By Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
13 July 2018
Pakistan is an Islamic Republic, and over
the last decades the polity has become increasingly religious in its character.
Religious rhetoric has long motivated the
more extreme edges of the political discourse, but more and more of the
political discourse in the country has become driven by religious identity
politics – and conservative Sunni traditionalism has been the most politically
outspoken of those religious identities.
The other most significant and consistent
political development in Pakistan over the last decade or so has been the
flourishing friendship with neighbouring China. As an emerging global power,
China is using its immense economic might to develop the trade links on which
its prosperity depends. And part of those efforts is the huge investments China
is making in developing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
The Chinese friendship is a remarkable
aspect of Pakistani politics for at least two reasons: 1) it is one of the few
issues on which most of this deeply divided country can agree on, and virtually
all think it is a good thing for Pakistan; and 2) Chinese investment has done,
is doing, and will continue to do more to improve the economic situation of ordinary
Pakistani citizens than just about anything the Pakistani government themselves
are doing – that Pakistanis see China in a positive light is therefore no
And yet, there is something very peculiar
about this friendship: the Chinese government is virulently anti-Muslim, at
least as far as Islam within its borders is concerned. Here I speak of the
familiar troubles of the Sunni Uyghur people in Xinjiang province.
Even as we speak, the Chinese crackdown on
Islam in the name of anti-separatism is seeing maybe as many as 1 million
Muslims arbitrarily detained in “re-education camps” – out of 10-11 million
Uyghurs in total in the province.
Uyghur newborns may not have “Muslim
names”, and the authorities were even pressuring Muslims to show their loyalty
toward the Chinese state by eating pork and drinking alcohol during Ramadan
The Pakistani government, as well as the
Pakistani people, are typically very outspoken when Muslims around the world
are persecuted. The poor relations with India are supposedly because of the way
India is treating Muslims in Kashmir, or how Muslims have been attacked by mobs
of Hindu nationalists in recent months.
Pakistanis will not waste a second
criticizing Myanmar for their appalling treatment of the Rohingya – and rightly
so. The cause of the Palestinians is loudly proclaimed, as are those of
Chechens, Bosniaks and Albanians. But on the Uyghurs, all are silent.
So what about Muslim solidarity? Muslim
solidarity certainly makes for a good and popular slogan for political leaders.
And the people are all in favour of solidarity, so long as this requires little
sacrifice on their part.
But when more than kind words are needed,
well, things get complicated. The 350,000 Rohingya living in Pakistan may not
be under immediate threat to their safety, but they have not been integrated in
Pakistani society, and continue to be actively marginalized.
We are all for Palestinians, Chechens, or
any other Muslim groups around the world, just so long as we do not have to
give them refuge, or significant amount of aid. As for the Uyghurs next door?
Well, let us not upset our “all weather” Chinese friends.
What the Chinese government is doing to the
Uyghurs is no doubt a gross humanitarian abuse. And it is not just for
Pakistan, but the entire international community to draw attention to it and to
We even have a duty to do so to our Chinese
friends in the spirit of friendship: we know from our own experience that
oppressed Muslims sometimes tend to make for radicalized Muslims, and that is
not good for China, not good for us, and not good for anybody.
But I do understand the reticence to take
up this issue. China does not usually take advice on human rights well, even
when it is well-intentioned and friendly in spirit.
But if that is the political judgement we
are going to make, then let us not pretend that Muslim solidarity is all that
important for us. At the very least, it seems that Chinese Yuan are more
But really, we all know, Muslim solidarity
is great just so long as it does not cost us anything in general. Pakistan may
have started as a country of refuge for Muslims across the region, but Muslim
solidarity is something we have stopped actually caring about long ago.
Now it is but an empty political ritual for
sale. But woe to anyone who would say as much, or question our Muslim purity!
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj
Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He
completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an
International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard
and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous
world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker
by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the
World Economic Forum.