Religion seems to be creating crises even though Prime Minister Imran Khan has shown an element of religiosity that may have led to some doubts among his support base. He sided with believers in the Dutch cartoons exhibition controversy, and whether or not his government’s protest to the Dutch government played a role, it took credit for the cancellation of the exhibition. After that crisis, which ended before a crisis could build up further, there was the strange case of the member of the Economic Advisory Council, who was an Ahmedi, and who had to resign because of that.

However, the build-up of the international criticism of the Chinese government’s treatment of its Uighur minority in Xinjiang could end up proving an even greater embarrassment for the government. It should be noted that the Dutch cartoons exhibition and the Ahmedi economist involved the honour of the Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) in that the former would have ridiculed Him (PBUH) and the latter denied His (PBUH) finality, the persecution of the Uighurs does not enrage Muslim opinion by attacking religious tenets, but does create another Muslim cause to join the Palestinians, Kashmiris, Yemenis, Iraqis and Rohingya. The estimated hundreds of thousands of Uighurs detained have included under-19 national footballer, Erfan Hazem, known also by his Chinese name of Ye Erfan, taken in February, for visiting foreign countries, which he had done to play and train for his team, Jiangsu Suning FC.

It creates a particular problem for Pakistan because it has tried to use China as a counterweight to the USA. The problem is particularly intense for the PTI government, because it is seen as cover for the military, which has particularly deep feelings for China, which it sees itself as having special relations. The common factor is a problem with India, over its north. While Pakistan has a major dispute with India over Kashmir in its north-west, China has one in India’s north-east, which is centred on the border, but involves Tibet. If Pakistan has gone to war with India thrice, and recently almost went to war again had other powers not intervened, China has been to war with India in 1962, and almost went to war again last year.

The irony for China is that its persecution of the Uighurs is because Xinjiang is the centrepiece of its One Belt One Road initiative, of which the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is such a crucial link. Xinjiang region is valuable to China not just because of its location at the beginning of the new Silk Road, but also because of the resources under its surface, including 15 percent of its proven oil reserves, 22 percent of its gas reserves, and 115 of the 147 raw materials found in China as a whole. The Chinese government is not really carrying out an anti-Islam campaign, so much as targeting Islam as a potent symbol of nationalism. The Urumqi region, of which Xinjiang is the capital, is actually East Turkestan, and the largest population group consists of Uighurs, or East Turkestanis.

One of the main supporters for the Uighurs has been Turkey, which takes a sort of paternalistic interest in all Turkic states. That interest meant, at the time of the Cold War, an interest in Central Asia, which continues today, now that the states there have become the Central Asian Republics after the disintegration of the USSR. The recent turmoil in Kazakh parliament showed another aspect of the entire affair, and also showed how East Turkestan is part of the greater Turkic community that stretches westwards to Turkey. The turmoil was over the Kazakh nationals who have been put in re-education camps, and illustrated that there are minorities within the minority: while there are about 12 million Uighur, there are also 1.25 million Kazakh. There are significant Uighur populations in Turkey (45,000) and Uzbekistan (55,000), and it is the Uighurs in Turkey who has created the Chinese interest in Syria.

Turkey is host to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (which includes Uighurs in its ranks), the Turkestan Islamic Party and the East Turkestan Educational and Social Association. The Uighur exiles, through these, have joined the Turkish intervention in Syria. China was worried enough about the possible moving on these fighters to Xinjiang to have contemplated sending troops there, in violation of the strong Chinese refusal to use its troops abroad. However, part of the criteria which has caused Uighurs to be sent for re-education is contact abroad: those who remain in contact with family and friends abroad, people who have stayed abroad “too long” and those who have, independently and without state permission, organized Hajj pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia. Also sent for ‘re-education’ are those who show any signs of observance, such as growing beards.

China does not want Uighurs who have been radicalised in Syria to come back to Urumqi, where they might cause the sort of trouble that those who returned from the Afghan Jihad did. It wants them settled in Turkey, which has been sympathetic to them. China is using the rubric of ‘terrorists’ to justify its policies.

At the same time, one of the problems that China faces is that of Muslim countries. While even secular Turks have some sympathy with Uighurs because of the ethnic connection, there is a religious connection with the rest of the Islamic world. However, key Muslim countries are also affected. Saudi Arabia, for example, is not just of particular importance because of its wealth and because the holy sites of Makkah and Madina are there, but also because it includes part of the Uighur diaspora. Pakistan not just borders China, but recently saw protests in Gilgit-Baltistan against China because of the arrest of 50 Uighur women married to men from the province, who had gone back to Xinjiang on visits.

There has been a move by the Chinese government to get Uighurs back from abroad. Such Muslim countries as Egypt, Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia have extradited Uighurs on Chinese request. China is worried that the Governments might see a backlash against China in these countries, which might create problems for the OBOR initiative. Pakistan fits in here, because it is home to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is the crown jewel of the OBOR initiative. Similarly, China had pledged $92 billion in OBOR projects to Malaysia.

The new Mahathir government is revisiting OBOR in Malaysia, much as the new PTI government is doing in Pakistan for the CPEC. Because of the lack of outcry in Muslim countries, efforts by the USA and the Uighur diaspora to highlight the issue are not gaining much traction. For Pakistan, joining the outcry would suit the USA, with which it has an uneasy relationship.

Another issue is that China supports Burma in its persecution of the Rohingya. They have not really become a major issue in Pakistan, but if China, under Myanmarese pressure, tries to make Pakistan at least keep quiet about this, there could be a domestic blowback.

The Muslim countries may at this point be maintaining a silence based on their economic interests, but the plight of the Uighurs may be a touch-button issue for the populaces. It will become a bigger issue the more Uighurs decide to migrate. Pakistan is particularly vulnerable, because not only will it be a refugee destination, but it will also be a major channel through which they will flee. Before handing over any Uighurs to China, the PTI government will have to balance its desire to keep on the right side of China with the need to keep its support base happy, and perhaps avoid a law-and-order problem. This Ashura, the ongoing suffering of the Uighurs will not just provide the latest example of what it commemorates, but also highlight the dilemma the PTI government faces.


n          The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.