Why Iran won’t cross China on the Uighurs

Iran’s deafening silence on China’s Uighur Muslim repression speaks volumes about Tehran’s reliance on Beijing’s money

Iran has long championed the cause of repressed Muslims worldwide, an often vocal stance that has underpinned the Islamic Republic’s self-proclaimed leadership role in the Muslim world.

But Iran has willfully ignored the ordeal of more than 1.5 million Uighur Muslims now confined by China in controversial “vocational training” camps, a silence that has spoken volumes about Beijing’s growing influence over Tehran.

Iran’s support for persecuted Shiite Muslim groups reaches far and wide, from repressed Shiites in Sunni-governed Bahrain, to the Houthis waging war in Yemen, to the  pro-Iranian Islamic Movement in Nigeria which seeks to establish an Islamic state and whose rebel logo includes a portrait of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of Iran’s Islamic republic.

To be sure, the Uighurs don’t readily fit in those same rebel molds. A Muslim ethnic group living primarily in the autonomous Chinese province of Xinjiang, Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking, most Sunni community of nearly 12 million. They make up an estimated 42% of the population of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

In recent years, migration by Han Chinese to Xinjiang, considered by the Beijing government as an important trade gateway to Asia and Europe, has significantly altered the historically predominantly Muslim region’s demographics and dynamics.

After a series of extremist incidents, Beijing has implemented a full-fledged crackdown on the Uighurs, seen by many as Beijing’s version of a “war on terror.”

According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), Beijing has established 380 “re-education camps” in recent years, facilities where Uighurs are indoctrinated in Chinese language, culture and even eating habits to the detriment of their Muslim identities.

Beijing refers to the camps as “vocational training centers” and portrays the facilities as part of a wider development drive in far-flung and historically restive regions. A similar campaign is now underway in Tibet, a Jamestown Foundation think tank report shows.

The United Nations has cited harrowing reports about Uighur detention centers in China. Photo: Twitter bit.ly/2PBPq1d

In 2017, Xinjiang’s government ratified legislation prohibiting men from growing beards and women from wearing hijabs, practices that are common among Uighur Muslim men and women.

Australia’s ASPI documented that in recent years as many as 16,000 mosques have been damaged or destroyed in Xinjiang in Beijing’s forced assimilation campaign.

International outcry over the abuses is growing, though not from Iran. The Biden administration has raised the ill-treatment of Uighurs in its initial communications with China, with Biden himself reportedly raising the issue during a phone call with President Xi Jinping.

A group of 22 countries, in which Muslim majority nations were noticeably absent, wrote a joint letter to the UN Human Rights Council in July 2019, demanding that China uphold its human rights obligations vis-à-vis the Uighur Muslims and abandons its campaign of arbitrary detention.

During the Trump administration, the US imposed various sanctions on Chinese officials and entities, including the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, an economic and paramilitary corporation driving the development of China’s northwestern territories.

The irony of the West coming more forcefully to the Uighurs’ defense than Muslim leaders like Iran is not lost on observers.

Since its 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran has engaged in a number of scuffles with countries over their mistreatment of Muslim minorities, diplomatic tiffs that have aimed to position Teheran as a guardian of supposed Islamic world unity.

Critics say Iran has paid a price for its decades of ideological maneuverings, including most pointedly by picking a fight with Israel over Palestine, which Iranian authorities still insist should be the Muslim world’s top priority.

Now, critics claim Teheran is looking the other way on the Uighurs, a clear, hard indication that its crucial trade and investment links to China outweigh its claimed guardian mission in the Muslim world.

“Iran’s silence and non-reaction vis-à-vis the repression of Uighur Muslims is mainly motivated by the desire not to upset China,” said Jacopo Scita, H H Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah doctoral fellow at Durham University and an expert on Iran-China relations.

“Iran and the other Middle Eastern countries that have remained silent about the Uighurs understand that the issue of Islamic extremism is one of Beijing’s main concerns when it comes to internal security.

“The fact that the Trump administration had openly attacked China for the crackdown on its Muslim minorities has further discouraged Iran to take a critical stance on the issue. To put it simply: politics prevails over idealism,” he told Asia Times.