But all the Muslim countries support China!

While the reactions of Central Asian governments have been seen by some as “abandoning their people” in case of Kyrgyzstan, or as “silencing” its activists in the case of Kazakhstan, [both] seem to be a result of the meticulous calculation of costs and losses [...] These costs not only include the aforementioned economic cooperation with China, but also the cost of handling the problem of Central Asian detainees in Xinjiang should Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan decide to firmly press China for their release.

— Prón & Szwajnoch (2020): "Kyrgyz and Kazakh Responses to China's Xinjiang Policy under Xi Jinping", Asian Affairs 51.4. In other words: it's kind of complicated.

TL; DR: The following is an attempt to provide context to Muslim states' apparent support of Chinese policy in Xinjiang through examination of the various factors at play in several of these states: Indonesia, Malaysia, Palestine, Pakistan, Iran, Kuwait, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkey, along with a few others.

  • Just like the United States and other Western states view Xinjiang through a geopolitical lens, not purely and innocently as a human rights issue, so too do Muslim-majority states. Domestic politics, geopolitics, and economics are all at play.
  • As a corollary, neither Western nor Muslim states have a particularly strong track record on concern for Muslims abroad. For the United States, this should be self-evident, as it should also be for states like Saudi Arabia, which is has killed hundreds of thousands of Yemenis directly or indirectly in recent years.
  • States are different from their people. In several states that support (e.g. Palestine, Bahrain, Kazakhstan) or are ostensibly neutral (e.g. Kuwait) toward China's Xinjiang policy, there is either explicit or suggestive evidence that the population has highly negative views thereof.
  • China is powerful and wealthy and is an important trading partner and investment source. Some states, like Malaysia, are remarkably clear on what this means: they do not speak up publicly because they know it would be futile and incur serious costs.

China has presented two letters to the United Nations in defense of its actions in Xinjiang, co-signed several dozen other countries. More Arab and Muslim-majority states have supported China, in fact, than those opposing letters condemning the reeducation campaign (to date, only Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina). This is a map of the votes on the most recent round of letters in support (red) and condemning (blue) China over its coercive political campaign in Xinjiang:

Map by Catherine Putz in
Map by Catherine Putz in The Diplomat. Note that several countries declined to sign the 2020 letter after having signed the 2019 one: Algeria, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Oman, the Philippines, Qatar, and Somalia.

It is a compelling map. Some Marxist-Leninists in particular are fond of its evocation of global class struggle; after all, the Global South clearly supports China over the bourgeoisie NATO and its American lackeys—ignoring the absence of, say, India or Brazil, and every single Turkic/Central Asian nation (Uyghurs are a Turkic people). Regardless, it is true that less wealthy, formerly colonized countries have a stronger tendency to back China on the Xinjiang issue.

Regardless, surely Muslim nations wouldn't voice their support or stay silent if Muslims elsewhere were being horribly correct, right? Well, actually, some of them would. Two of the signatories—Myanmar and Saudi Arabia—are actively committing massive crimes against humanity that likely qualify as war crimes or outright genocide, against the Rohingya and the people of Yemen, respectively. Also, Syria. Islam and the Islamic world are not a monolith. Politics will always be a part of the equation.

This is not to say we can just write off all the supporters of Chinese policy. But it would be incredibly naive to say that these votes are about justice and truth, and are above politicking and influence—just like Mike Pompeo and the United States in general suddenly being super concerned about Muslims abroad is pretty transparently political.

The politics of Xinjiang in the Islamic world

Conflating the vote of a government with the views of its people is tenuous, and this is all the more true if the government in question is, say, a literal monarchy. While it is true most Muslim-majority states have expressed support—or at least refused to condemn—China's policies in Xinjiang since 2017, there is much at play, including domestic politics, economics, and even some countries' own fears of separatism.

Polling data in English is hard to come by, but a recent example of the disconnect between the state and people comes from Palestine. A September 2020 poll (n = 1275) from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that among Palestinians:

An overwhelming majority of 79% indicates that it does not believe the statement of the Chinese government that the camps built by China to allegedly detain the Uighur Muslims are in fact teaching centers aiming at eradicating extremism; 10% believe the Chinese statement. Similarly, an overwhelming majority of 83% believes that world Muslims should express solidarity with the Uighur Muslims against the Chinese government while 10% disagree with that.

