Men have seen praying at the mosque at the Xinjiang Islamic Institute Urumqi, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, January 3, 2019 [Ben Blanchard/Reuters]
When a people are subjected to the most unimaginable forms of cruelty at the hands of a brutal regime and prominent world powers are unwilling to take any meaningful steps to stop that cruelty, where and what do they then turn to? When a tragedy strikes the government that abused them, could they be excused for believing it to be divine intervention?
The largest mass atrocity occurring in the world today, unfortunately, speaks to this sad reality.
The Uighurs and other mostly-Muslim Turkic minorities in China are being subjected to the most brutal forms of oppression and the Chinese government’s so-called “re-education camps” are holding over a million of them out of sight.
To counter any criticism of its treatment of the Uighurs, China has employed a language of “de-radicalisation” that has been normalised throughout the world by repressive governments to mask their own policies of death and destruction.
While other groups that suffer under inhumane policies either at the hands of their own governments or others often find themselves championed by a competing force and score some gains while being used as a political football, the Uighurs do not seem to qualify even for that.
Last month, US President Donald Trump signed a new trade deal with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, bringing the two-year trade war between the two superpowers to an end and making his administration less willing than usual to even mention the gross human rights violations committed by the Asian giant.
While most Muslim minorities oppressed by non-Muslim nations have at times, though decreasingly, received support, charity or at least some lip service from Muslim majority countries, the Uighurs did not get any of that either.
Days after a group of 22 nations signed a letter addressed to the president of the UN Human Rights Council and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights calling on China to close down its internment camps in Xinjiang, a group of 37 countries, many with overwhelmingly Muslim populations, submitted a similar letter in defence of China’s policies. In the second letter, the signatories expressed their opposition to “politicising human rights” and reiterated China’s defence of what it calls “vocation education and training centers”.
The greatest explanation for this behaviour, aside from the general decline in all forms of Muslim solidarity, is China’s economic chokehold on the Muslim world. Most Muslim governments who depend politically on the United States for protection, depend on China for their economic survival. Given that Beijing is known for not taking criticism of its human rights record laying down, censoring China over its treatment of Uighurs simply comes at too high an economic cost for most Muslim nations.
As a result of all this, the world largely remains mute on the plight of Uighurs, with their suffering only being mentioned in occasional news reports by a few media organisations.
In December, as the world continued to turn a blind eye to the plight of the Uighur community, a coronavirus outbreak began in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. In a few months, the deadly virus infected tens of thousands of people in mainland China, killing more than 1,000 people.
As the epidemic grabbed headlines across the world, and the international community made the outbreak its utmost priority, a debate sparked among Muslims and especially Uighurs: could the outbreak be God’s punishment for China and the world’s horrific treatment of Uighur Muslims?
Before I write another sentence, I need to emphasise that this article is not an attempt at whataboutery. I am not trying to minimise the deaths of more than 1,000 people or the threat the virus poses to the world. I’m simply attempting to explain why a growing number of Muslims, and especially Uighurs, are asking whether the outbreak is divine intervention.
While many have been exposed to this debate solely through social media, I actually had a chance to speak to Uighurs themselves about it. They told me how their family members and loved ones disappeared into China’s internment camps. They told me how they felt utterly abandoned by world powers, especially the Muslim ones. And they admitted to me that when the epidemic started, they felt deep down that it may be divine aid for them. They said they couldn’t help but feel that way even though they know making such a determination is theologically flawed.
In Islam, God determines what, who, and how he punishes in a way that is only known by him, and to opine on divine intent is to claim access to God’s unique knowledge, which no one can. We also hold that what may be a punishment to some, could be a reward to others.
Some told me that they feel sorry for the Muslims, and innocent people of other religions, suffering in Wuhan, but hope that China would economically and politically collapse for its crimes. And every single Uighur I’ve spoken to have agreed that apathy to tragedy, which they have suffered the most as a result of, is not only un-Islamic but merciless.
But as we emphasise the un-Islamic nature of such claims and feelings, we should not ignore the injustices that sparked these sentiments in the first place.
Why are the Uighurs wasting away in internment camps not receiving the same level of support people infected with the coronavirus do? Why does the suffering of the Uighurs receive only a fraction of the media coverage the victims of the epidemic are receiving? Is it only because the virus has the potential to spread across the world and infect others, or is there a more sinister reason why the world does not seem to care about the Uighurs?
So much of what common Chinese people are now experiencing as a result of the outbreak is similar to what the Uighurs have long been experiencing at the hands of the Chinese government.
Before anyone was quarantined for coronavirus, the Uighurs were quarantined by the Chinese government – first in their homes and neighbourhoods, then in literal concentration camps.
Before Chinese people were forced to cover their faces with masks due to the virus, hijabs and niqabs were being pulled off the heads and faces of Uighur women.
Before the coronavirus spread throughout China, putting the freedom, health and wellbeing of millions of innocent people at risk, millions of innocent Uighurs were already being imprisoned, tortured and killed because they had the “virus” of Islam.
And long before the Chinese government was suspected of covering up the number of deaths and confirmed infections to carefully control the narrative about coronavirus, it was covering up its systematic abuse of the Uighur people.
Nevertheless, the same international community that swiftly came together to work to bring an end to the devastation caused by the virus and ease the suffering of its victims, did almost nothing to stop the suffering of the Uighurs.
The coronavirus epidemic is undoubtedly a horrible tragedy that has caused more than 1,000 deaths in China, and it may cause even more devastation elsewhere in the future. It is no small deal, and our hearts should go out to the families of those left behind as well as people still living with the fear that they or their loved ones may soon catch the virus. We should do everything we can to contain the virus and encourage our leaders to take action to end this crisis as soon as possible.
But we should also understand the feelings of the Uighurs who are now forced to watch the outpouring of support, in part, towards the government that abused them. They are simply trying to come to terms with a reality in which their tragedy is ignored but the tragedy of their oppressors remains in the headlines.
While it is wrong to definitively speak of God’s will in any matter, let alone a devastating disease outbreak indiscriminately affecting millions of people, we can certainly try to understand why Uighurs cannot help but feel that way.
Also, as we worry about the spread of the virus, we should spare a minute to think about how this new tragedy may affect the Uighurs themselves. After all, if the coronavirus was to spread through the closed, cramped camps holding scores of Uighurs, we almost certainly would never learn the full extent of their devastation.