Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s foreign-policy agenda carries a contradiction at its heart. Mr. Khan seeks to project himself as a global defender of Islam, but he won’t utter a peep about one of the most egregious persecutions of Muslims: China’s repression of Xinjiang’s Uighurs and its project to Sinicize Islam.
In New York last week, Mr. Khan laid out his vision in a rambling 50-minute address to the United Nations General Assembly. He defended the right of Muslim women in the West to don the hijab. “A woman can take off her clothes in [some] countries, but she can’t put on more clothes,” he said. He declared that “there is no such thing as radical Islam,” only “one Islam and that is the Islam we follow of Prophet Muhammad.”
The prime minister blamed the rise of “Islamophobia” on some “people in the West who deliberately provoked this,” in part by writing novels such as Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses.” He warned that “marginalizing Muslim communities” in Europe “leads to radicalization.” He asked the West to treat the prophet “with sensitivity” akin to how it approaches the Holocaust.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Khan devoted much of his address to attacking India for its decision in August to revoke autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim-majority state. He accused Indian troops of locking in Kashmiris like “animals” and warned of an impending bloodbath that could spiral into a nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan.
The prime minister will back his fervor with action. After a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Mr. Khan tweeted that the three Muslim-majority countries would set up a “BBC type English-language” television channel to highlight “Muslim issues” and “fight Islamophobia.” Through this channel, the “issue of blasphemy would be properly contextualized” and “Muslims would be given a dedicated media presence.”
Not everything that Mr. Khan says is unreasonable. You can question his florid rhetoric on Kashmir while acknowledging that India’s heavy-handed actions there have caused needless suffering. And if Pakistan and its friends wish to stand up the world’s most boring TV channel, who are we to complain?
Nevertheless, Mr. Khan’s lecture to the West on how to treat its Muslim minorities is, to put it mildly, deeply hypocritical. He appears to expect Western nations to accommodate orthodox Muslim concerns by curtailing free speech and women’s rights. But China’s wholesale assault on Islam itself elicits only silence.
In Xinjiang province, China has diluted the Muslim majority by shipping in millions of Han Chinese migrants. Authorities have banned names they deem overly religious, including Muhammad, as well as “abnormal” beards and veils in public for women. Uighur Muslims face punishment for fasting during Ramadan. According to detainee reports, the friendly methods employed at Chinese re-education camps for Uighurs include forcing religious believers to consume pork and alcohol.
Outside Xinjiang, the Chinese Communist Party has launched a totalitarian program to Sinicize Islam. In many places, authorities prohibit mosques and Islamic organizations from running kindergartens or after-school programs. Ningxia province in north-central China has banned public displays of the Arabic script, including the word “halal.” Along with neighboring Gansu province, Ningxia also bans the Muslim call to prayer. In Inner Mongolia, Henan and Ningxia, authorities have flattened domes and razed minarets to give mosques a more Chinese appearance.
Carved out of British India as a homeland for Muslims, Pakistan has long placed pan-Islamic causes—including the Palestinians, Bosnia and Kashmir—at the heart of its foreign policy. But when asked earlier this year by a reporter about the Uighurs, Mr. Khan claimed that he “doesn’t know much” about the issue. At the Council on Foreign Relations in New York last month he said his nation’s “special relationship” with China stops him from speaking about the Uighurs in public.
What explains this silence? First the obvious answer: Pakistan depends on China for diplomatic, military and economic support. In addition, “there’s a kind of protest reflex in some parts of the Muslim world that focuses on the West,” says Afshin Molavi, an expert on Middle East-Asia ties at Johns Hopkins University. “This reflex doesn’t exist with China.”
Unfortunately for Pakistan—and luckily for the rest of us—pan-Islamism appears to be fading. Hardly any Muslim country wants to risk angering China’s touchy rulers by criticizing their policies. On Kashmir, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, whose support Pakistan could once count on, now place economic ties with New Delhi above solidarity with Islamabad. Mr. Molavi likens pan-Islamism to a song on a “diplomatic Spotify playlist” that no longer plays well in places like Riyadh or Abu Dhabi.
This doesn’t mean that Mr. Khan should stop speaking up on behalf of his coreligionists. But if he wants to be taken seriously, he ought to focus more on China’s war on Islam and less on imaginary problems facing Muslims in the West.
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