Two months prior, President Mahmoud Abbas told Xi Jinping that Palestine would support Chinese interests in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

So what factors influence Muslim states to so fiercely defend, e.g., Kashmiris or Muslims in France and remain rather mute on China? I will not pretend to be an expert on the politics of any of the countries I am about to discuss, but below are some general trends I've seen mentioned in media and academic literature (mostly in English). Note that none of these are mutually exclusive or even discrete categories, and all nations to one extent or another presumably have considerations along these axes:

  • Domestic politics: Often, more conservative and Islamist parties in opposition are the most vocal about Xinjiang. The issue thus becomes partisan. This is a major factor in Indonesia. Similarly, there might not be significant domestic political pressure to advocate for Uyghurs as there might be for e.g. Kashmiris, in the case of Pakistan.
  • Economics and trade: It is no secret that China is an economic powerhouse, and frankly, this consideration is probably a foremost one for every single country discussed in this post. For small, poorer countries like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and even middle-income countries like Malaysia, maintaining a positive relationship with China is critical for continued access to capital and trade. Denouncing policy in Xinjiang and jeopardizing that relationship would be highly risky.
  • Geopolitics: The US is not popular in the Middle East—decades of invasions and occupations and unconditional support for the occupation of the West Bank, among other things, turn out to annoy a lot of people. A nation like Iran, seriously harmed by sanctions from the West and traditionally supported by China (and Russia), is already highly predisposed to rejecting calls to alienate either of the two. Translations of Farsi sources also seem to suggest (note: US government-funded outlet) that many within Iran frame the issue as one of Saudi influence, with China preventing Saudi Arabian Wahhabism from spreading (Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Iran have been vicious rivals for several decades).

Ultimately, many countries just simply assess that the impact of publicly voicing their concerns is minimal compared to the costs—China is powerful and isn't just going to listen. This sentiment expressed on the record by prime ministers of New Zealand ("[Jacida Ardern] raised the treatment of the Uighurs with China’s top leaders only in private, and told reporters afterward, 'You can’t do much more than that.'), Malaysia, and Pakistan (the latter two detailed later in this post). That is a very different reality than "the Global South is unified in its affirmation of China's righteous policy in Xinjiang", though.

A meandering list of some states' stances on Xinjiang

Let's start with Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country. Indonesia's stance on Xinjiang is affected by the influence of various religious organizations, the presence of Uyghurs among terrorist groups there, wider opinions on China (including racism against Chinese Indonesians), and domestic views of separatism in light of Indonesia's own repressive campaign in West Papua, described by some as a "slow-motion genocide".

Two of Indonesia's largest Muslim organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, have issued differing statements on Xinjiang. NU is politically aligned with President Joko Widodo. According to a paper by the Indonesian Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, because the issue has been one used by Islamist political groups to attack the ruling coalition, even moderates are hesitant to take up the cause:

The most vocal proponents of attention to Uyghur repression have been hardline Islamist activists aligned with defeated candidate Prabowo Subianto who challenged incumbent Joko Widodo (Jokowi) in Indonesia’s presidential election on 17 April 2019. Their use of the Uyghur issue as a cudgel to attack Jokowi for being pro-China and anti-Muslim has only added to the unwillingness of moderates and Jokowi supporters to be drawn into the fray. To suddenly take a strong position in defence of the Uyghurs could be seen as capitulating to pressure from the religious right.

China has targeted both NU and Muhammadiyah through public diplomacy efforts. After a Wall Street Journal article on these efforts, which alleged Muhammadiyah had been pacified by Chinese lobbying, the organization released a statement, that, among other things, "Urge[s] the Government of Indonesia to follow up the flow of aspirations of Muslims and be more assertive in stopping all forms of human rights violations in Xinjiang".

NU, for its part, has chosen to frame the issue as a separatist one at its core, not religious. This would make it much less contentious for Indonesians (see this article). Indonesia has historically faced and still faces significant movements for independence, like the above-mentioned Papua conflict. In 1999, East Timor declared independence from Indonesia; it had been annexed in 1975. Indonesia sponsored militia in East Timor that led to a major humanitarian crisis. There is thus a strong argument to be made that Indonesia's consistent irritation at foreign countries criticizing its own actions against separatists informs its willingness to be more "flexible" on Xinjiang.

In other cases, such as Bahrain, while the national government might support China, the concerns of political parties and civil society are simply ignored. In January 2020, the lower house (the only elected house) of the National Assembly of Bahrain "expressed deep concern over the inhumane and painful conditions to which Uighur Muslims in China are subjected". A little over a week later, though, the Speaker of the Council assured the Chinese ambassador that "the Representatives Council endorses Bahrain’s official stance regarding the Xinjiang issue".

Another example of significant dissent in a Muslim state is Kuwait. Kuwait has refrained from signing any letters explicitly supporting or condemning Chinese policy in Xinjiang, but in January 2019, a group of 27 Kuwaiti MPs out of 65 total denounced China over its treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang. (16 Kuwaiti MPs are MPs due to their status as cabinet members. Assuming these cabinet members did not break with the stance of the government, this would mean the majority of the 49 directly elected MPs voted to denounce China's Xinjiang policy, but I have not been able to confirm this in English reporting.)

China is powerful and wealthy, and some states simply do not think there is benefit to raising the issue publicly. Israel is evidently one such example, having made no statement with regards to Xinjiang as of early 2021, but having threatened to do so if China continues to vote for resolutions condemning its occupation of the West Bank.

