces brutal repression. The Uighur genocide rarely appears in the news for fear of Chinese economic retribution against the parent companies.

What is occurring to the Palestinians has been ongoing in the M.E. for nearly 80 years, in the center of the Muslim world. All of the countries in the ME have lost people in fighting with Israel over its short and troubled history. That makes it personal for many in the M.E. who have lost brothers sons and fathers in these very troubles. The Israeli Palestinian troubles also occur on live TV every day. Not only does it dominate the news cycle, it's dominating intercountry discourse.

The outrage the Muslim world feels over Israel's overwhelming response tactics, where innocents and children make up the majority of the casualties, is mirrored across many/most countries around the world.

Washington Post Oct 31, 2023

Israeli strikes on Jabalya refugee camp kill and injure hundreds in Gaza.

JERUSALEM - A series of Israeli strikes targeting a senior Hamas commander in the northern Gaza Strip left scores of dead and wounded in a crowded refugee camp Tuesday as Israel expands its assault by air and land. The Gaza Health Ministry and the director of Gaza's Indonesian Hospital said hundreds of people were killed or injured in the attack.

Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said a senior Hamas commander, Ibrahim Biari, was killed in the strikes.

The blasts left a deep crater and crumbled buildings. Mahmoud Bassal, a spokesperson for the Palestinian Civil Defense emergency services, said about 20 buildings destroyed. The breakdown of the dead and wounded was not immediately clear amid ongoing rescue efforts.

Israel going after 1 senior leader with multiple strikes causing 100's of innocent causalities. These types of acts focus global attention and magnify Muslim nations reaction.

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In addition to the other answers here, the part of the "Muslim world" with significant wealth and power is largely Arab. Meanwhile the Uyghurs are a Turkic people. There is a lot of bad blood between the Arabs and the Turks thanks to the Ottoman Empire. So most Arabs are not particularly bothered about what happens to a bunch of Turks.

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  • That is interesting but doesn't explain why Iran (not Arabs) or Turkey haven't made a big deal about Uighur genocide, or the London rallies which are mostly Pakistani people.
    – torahmike
    Nov 14, 2023 at 7:33
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    @torahmike "Iran (not Arabs) or Turkey haven't made a big deal about Uighur genocide" are you confident that this is really true? If they did, an Iran-China or Turkey-China diplomatic dispute might not make Western headlines.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 14, 2023 at 19:46
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See my answer here for the China side of things.

TL;DR? China has evolved beyond needing an enemy for internal cohesion, and has worked very hard to bring Muslim-majority nations on-board with their PR campaigns via showing leaders what their 'reeducation' camps look like, and applying subtle force in the form of an implicit threat of making that country a less-valued trading partner if they don't go along with China's treatment of the Uighurs.

Israel, on the other hand, still defines itself by its enemies. They think of themselves as the underdogs in the Middle East, fighting for their very existence. They have very much not sought to bring Muslim-majority nations on-board, and they weren't engaging in heavy trade with any of those countries, so they don't have that sort of leverage. The main bit of leverage Israel can apply is via its alliance with the United States, and this cannot be easily categorized as a subtle or 'guiding' pressure.

Bottom line? Muslim-majority nations care much more about Palestine because Israel itself puts these nations in the same hostile 'category' as it does Palestine, and has made no major/successful attempts to dissuade them.

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    Have you not heard of the Abraham accords? Israel is constantly trying to make peace.
    – torahmike
    Nov 14, 2023 at 7:34
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    @torahmike The Abraham accords have the same problem Israel has with Palestine. Outwardly willing to negotiate, but unwilling to address the root causes of the problem.
    – Carduus
    Nov 14, 2023 at 14:57
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The psychological motivation for outrage about the Palestinians is not only coreligionist loyalty, but also a sense of humiliation. As Paul Johnson notes, the Uyghurs are non-Arab; the Rohingya are also non-Arab Muslims, and they too receive less sympathy. But more importantly, it is neither surprising nor humiliating that the outnumbered Uyghurs and Rohingya lose to Han and Burman majorities. In contrast, the Israelis are stronger while being outnumbered, which can only be attributed to technological / organizational superiority, or to support from the white Christian West, or to the favor of God. All these possibilities are humiliating to Arab Muslims.

Arab Muslims fondly remember when they were once more advanced and powerful than the West. But they've been struggling to catch up ever since the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions passed them by. Arab Muslims also glory over their defeat of the European Christian Crusaders in the Holy Land. That Israel receives support from the wealthy white Christian West adds humiliation; this is especially the case for Arab Muslim immigrants in the West, who feel humiliated to live among wealthier non-Arabs non-Muslim Westerners. Finally, Jerusalem is a holy site in Islam that many Muslims believe that God wants them to have. That they no longer control it raises questions about the truth of their religion, much as the presence of the US military in Saudi Arabia (even though it was in support of the Saudis!) was offensive to Osama bin Laden due to the sacredness of the Arabian Peninsula within Islam.

