Muslims are under siege around the world

Published by The i paper (30th December, 2019)

Boris Johnson focused on persecution in his first Christmas message as prime minister, pointing out that for many people around the world celebrations had to be held in secret while Britons tucked in to their turkey. ‘We stand with Christians everywhere, in solidarity, and will defend your right to practise your faith,” he said.

Prince Charles put out a similar message, saying the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka were ‘the single worst day of violence targeting Christians in the modern era’ before urging a strengthening of resolve ‘to prevent Christianity disappearing from the lands of the Bible’.

These seasonal pleas for tolerance made sense given recent events that have scarred the world, especially in the Middle East. Britain remains ostensibly a Christian country, after all, despite the rapid growth of atheism and arrival of other faiths, so it is natural for our leaders to speak out on such concerns, especially at this time of year.

Yet their words coincide with Islam, another of the world’s great religions, coming under siege in attacks led by the planet’s two most populous nations and inflamed by the leader of the world’s most powerful country. But where are the prominent voices speaking up for these victims of bigotry, hate and intolerance?

The full extent of China’s horrific repression of Muslims in the east of the country has become clear over the course of this year. Now we know about its grim use of technology to control citizens in Xinjiang region, bringing George Orwell’s terrifying vision of totalitarianism into grotesque reality.

We have seen glimpses of the razed mosques and huge camps holding up to three million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other minorities as part of Beijing’s drive to crush traditional cultures. Leaked documents have even revealed how President Xi Jinping personally demanded a crackdown with ‘absolutely no mercy’ after anti-government protests and terror attacks.

Last month I met Sayragul Sauytbay at her new home in Sweden. This Kazakh woman, who ran five schools before the clampdown, is one of the few people that has seen inside the indoctrination centres and escaped to tell her story. She told me about the slow strangling of her community as their land was stolen, languages silenced and passports seized.

Her native region was flooded with security forces, checkpoints and facial recognition cameras. Then came the round-ups and ‘re-education’. Inside the camp she claimed to have seen mass rape, routine use of torture, forced injection of drugs and Muslims made to eat pork.

Then there is India, where the Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi has cracked down harshly on its Muslim minority since winning a second term in office.

First he revoked the autonomy of the country’s only majority-Muslim state, placing Kashmir under siege by sending in huge numbers of troops, restricting movement, intimidating journalists and cutting off the internet. Then his parliament passed a discriminatory citizenship law, sparking wider protests over attempts to shift this fine democracy away from its foundations of diversity and secularism. Detention camps are being built for those deemed stateless.

Meanwhile refugee camps in next-door Bangladesh are overflowing with Muslims driven from their homes in Myanmar by systematic ethnic cleansing. Troops used murder, rape and burning of villages to force out about 750,000 Rohingya people in a campaign described by the United Nations as having ‘genocidal intent’.

Even in the Middle East, where there is justified concern over the future existence of Christian communities in some parts, it is still Muslims who make up most of the victims of religious fanatics with their medieval intolerance.

In the West there is surging populism that feeds off bigotry inflamed by nationalists and restricts space for refugees, especially Muslims, who are fleeing savagery. This is most obvious in Hungary, where Viktor Orban poses as a champion of traditional Christian identity to promote his brand of intolerance – and most depressing in the United States, under a president who was elected with a promise of ‘complete shutdown of Muslims entering the US’.

It can be detected in Britain too, where the former Tory chairwoman Sayeeda Warsi has rightly condemned the ‘dinner-table’ acceptability of prejudice against Muslims. Our new prime minister is a man who promoted Islamophobic tropes in his journalism.

It is bad enough there is at best muted condemnation of anti-Muslim abuse by the emerging powerhouses of China and India from Western leaders who should defend liberal values. Instead they show higher regard for business deals than for human lives and their own supposed democratic ideals, falling again for a flawed belief that it is better to appease autocracy than to challenge aggression.

It would be good to believe post-Brexit Britain might be inspired to assert progressive values on the global stage. Far more likely we will see our weakened nation cowed by its desperate need for new trading alliances.

Most shocking, however, is the shameful failure of Muslim nations to defend fellow followers of their faith. Turkey stands almost alone in having spoken out on Beijing’s brutality towards Uighurs.

The ghastly feudal despots in the Gulf have backed China, while democratic leaders have either stayed silent or – in the cases of Indonesia and Pakistan – pathetically claimed when pressed to know little about the issue. At least Rodrigo Duterte, the thuggish Philippine President, was honest when saying he could not fight China since ‘it would be a war which I can never win’.

As the next decade arrives, it is a time to think about the future. So do we really want a world in which strong nations bully the weak, bystanders stand silent over abuse and followers of a great religion are tormented across the planet?

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