This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.
Every year, Muslims observe the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, a period of fasting in which they aren’t supposed to eat, drink, smoke or have sex from dawn to dusk. It is a time of reflection and repentance, and a lesson in abstinence. And it’s already kinda hard because they’re not supposed to even sip water during this time. But apparently, China never got the memo.
Authorities in China are allegedly being big bullies and targeting members of the Muslim minority Uyghur community, who mostly live in the Xinjiang province, to break their fast before the sun sets. Forcing them to eat and drink with the threat of punishment not only violates Islamic rules of Ramadan, but is a brutal way to treat a community that is already under much pressure in the area.
“It’s distressing, and it’s insulting to our dignity,” said Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, an advocacy organisation in Munich that defends the rights of the Uyghur Muslim minority. He claims that not only are restaurants being forced to open up during the day, but Muslims working in Chinese companies are also being harassed into eating and drinking during their lunch breaks. Even shops owned by Muslins have been told to either continue selling cigarettes and alcohol over the course of the month or face being shut down completely.
While Muslim majority nations like Doha have rules in place that expect even expats and tourist to respect the Ramadan tradition and prohibit them from eating, drinking or smoking in public, most Muslim nations have remained largely silent about this. Despite widespread criticism by Western countries and advocacy groups on how China treats its Uyghur minority, these countries are apparently quiet to avoid making China angry.
The most notable of this silent lot is Saudi Arabia, whose king holds the title of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, two of Islam’s holiest sites. The Middle East is an essential economic partner for China and even provides oil to help fuel its growth. However, despite all this clout, a news agency in Xinhua reported that in a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping this month, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman said that the kingdom “is willing to strengthen exchanges with China at all levels.”
In fact, during his visit to China earlier this year, the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, appeared to condone the way China was treating Uyghur Muslims, saying, “We respect and support China’s rights to take counterterrorism and de-extremism measures to safeguard national security,” according to local Chinese media.
Now, China is reportedly up to some pretty messed-up stuff. They’ve been reportedly destroying long-standing mosques and even throwing Uyghur Muslims into “vocational training centres” that are widely criticised for basically being concentration camps. Women have been banned from wearing the traditional hijab, men have been banned from growing beards and an app is tracking movements made by Muslims. And while China has reportedly been trying to ruin Ramadan for a few years now, incidents appear to have increased this time around.
This is allegedly because of a campaign China is running to keep Muslim nations quiet and cooperative. Over the last six months, it has focused on members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in a campaign considered so vigorous that people acquainted with this effort are even saying that some of the 57 member states are talking about the situation in China as a national security matter.
According to The Washington Post, people in the know of this campaign are even claiming that China is relying heavily on Saudi Arabia and its main ally, the United Arab Emirates, through direct appeals to the leadership of those two countries in an attempt to get other Muslim states on their side.
There’s already been a big shift in Saudi Arabia’s position on policies under the leadership of the crown prince, who has tried to confront and co-opt conservative religious principles in the kingdom to create a new identity for Saudi, one that favours nationalism over religion.
“One of the pillars of Saudi legitimacy is they’re the guardians of the holy sites,” says John Calabrese, director of the Middle East-Asia Project at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “Others would expect that they would take a much more forward-leaning stance on this.”
But while Saudi’s silence speaks volumes, they aren’t the only ones. Even countries like Pakistan, Egypt and Iraq aren’t saying much. In fact, Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, has claimed twice in interviews that he’s in the dark about the situation of Muslims in China, while the Indonesian government publicly declared that it “would not interfere” in China’s “domestic affairs.”
The country that comes closest to criticising China is Turkey, where Uyghurs originate from, which broke the silence to call on China to close the “torture and political brainwashing” centres.
In its global Belt and Road infrastructure program, China will be spending $200 billion across 60 countries, which includes Muslim countries. They’re making a rail link and developing property in Malaysia, running a high-speed train line for Iran, and putting up ports and power plants for Indonesia. Even nations like Egypt and Iraq are pretty pumped about this project.
But oil-rich Saudi Arabia has no need for China to build roads or aid construction. In fact, China is the world’s biggest importer of Saudi oil, even overtaking the United States in 2009 by buying $46 billion worth of products from Saudi Arabia in 2018, a year in which overall bilateral trade increased by 33 percent to $63 billion.
But Saudi Arabia’s traditionally close relationship with the United States came into a controversy after Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist, was killed in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last year, apparently on the orders of the Saudi leadership.
So, many are speculating that Saudi is looking to make up for its diplomatic isolation by becoming pally with China. Said He Wenping, research fellow at the Institute of West-Asian and African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, “A stronger relationship with China could help Saudi Arabia overcome its increasing diplomatic isolation and help rehabilitate its image after the Khashoggi slaying.”
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