It can also be just a question of power. Some politicians are fairly blunt in admitting this, as is the case for former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia. He gave the reason for Malaysia's apparent neutrality in a 2019 interview (when he was still in office):

Why are leaders of Muslim countries silent when it comes to the Uyghurs, relatively speaking, and does it have to do with China? MM: Because China is a very powerful nation. You don’t just try and do something which would fail anyway, so it is better to find some other less violent ways not to antagonize China too much, because China is beneficial for us. Of course it’s is a big trading partner of ours and you do not want to do something that will fail, and in the process, also, we will suffer.

Following elections replacing Mahathir, the new government of Malaysia in August 2020 reiterated that it would not extradite any Uyghurs to China. In the words of Minister Mohd Redzuan bin Md Yusof, as quoted by Benar News:

“[I]n the matter of Uyghur refugees, the government is of the stand not to interfere in the internal affairs of China,” Redzuan said in his written response. “However, if any Uyghur refugees flee to Malaysia for protection, Malaysia has decided not to extradite them even if China requests it,” Redzuan said. “Malaysia believes every nation has the right to solve its internal problems without any interference from other countries. [But] the issue of oppression against Muslims around the world, including of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang in China, does exist and must be admitted by all parties,” he said.

The move was supported by Muslim civic groups. Indeed, wider Malaysian society is likely much more skeptical of China's actions in Xinjiang; thus, its continued absence from UN letters in support. A few months after Mahathir Mohamad's interview, Malaysian media carried the story of a group of Malaysians who were detained for several hours after praying in a mosque. The group realized police officers had been following them ever since they entered Xinjiang.

Pakistan is arguably China's closest ally. As with Malaysia, China's proximity and power make any sort of public intervention over Xinjiang diplomatically risky. In a 2019 interview, Prime Minister Imran Khan had deflected when asked about Xinjiang by saying he didn't know about the situation. "If I had enough knowledge I would speak about it. It is not so much in the papers." The next year, while at Davos, he was more forthright:

Khan made some of his most straightforward comments when asked why Pakistan has been muted in defence of Uighurs in China. [...] When pressed on China’s policies, Khan said Pakistan’s relations with Beijing were too important for him to speak out publicly. “China has helped us when we were at rock bottom. We are really grateful to the Chinese government, so we have decided that any issues we have had with China we will handle privately.”

Turkey is the last example I'll look at, and probably the most complex. At its core, the issue appears to be economic. China has also threatened Turkey with unspecified (presumably trade or finance related) consequences over opposition figures who speak out. Yet tens of thousands of Uyghurs live in Xinjiang, and they share an ethnolinguistic heritage as Turkic peoples. This generates internal political pressure, as it has in other Turkic places like Kazakhstan.

For several years, Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan refused to condemn China's campaign in Xinjiang. Perhaps nowhere else have political considerations been so transparent: as Prime Minister in 2009, Erdogan denounced the suppression of Uyghurs following mass protests and riots as a form of genocide.

Like other countries, a huge concern is financial. The politics of Islam and China specifically in Turkey, argued Turkish political scientist Gökhan Bacik in 2011, collide in unique ways here:

Turkey has been part of the Western bloc since the late 1940s. [...] However, a new dynamic came to the fore in the last decade, an economic one that increased Turkey’s independence from the West and the United States. The growing pressure on the AKP government to find new markets made it necessary to make new openings in Turkish foreign policy. The economic dynamic of Turkish foreign policy is connected with the new Anatolian bourgeoisie, the financial bedrock of Islamic politics, who are in search of new markets to safeguard their survival. New markets are also a factor in the AKP’s own long-term survival. This cohabitation of the AKP and the Anatolian bourgeoisie has become one of the most complex socio-economic dimensions of Turkish foreign policy. [...] Consequently, Turkish foreign policy oscillates between the strategic and the economic poles, which are not always compatible. [...] The economic aspect, not the strategic one, is likely to play the key role in determining Turkey’s position in a possible competition between the United States and China. No matter what China means ideologically to the West, Turkey will try to maximize its economic benefit from that state.

(Originally cited in Ergenc 2015, "Can Two Ends of Asia Meet? An Overview of Contemporary Turkey-China Relations", an excellent open-access overview of Sino-Turkish relations.)

After initial refusal to do so, domestic political pressure grew to such an extent that the Erdogan administration began to criticize China's policy in Xinjiang in early 2019. The immediate cause appears to have been the belief that noted poet and musician Abdurehim Heyit had died in a camp. The Chinese government subsequently released a video of him saying he was fine and under investigation for criminal activity but healthy. (The video lead a wave of Uyghur diaspora publicizing demands to the Chinese government that it tell them of the status of their detained or missing relatives.)

The criticism, of course, did not make China happy. The Chinese ambassador noted that it was extremely harmful to relations, not-so-subtly hinting that such a negative path "will be reflected in commercial and economic relations" between the two countries.

Turkey has still been criticized for not taking substantive action to protect Uyghurs beyond the rhetorical and allowing Chinese economic power to override humanitarian concerns. While there have been protests against mass incarceration and reeducation of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, a recent extradition treaty with China has fueled fears that Turkey will accede to requests to hunt down Uyghurs for them to be put into camps.