Why Don’t Leaders of Muslim Countries Speak Out about Internment Camps in China?

Among the various identities people hold, religion has a particularly high salience. It holds the ability to shape people’s world views and even alter rational choice calculi—if you believe you will reap rewards in an afterlife, it changes the time horizon of choices. Because of these properties, regimes (both democratic and authoritarian) seek to garner legitimacy from religion. When a religious group is a majority in country, the incentives for a regime to enhance its legitimacy from this religious identity are all the higher. Leaders of countries frequently employ religious imagery and appear on stages with religious leaders.  A widely circulated photo of President Trump shows him surrounded by evangelical leaders in the Oval Office as they prayed. Muslim majority countries in Asia and the Middle East also frequently seek to benefit from religion and in the Middle East religion is even at times directly incorporated into the government.

Xinjiang is a province in northwestern China that borders Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Xinjiang is a minority-majority region, which means that a minority ethnic group in China as a whole is the majority ethnic group in Xinjiang. The residents of Xinjiang are mostly Uyghur. Uyghurs are an ethnic group that share more in common with their Central Asian neighbors, than the majority ethnic group in China, the Han. The Uyghur language is a Turkic language, similar to Uzbek and in an entirely different language family than Mandarin. Most Uyghurs identify as Muslim.

China has created a system of internment camps in Xinjiang and imprisoned about 10% of the Uyghur population, or about one million people. Ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz have also been detained. These detentions have occurred outside the legal justice system. What limited accounts have emerged indicate that people are disappeared in the night after a knock on the door. These internment camps seem intent on destroying Uyghur ethnic belonging and culture, including religious identity, in order to produce compliant and “loyal” citizens. Detainees have been forced to denounce Islam and in some instances drink alcohol and eat pork. Torture is reportedly rampant.

Only a handful of detainees have managed to be released from the camps and the Chinese state has denied their accounts of abuse and human rights violations—instead branding these internment camps as vocational camps. Despite these assertions by the central Chinese government, evidence from the state itself has emerged—including an online bidding system to elicit bids from contractors to build and maintain the camps. Additionally, local officials previously made statements (publicly and to reporters) describing their efforts to detain Uyghurs in order to demonstrate their loyalty to the center.

Outside of the camps, reminiscent of 1984, citizens are forced to download apps on smartphones (the only type of phone allowed) to track their Internet activity, to submit to facial recognition security check points, and in some instances, “minders” from the Han majority have been assigned to Uyghur households, and literally sleep in the family’s bed. One Kazakh woman has reported a forced abortion.

The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, MBS, defended these actions under the guise of anti-terrorism, a commonly purported reason for the Chinese state’s actions in Xinjiang. The expected next premier of Malaysia offered only tempered criticism, stating, “…I believe we should use a proper forum to start highlighting these issues and seek this understanding from the Chinese authorities.” Iran has similarly made few statements.

Given how much legitimacy leaders of Muslim majority countries draw from Islam domestically, why don’t more leaders of Muslim majority countries speak out against the interment of Muslims in China?  

This lack of outcry can be explained through linkage and leverage. The concept of linkage and leverage has been used to explain democratization of some states or the lack thereof in others. This analytical framework was developed by two political scientists, Steven Levitksy and Lucan Way. For example, Levitksy and Way proposed that high linkage to the West (such as cultural ties to the US and EU) and high leverage that the West has over a country (such as economic leverage) contribute towards democratization and vice versa. 

I suggest that this framework can also be applied to examine why leaders of most Muslim countries do not substantively advocate for better treatment of Muslims in China.

Muslim majority countries share the linkage of Islam with Xinjiang; however, this linkage is often diffuse. Turkey has been the one exception among leaders of Muslims majority countries, whose president, Erdogan, previously called the Chinese state’s actions a “kind of genocide” in 2009. After a lull in criticism, in February the Ministry of Foreign Affairs referred to the Uyghurs as their “kinsmen” and further implored the, “…The Chinese authorities to respect the fundamental human rights of Uighur Turks and to close the internment camps.” Notably this statement refers to the Uyghurs as Turks themselves.

Turkey has higher levels of linkages and shares more in common culturally to the Uyghurs relative to Muslim majority countries in the Middle East or Southeast Asia. Turkey previously sent missionaries to Central Asia, including Kazakhstan. Additionally, Turkey is home to a Uyghur diaspora community.  While no survey data exists to examine citizens’ awareness of the detention camps in China in different countries, it’s possible that these ties contributes towards relatively greater awareness among citizens in Turkey. This linkage between citizens likely increases the internally pressure within Turkey and thus the legitimacy of the regime is more at stake.

Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have even higher linkages to the Uyghurs than Turkey—Xinjiang and Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are all situated in Central Asia and share borders. Moreover, ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, some with Kazakhstani and Kyrgyz citizenship, have even been detained in these camps. Widespread knowledge of these detentions holds the potential to threaten the legitimacy of the Kazakhstani or Kyrgyz regime. Failing to protect its citizens from discrimination and abuse abroad because of their ethnic and religious identity is in discord with both regimes’ efforts to portray themselves as the protector of Kazakh and Kyrgyz national religious identity respectively.

Despite these potent linkages, China holds a high degree of leverage over Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Kazakhstan has large sums of petroleum, but is a landlocked country and thus an ever persistent problem is exportation. The main pipeline exporting Kazakhstani gas runs through Xinjiang. China has also been the largest bilateral creditor of Kyrgyzstan since 2012. While China is Turkey’s third largest trading partner, it is not nearly as dependent on China as Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan.

Countries in the Middle East and Southeast Asia have less cultural linkages to China and specifically, to Xinjiang. Their populations are not as likely to be aware of the plight of Uyghur Muslims. China is also a majority trading partner to many of these countries, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Moreover, in the case of further consolidated authoritarian  regimes like Saudi Arabia and Iran, criticizing the treatment of ethnic minorities or the human rights abuses of other marginalized communities risks legitimizing these discourses of critique.

While internally countries with Muslims majorities seek to draw from the legitimacy of Islamic symbols and religious leaders, cultural linkages to Xinjiang outside of Central Asia and Turkey are limited. Furthermore, China, given its trade relations, holds a high degree of leverage. Unless greater awareness of the plight of the Uyghurs is raised and then connected back to religious identity, Muslim majority countries are unlikely to substantially critique China’s treatment of the Uyghurs or pursue foreign policies that raise the cost of these travesties.