By James M. Dorsey
Last month’s Islamic summit in Malaysia failed to challenge with a bang Saudi influence in the Islamic world and Muslim silence about repression of adherents to the faith in countries like China and India. Yet, it has produced ripples that spotlight the risks and fragility of opportunistic acquiescence.
“Despite failing to achieve its immediate objective, the Kuala Lumpur summit has galvanized a stronger response by the OIC and the Gulf Arab states on issues affecting Muslims in India and, to a lesser extent, China,’ said Hasan AlHasan, a scholar who focuses on Gulf-South Asia relations, referring by its initials to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates successfully pressured Muslim countries like Pakistan and Indonesia to boycott the Kuala Lumpur gathering because it was organized beyond the auspices of the Saudi-dominated, Riyadh-based OIC, the usual organizer of Islamic summits.
The Gulf states also feared that the gathering, called to draw attention to the plight of persecuted Muslim minorities, threatened to embarrass Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others who have endorsed the brutal repression of Turkic Muslims in China’s troubled north-western province of Xinjiang and remained silent about mounting discrimination of the world’s largest Muslim minority in India so as not to jeopardize economic relations.
The Gulf states were also worried that expressions of concern about the plight of Chinese Muslims would spotlight their adoption of aspects of China’s developing Orwellian surveillance state that has been most comprehensive in the crackdown in Xinjiang.
More fundamentally, the Kuala Lumpur summit, supported by countries like Turkey, Iran and Qatar as well as Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, highlighted the struggle for leadership of the Islamic world as well as Malaysia’s strained ties with key Gulf states.
Breaches in Saudi and UAE-led efforts to prevent the plight of their co-religionists from disrupting relations with India and China are however emerging and could be widened by a suggestion by India’s top military commander that Kashmiris be interned in ‘de-radicalization camps’ after Prime Minister Narendra Modi withdrew Kashmir’s status as the country’s only Muslim state and imposed harsh security measures.
General Bipin Rawat’s suggestion raised the spectre of India emulating China’s system of re-education camps in Xinjiang in which at least one million Turkic Muslims are believed to have been incarcerated in an effort to get them to accept that President Xi Jinping’s thoughts supersede precepts of Islam.
General Rawat’s suggestion came on the back of an amended Indian citizenship law that made religion a criterion for refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh but excluded Muslims as well as a Supreme Court decision that was widely seen as favouring Hindus in a dispute over the site of a destroyed mosque in Ajodhya in Uttar Pradesh that Hindus believe was the birthplace of one of their most revered deities.
If implemented, General Rawat’s suggestion would make it more difficult for Muslim states to not only turn a blind eye to what is happening in India but also to the crackdown in China.
Acquiescent Muslim states are already under pressure from Pakistan that is seeking to extract a price for dropping its original support of the Kuala Lumpur summit by pushing the Islamic world to speak out about Kashmir, popular pressure in some Gulf states, and mounting anti-Chinese sentiment in various Central Asian nations.
Pakistan was awarded with the OIC criticizing the amended citizenship law and the court decision and agreeing to discuss Kashmir at a meeting in April although it was unclear at what level.
Similarly, the UAE appeared to be acknowledging Indonesia’s decision not to send vice president Ma’ruf Amin, a senior member of Nahdlatul Ulema, with 50 million followers the world’s largest Muslim organization, to Kuala Lumpur with pledges of US$23 billion in investments.
Efforts by a majority of Muslim states to ignore the plight of their co-religionists may however be built on ice that is melting beyond the OIC concession to discuss Kashmir.
Last month, Nahdlatul Ulema, as well as Muhammadiyah, with 30 million followers another major Indonesian Muslim organization, issued statements condemning the crackdown in Xinjiang.
At the same time, Muhyiddin Junaidi of the Indonesian Council of Ulema, the country’s top clerical body and one of a number of Muslim leaders invited by China to Xinjiang in a bid to convince them that reports of a crackdown were inaccurate, called on the government to more openly denounce Chinese policy.
Standing up for endangered and disenfranchised Muslim and non-Muslim minorities is a litmus test for Nahdlatul Ulema, which has launched a global effort to promote a recontextualization of Islam as well as a humanitarian interpretation of the faith that emphasizes human rights.
Kuwaiti lawmakers last month petitioned the government to speak out about the plight of Muslims in China and India while Bahrain’s Council of Representatives welcomed the new year with a statement describing India’s amended citizenship law as discriminatory and urging “the international community to … save the lives of innocent Uighur Muslims” in China.”
Pressure to speak out about anti-Muslim policies in China and India could put steps by various Gulf and Central Asian nations to adopt aspects of the surveillance system adopted by China in the firing line.
Central Asian nations such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, where anti-Chinese sentiment is simmering, are about to test China’s Orwellian citizen scoring system that is being introduced to score a person’s trustworthiness.
The system would determine what benefits a citizen is entitled to, including access to credit, high speed internet service and fast-tracked visas for travel based on data garnered from millions of cameras in public places, social media and online shopping data as well as scanning of irises and content on mobile phones at random police checks.
China has already begun to make deployment of its intrusive surveillance systems a pre-condition for investment in Central Asia. In some cases, China appears willing to supply the infrastructure at no cost as part of a Smart City project developed by controversial telecom giant Huawei for initial roll-out in former Soviet states.
Liu Jiaxing, head of Huawei’s representative office in Uzbekistan, disclosed China’s insistence on adopting its surveillance approach in an interview with an Uzbek news outlet. “Investors will only go where the situation is stable. In view of this, the implementation of the Safe City project is very important for Uzbekistan as it will help the country develop its investment potential,” Mr. Liu said.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture