Rights groups and Uyghurs living abroad have strongly condemned a visit to Xinjiang this week by a delegation of Muslim scholars and clerics from developing nations who voiced support for China’s policies in the far-western region, saying they turned a blind eye to the suffering of persecuted Uyghurs.
The group of more than 30 Islamic representatives from 14 countries — including the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Serbia, South Sudan and Indonesia — arrived in Xinjiang on Jan. 8 to visit the cities of Urumqi, Turpan, Altay and Kashgar and to meet with government officials.
Statements by the head of the delegation, Ali Rashid Al Nuaimi, sparked widespread anger from Uyghurs abroad and a strong reaction from U.S.-based Muslim organizations, including the Council on American Islamic Relations and Justice for All.
Al Nuaimi, chairman of the UAE-based World Muslim Communities Council, and others met with Ma Xingrui, Communist Party secretary of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and Erkin Tunuyaz, the region’s chairman, who both thanked them for their support of China’s Xinjiang policy.
Al Nuaimi was quoted by state media as praising efforts by Chinese authorities to eliminate terrorism and extremism in Xinjiang as the correct way to protect China’s national interests and people.
Muslims in China also must be loyal to the country, contribute to its social development, live in harmony with others, and take pride in being Chinese, he said in an interview with China’s Xinhua official news agency on Friday.
“Here we look at all Muslims as Chinese. They should be proud of Chinese nationals,” Al Nuaimi was quoted as saying in a report by China’s CGTN on Wednesday.
China’s Xinjiang policy has included intrusive surveillance, religious restrictions, the destruction of mosques, arbitrary arrests, and the detention of an estimated 1.8 million mostly Muslim Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples in a vast network of internment camps and prisons. Some have been subjected to sexual assaults, forced labor and forced sterilizations.
Though the United States and other Western nations have denounced China’s actions, major Muslim countries have defended the Xinjiang policy, as a result of Beijing’s economic and diplomatic power and their increasing indebtedness to China, critics said.
“Unfortunately, due to the benefit they get from China, the Muslim world is ignoring China’s atrocity toward Uyghurs and not seeing its ethnic genocidal crime, said Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish writer and journalist who is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.
“They are willing to accept China’s interpretation and trying to improve their relations with China," he said.
Maya Wang, associate director in the Asia division at Human Rights Watch, said the Chinese government has used Muslim governments and Islamic scholars to whitewash its abuses.
“The fact that these governments and scholars seemed to turn a blind eye towards the their brothers’ and sisters’ right to practice their religion, namely Islam, is very disappointing, but then I think it is a symptom to the fact that the Chinese government exerts enormous political influence over these countries, governments, and even individuals’ careers.”
In its “World Report 2023” issued this week, which reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries, Human Rights Watch noted that while some Uyghurs have been released from internment camps, Chinese authorities have also sentenced an estimated 500,000 people, many of whom remain imprisoned.
Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, chairman of Justice for All, told RFA on Wednesday that the visit by the Muslim delegation is part of the Chinese government’s effort to cover up its repression of the Uyghurs.
“First of all, China is on a mission to confuse the Muslim world about what is happening to Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic groups in China,” he said.
“China’s organization of this visit is nothing but to cover their destruction of Uyghurs under the banner of opposing terrorism, radicalism and separatism,” he said.
'Still trying to deceive the world'
Others criticized Al Nuaimi directly for his comment supporting China’s Xinjiang policy.
Robert McCaw, director of government affairs at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told RFA that Al Nuaimi’s statements were disappointing and that he “distorted reality.”
“His statement doesn’t match the reality that Uyghur and other Turkic people are experiencing,” McCaw said. “These Arab and Muslim leaders participated in the Chinese-style Potemkin village propaganda visit.”
“We know the Chinese authorities continue to surveil Muslims, lock them up in prisons and concentration camps, continue forcing them to work as slave labor and assault them physically and sexually,” he said.
RFA contacted Ali Rashid Al Nuaimi and Mohamed Bechari, general secretary of the World Muslim Communities Council, for comment, but did not receive a response.
Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, condemned the scholars’ visit, calling it a betrayal of “millions of suffering Muslims.”
“China, by inviting so-called World Muslim Communities Council leaders to the Uyghur region, is still trying to deceive the world,” he said. “It is a fact that China has been engaging in a genocidal policy toward Uyghurs, and at the same time, China declared war against Islam.”
“This delegation's visit is a betrayal of Islam [and] the holy book, the Quran’s, teachings,” he said.
Nury Turkel, chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom said the visit is “a well-staged attempt on the part of the Chinese government to challenge and undermine international criticism of the government’s human rights abuses in the region, including genocide and religious freedom violations.”
“The Chinese government could then use such a visit by foreign Islamic scholars to legitimize or even bolster its draconian policies in Xinjiang,” he said in a statement.
The Unites States and the parliaments of some Western countries have declared China's abuses in Xinjiang amount to genocide and crimes against humanity. In an August 2022 report, the U.N.'s human rights office said serious rights violations had been committed in the context of counter-extremism strategies that “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”
Zumrat Dawut, a Uyghur now living in the U.S. who was interned in a “re-education” camp and was forcibly sterilized by authorities in Xinjiang, posted on her Facebook page comments by Uyghurs that she downloaded from the short video platform TikTok, expressing anger over the delegations visit and support for Chinese policies in the region.
“Yeah, we are extremely happy!” said one comment written in Chinese, as were the others. “We are happy to death,” said another. “Praise to the government for doing successful propaganda,” said a third.
Translated by RFA Uyghur. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin. Edited by Paul Eckert.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Erkin and Gulchehra Hoja for RFA Uyghur.