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    "But they've been struggling to catch up ever since the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions passed them by." - although the answer rings true to some degree, you don't seem to find time to explain that their "struggles" may be due to constant Western liberal colonisation and smashing. Similarly with Bin Laden and the US presence in Saudi, you seem to suggest this was a religious objection, rather than an objection to the same old Western colonisation and real-world interference. Bin Laden, after all, had been a tool of that interference, bankrolled by the US.
    – Steve
    Nov 6, 2023 at 0:22
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    @Steve -- some would say that this struggle is the fault of the West, while others would say this struggle is their fault. My answer attempted to avoid attributing blame to anyone, limiting myself to the uncontroversial observation that it has been a struggle, because this is what SE answers should aim for, IMO. Nov 6, 2023 at 0:53
  • There's probably some truth to this. These kinda claims were made in What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East by Bernard Lewis Now, that book comes across as quite paternalistic and Western chauvinist ("their civilization is inferior because they don't like classical music"). But it doesn't mean it is always wrong and some of it is easily verifiable. Nov 7, 2023 at 18:04
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    Like the claim that Ottoman diplomatic envoys never bothered learning Western languages because the barbarians were expected to speak Turkish. Now, Ottoman does not mean Arab, but most of the Arab world was in their empire so attitudes probably blended a bit. Back in the 1100s Westerners were definitely at the bottom of the civilizational heap and people have long memories of others' misdeeds (Crusaders! Bad! Barbary pirate slave raids? Whuzzat???) Bit like Americans : 1953 Iran CIA coup? huh? Nov 7, 2023 at 18:09
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica, right, and America hasn't really experienced humiliation in its short history, and so we tend to underestimate its effect on human psychology. Nov 7, 2023 at 18:43
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One of the reasons is likely that China has a lot of trade relations with Muslim countries, especially Turkey, and trade or economic interests whatsoever means influence. This Foreign Policy article from 2021 summarizes this quite clearly. The fact that Turkey does not say much about it anymore is relevant since the Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnical group. By the same dynamic the European countries did not bother what Russia was doing towards human rights and the Ukraine conflict since 2014, as long as Russia provided the necessary gas and oil resources.

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There are already quite a few answers to this question, but I feel that they either only give part of the answer or, in some cases, are actually misleading.

The first thing to note is that Muslims are the subject of some of the worst atrocities and persecution globally. Islamophobia is one of the most pernicious yet widespread ideologies globally. There are the genocides in China and Burma (as mentioned in the question), and apartheid and related crimes in Israel. But along with these, there are a host of other less known, less violent instances of persecution. For example, the Crimean Tartars have been facing persecution. The same is the case for Muslims in Russia.

Given this global picture, it is impossible for Muslims to simultaneously protest all instances of persecution vigorously. This is particularly so for Muslim communities who are engaged in combating discrimination in their home countries. For example, France's sizable Muslim community is facing increasingly harsh and punitive laws targeted at them.

So given this reality, Muslim communities are forced to make difficult choices on where to focus their protests. Trying to protest all instances of persecution would inevitably result in each protest being poorly attended and gaining little attention. Israel's oppression of Palestinians is a common target for two main reasons. Firstly, the duration of the atrocities. From the Nakba in 1948 till today Palestinians have constantly faced expulsion and persecution. Secondly, for Muslims in Western countries, it makes little sense to protest against China or Burma. There is already broad agreement amongst the political class in the West that China is a strategic threat and has an atrocious human rights record. Hence what are protests meant to achieve? On the other hand Western countries are fully commited to assisting and defending Israel. America alone provides $3.8bn in aid to Israel a year mainly in the form of military assistance. The US has exercised its veto power at the UN over 40 times to protect Israel from criticism. In many cases the resolutions would have passed nearly unanimously had it not been for the US veto. Thus, Muslim communities in the West see the need to protest to make a point to their own governments. To try and prevent their own governments engaging in severe human rights abuses.

Muslims do not protest against Israel because most Israelis are Jewish. The Quran does mention Jews, but mainly in a positive light as fellow monotheists along with Christians. Furthermore, historically there are many instances of Muslim communities protecting Jews and welcoming them. Just one example is the Ottoman empire welcoming Jews expelled from Spain after the reconquest.

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    The Quran does mention Jews, but mainly in a positive light... Oh? "The Crimes of the Jews The sins mentioned here are among the many sins that the Jews committed ..." Also "The Stubbornness of the Jews ..."
    – Just Me
    Jan 6 at 17:35
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    @JustMe the English you quote is not from the text of the Quran at all. Those are the words of a medieval commentator. So yes, I stick by my claim. Here is just one example of a verse that discusses the Jews in a positive manner.
    – Ben Cohen
    Jan 6 at 22:23
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    @JustMe: Muslims call the jews and christians, people of the book. This demonstrates that they understood themselves as cousain religions. Are you sure you are not being Islamophobic? Jan 8 at 4:03

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