Uyghurs and Palestinians: What's in a Name? | Opinion

Every fatuous distortion and hyperbolic accusation levied against Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians is true about China's treatment of the Uyghurs.

From accusing Israel of "occupying" the West Bank to "ethnic cleansing" of Palestinians to even genocide, the global Left has made major investments in exaggerating the Palestinians' various claims and minimizing the Palestinian Authority's own responsibility for the Palestinians' predicament. The Islamic world, especially, has kept Palestinians elevated on the geopolitical stage for a very long time.

So why not the Uyghurs, whose land truly is occupied, who are actually being ethnically cleansed and who many believe are now the target of a calculated genocide?

The Palestinian people are surely the most catered-to "refugees" in the entire world. The United Nations is firmly in their corner. In fact, the UN's largest agency, UNRWA, is devoted entirely to the Palestinian people. Everyone knows their story—or at least the misleading version their leading advocates tell about Jewish settlers from Europe stealing their land.

Comparatively, the Uyghurs are barely known to the world. Unlike the Hui Muslims of China, the Uyghurs are a Turkic people, making them both ethnic and religious minorities. China's animosity towards the Uyghurs was well-known to then-President Barack Obama, who wanted to free 22 captured Uyghur al-Qaeda members from Guantanamo Bay but knew they would be immediately executed if returned to China (he arranged for other countries to take them).

But instead of making the plight of the Uyghurs a priority, the people and groups that are supposed to prevent genocide—or at least sound the alarm when the telltale signs begin to manifest—are too often focused instead on Israel and its alleged abuse of the Palestinian people.

In spite of the charge that Israel is "occupying Palestine," nearly all (over 90 percent) of the Palestinians who live in the West Bank are governed by the Palestinian Authority. If the Gaza Strip, where no Israelis have lived since 2005, is occupied, then it is the terrorist group Hamas who is the occupier.

The Uyghurs, on the other hand, are a truly occupied people. Their home, which they call East Turkistan, was first conquered by the Qing dynasty in the 18th century and given the name Xinjiang, which means "new territory"—a signifier of colonialism if ever there were one. In 1949, when the People's Republic of China came into being, Xinjiang was essentially independent, and in 1955 it was designated the "Uyghur Autonomous Region." After Mao's Cultural Revolution, the region became far less autonomous. Today, oppression has become industrialized, as over one million Uyghurs endure life in de facto gulags constructed to exploit, "re-educate" and ultimately commit genocide against them. In Orwellian form, the Chinese government calls these gulags "vocational training centers."

Uyghur "re-education" camp in Xinjiang
Uyghur "re-education" camp in Xinjiang GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

Since the Palestinian population has grown steadily since the 1950s, only the most committed propagandists accuse Israel of "ethnic cleansing" or "genocide." There are no second-class citizens and there are no laws against miscegenation. Non-Jewish citizens of the Jewish state work the same jobs as Jewish citizens, serve in the Israel Defense Forces, the Knesset (parliament) and even on the Supreme Court. This is not how ethnic cleansing works. When Saeb Erekat, a PLO propagandist who himself charged Israel with "genocide," was gravely ill last year, he chose to be flown to an Israeli hospital to be treated. He knew the truth.

The Uyghur population, however, is declining due to what the AP calls China's "sweeping campaign to curb its Muslim population." A recently leaked Chinese government document revealed a program that is designed to "meld and assimilate" Uyghurs by dispersion, forcibly transporting them to jobs thousands of miles away. They are also subject to forced sterilization and abortions. This is what ethnic cleansing looks like.

One might expect the United Nations to be in diplomatic overdrive, working to prevent what everyone knows is happening. Instead, its International Court of Justice, International Criminal Court and Human Rights Council are all busy targeting Israel.

Back in July 2019, things briefly looked better for the Uyghurs after 22 countries accused China of "mass detention" in a letter to the Human Rights Council. But then a second letter from 37 other countries arrived, defending China's treatment of the Uyghurs as a praiseworthy "counterterrorism and de-radicalization" program. The second letter actually applauded the use of "vocational education and training centers," mimicking Chinese Communist Party propaganda. Surprisingly, among the 37 countries behind this letter were Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan and Qatar. So much for the Arab world's purported concern for fellow Muslims.

Likewise, one would expect the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to be on top of the mass oppression of a Muslim minority. Since its inception in 1969 as the Organization for the Islamic Conference, the OIC has consistently lobbied on behalf of the Palestinians. Last December, it affirmed that, "the issue of Palestine and al-Quds is the OIC's raison d'être, pivotal cause and source of unity and strength."

The Uyghurs, by contrast, are far less important to the OIC. Item number 20 in a 2019 OIC report "commends the efforts of the People's Republic of China in providing care to its Muslim citizens."

Even the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation, Indonesia, has been quiescent, no doubt partially to appease its giant trade partner. Perhaps equally persuasive was Ambassador Xiao Qian's reminder to the nation's largest Islamic NGOs (Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah) that "for decades, China has supported the Palestinian struggle."

China's ability to buy off critics with Confucius Institutes, Belt and Road Initiative investments and hard cash partly helps to explain the silence. But even ISIS has remained silent on China's treatment of the Uyghurs, so bribes alone cannot explain why Palestinians are the darlings of the Muslim world and the Uyghurs are on their own. At least one factor helps explain the situation: Islam's generally positive view of China. For example, a popular hadith (a saying attributed to Muhammad) urges Muslims to "seek knowledge even if in China."

More than anything, the plight of the Uyghurs sheds light on the hypocrisy behind so much of the Islamic world's contemporaneous advocacy for the Palestinians. We may reasonably conclude that searing Israel-hatred takes precedence over altruistic concern for fellow Muslims.

A.J. Caschetta is a Ginsberg-Milstein fellow at the Middle East Forum and a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

Editor's pick

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts