Rows of men, their shaven heads bowed, eyes blindfolded and sitting on the ground, close to waiting trains. Their hands seem to be constrained; guards walk in between the rows of identically-garbed detainees. That’s what a leaked drone video of Chinese Uighur Muslims from Xinjiang showed, and which went viral online.
The video, verified as having been shot in Xinjiang in August 2019, rightly led to online uproar. When the Chinese Ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, was invited on a UK primetime TV talk show to explain the footage, he added insult to injury by attempting to deflect clear, detailed questioning.
Xiaoming looked like he had been caught in the headlights, as the video played in a loop on the screen behind him. While he was claiming that, in China, "We treat every ethnic group as equal," those young men could be seen onscreen being marched off to the trains, mostly likely to one of the "re-education" detention camps established by the Chinese state in which it is estimated one million Uigurs are being detained.
Those images of de-individualized detainees waiting to be transported, coupled with reports that China was exporting tons of human hair cut from the scalps of interned Uigurs, and their Nazi resonances made waves in with British Jewish communities. Echoes of the steps towards the mass mechanical genocide of the Holocaust have activated British Jews into becoming a collective voice for the defense of the Uighurs.
The community’s umbrella representative body, the Board of Deputies, wrote to the Chinese Ambassador saying no one "could fail to notice" the similarities between the Xianjiang video and Nazi Germany. The Holocaust Educational Trust’s chair made an explicit analogy with the Holocaust, saying "Every news report, every video online, every testimony should be a rallying cry for all of us," and that "We Jews, of all people, must not be silent over the Uighurs." The Reform Movement’s senior rabbis declared that defending the Uighurs was "the only moral option we have."
The president of the United Synagogue, representing the UK’s Orthodox synagogues, also invoked the Holocaust as a reason to speak out: "Those carrying out these acts in Xinjiang may already be complicit in genocide according to the UN Genocide Convention." The former Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, wrote "That people in the 21st century are being murdered, terrorised, victimised, intimidated and robbed of their liberties because of the way they worship God is a moral outrage, a political scandal and a desecration of faith itself."
At times like this, I remember who actually stood with Bosnian Muslims when they were savaged by the Serbs. I remember listening to Kemal Pervanic, a Bosnian Muslim survivor of the Omarska concentration camp, when he described how Serb military and paramilitary forces forces had killed, humiliated and mutilated Bosniaks in Tuzla, Omarska and Sarajevo in the mid-1990s. They kept the Muslim prisoners so thirsty that many of them were forced to drink contaminated water from the industrial warehouses in which they were detained.
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Then, too, British Jewish communities stood up and advocated for Bosnian Muslims as they do now for Uighur Muslims. And, depressingly, then as now, the logical outcome of this concern and activism – a unified front between UK Jewish and Muslim communities to challenge appalling human rights abuses – doesn’t work out. When Muslim and Jewish communities should stand together, factionalism within the communities drive them apart.
At the time of the Bosnian genocide, pictures of the Palestinian first intifada were still fresh in the minds of British Muslims. That led to a kneejerk British Muslim rejection of coordinating action with British Jewish communities. British Muslim communities worked in their own silos to assist Bosnia’s Muslims, whether through delivering provisions and food through aid convoys, financially supporting Bosnian units and, in some instances, actually fighting with them.
Such distinct and separate activism, avoiding co-operation and partnership with British Jews, was partly driven by a belief that British Jews were collectively responsible for the actions of the State of Israel. Today, we would call that antisemitism, though even at the height of the Intifada, I truly believe that antisemitism did not capture how most British Muslims saw British Jews. It was more a mixture of awe, anger, mistrust and, for some, the antisemitic trope of all-encompassing "Jewish power."
That was also a period when the scope and influence of energetic Islamist groups, dedicated to whipping up a frenzy against Jews and the West, were cresting with unfettered access to Muslim groups, especially students – and they were exploiting genuine anger about the Intifada as bait to gather new recruits.
With the the human rights abuses against the Uighurs finally coming to the foreground of the UK political agenda as part of a wider reset of relations between Britain and totalitarian China, that momentum has still not been resolved the tensions and grievances between British Muslims and Jews. They again threaten an obvious human rights-based partnership.This time, it’s also about Israel-Palestine – and also about a repackaged kind of Islamism, and an astounding inability to prioritize lives over mere noise.
A Uighur activist told me recently that on approaching several Muslim groups, the the message was clear: they would not engage with any activist who had won support from "Jewish groups who back Israel." In fact, it had been Jewish human rights groups who had aided the Uyghur activist. So much for any entente cordiale around interfaith relations.
Parts of the UK Muslim community have indeed made their voices heard against the genocidal desires of the Chinese Communist Party. This week has seen a concerted effort to galvanize online awareness and support by figures such as MP Nusrat Ghani, broadcaster Maajid Nawaz, academic Azeem Ibrahim and Ghanem Nuseibeh – the Chair of Muslims Against Antisemitism.
But there’s been a considerable degree of silence, too, and it’s emanating, ironically, from those self-appointed guardians of the UK Muslim community who have led a no-holds-barred campaign against any expression of what they consider to be Islamophobia. They are even campaigning against the UK police using the term "Islamist" to describe radical terrorists, on the grounds that it is discriminatory.
Yet, these very groups have met the hundreds of tweets for support for the Uighurs by Ghani, Nawaz and others with complete indifference. Is attempted genocide not Islamophobic, too? Are the Uighurs not worthy of their compassion and solidarity because the 'wrong kind' of Muslims (UK Muslims who don’t boycott UK Jews en masse for their "guilt" on Palestine, or progressive and secular Muslims who dare to challenge Islamist narratives) are campaigning for their rights?
As the Uighurs suffer in concentration camps, Uighur women forced into sterilization to wipe out the Uighur future, some British Muslim groups are too busy stamping their feet about who exactly leads campaigns for other Muslims, and refuse to amplify their campaigns. Once again, it is clear that Jewish communities have squarely backed the UK Muslim campaigners who have fearlessly and tirelessly stood up for what is right.
Blinded by their own misgivings or perhaps prejudices, these self-appointed Muslim "leaders" aren’t standing up for the weak and the dispossessed. They are in love with performative Islamist gestures such as President Erdogan’s conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, but they’re out of love with basic solidarity for Muslims in fear of their lives.
Sadly, they have company in the wider Muslim world. Thanks to China’s military and political might, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has declared that Palestine supports "China's legitimate stance on issues concerning its core interests like Hong Kong and Xinjiang."
Saudi Arabia, where Muhammad was born and died, signed a letter praising China's "remarkable achievements in the field of human rights" and describing its actions in Xianjiang as "de-radicalization measures" including the establishment of "vocational education and training centers." Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, Algeria and other Muslim-majority states blocked a UN motion calling for China to allow "independent international observers" into Xinjiang.
As Guardian columnist Nick Cohen notes, "They use the idea of Muslim solidarity only when it suits them."
Most British Muslims clearly abhor China’s abuse of the Uighurs. But too many have bought into conspiracy theories (such as the Uighur issue as a deliberate exaggeration by Donald Trump and Boris Johnson to deflect from their own bigoted politics), or are following the lead of significant Muslim world leaders who are firmly part of the China denialist camp, or see Jewish community involvement in the protests and consider it a false performance or Zionist entrapment.
The result is that key grassroots campaigns for Uigur rights, led by Muslims, can’t gain traction within British Muslim communities.
Defending Muslims’ basic human rights – from Bosnia to Xianjiang – shouldn’t be a selective endeavor for anyone, and certainly not for Muslims ourselves. Perhaps those Muslims who deny, appease or ignore the suffering of the Uigurs should engage in some soul-searching of their own.
History only remembers those who stood up at the right time and right place. It never forgives those who stood in the shadows whilst the innocent died.
Fiyaz Mughal OBE is the founder and former director of Faith Matters, an organization dedicated to countering extremism in Britain. He is the Founder of Tell MAMA and a past trustee of the U.K's National Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. Twitter: @FaithMattersUK