May 4, 2021 - World

China policy debates lack Muslim voices

Illustration of a red book with the Islamic crescent and star cut out.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The mostly white, mostly male world of China analysis is starting to change as calls rise for more inclusion of women, Asians, Black people, and other people of color. But there's one group that so far has been largely overlooked — Muslims.

Why it matters: The Chinese government is committing an ongoing genocide against Muslim ethnic minorities in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, building on decades of repression against Chinese Muslims that was largely ignored in the West.

  • A more diverse group of China policy analysts can help expand the bounds of traditional debate and bring a new perspective.

Where it stands: Lists of top China analysts and scholars whose work is primarily English-based rarely include Muslims, though some Uyghurs, including Nury Turkel and Rayhan Asat, have become prominent advocates as international alarm over China's Xinjiang policies has grown.

Details: Experts say there are several key ways Muslim representation can inform discussions about China policy and analysis.

1. Chinese authorities have a history of mistreating Muslims — something Chinese Muslims already knew.

  • "No country treats Muslims like China does," said Haiyun Ma, a professor at Frostburg State University who researches the history of Islam in China. Ma is a Hui Muslim, one of China's 12 majority-Muslim ethnic minorities.
  • The Chinese government, including not just the People's Republic of China but also its imperial predecessor the Qing dynasty, has long implemented oppressive policies toward Muslim groups in Xinjiang, Gansu and other regions considered to be part of China's periphery, Ma said.
  • The human rights violations the Chinese government is currently committing in Xinjiang and Hong Kong shock many people, said Ma. But they shouldn't. "People think, this isn’t the China I know. No — it’s just not the China you understood. You have to pay attention to non-interior China."

2. Muslims may more easily understand the cultural and social significance of the Chinese government's repressive policies against Uyghurs.

  • Uyghur women, for example, are facing various forms of sex-based violence in Xinjiang, including forced sterilization and abortion, coerced inter-ethnic marriage, and some reports of systematic rape in the mass internment camps.
  • "As a Muslim myself, I understand well the intended consequences of rape as genocide in the specific situation of Muslim women — Uyghurs, Rohingya, Bosnian Muslims, and others — as these women become ostracized, marginalized and alienated from their own family and community," Djaouida Siaci, an international lawyer who has worked on genocide and sexual violence, told Axios.
  • These women are then "removed as potential procreators for their own ethnic group, leading to the destruction of the group, a process amounting to a slow death of the group — a slow-burning genocide," Siaci said.

3. Muslims who work in U.S. policy circles, or groups that focus on issues related to Muslims, may be willing to prioritize China's repression against Uyghurs in their work.

  • The first U.S. organization to publish an extensive legal analysis finding that China's policies in Xinjiang comprised genocide was the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, a DC-based think tank that specializes in the geopolitics of the Muslim world.
  • Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who does not usually work on China-related issues, spearheaded a series of letters last year from members of Congress to U.S. companies denouncing the use of Uyghur forced labor in supply chain inputs. In 2016, Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) became the first two Muslim women to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The bottom line: The degree of diversity within American policy circles can affect how the U.S. relates to China.

Go deeper: The world's Muslims are facing unprecedented repression

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