In the dying days of the Trump administration, outgoing secretary of state Mike Pompeo declared that China was committing genocide against the Uighur Muslims. Yet there is no reason to believe he was sincere in his solidarity or his repugnance at state-sanctioned violence. That’s because, given Pompeo’s record, he’s clearly no friend of Muslims and no champion of human rights.
In 2014, he said the chief threat to the US “is from people who deeply believe that Islam is the way and the light and the only answer”. A year earlier, he used collective blaming to tarnish all senior US Muslims for the acts of two terrorist bombers at the Boston marathon. “Silence has made these Islamic leaders across America potentially complicit in these acts,” he said. Unsurprisingly, Act for America – an anti-Muslim hate group – bestowed upon him their highest honour.
And not only that: Pompeo provided weapons to Saudi Arabia’s dictatorship, used in Yemen to slaughter Muslims and plunge the nation into the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. And he visited illegal Israeli settlements built on occupied Palestinian land, declaring their products would be labelled “Made in Israel”.
For Pompeo, the oppressed are mere chess pieces in a global power struggle – China is due to overtake the US as the world’s largest economy before this decade is over.
But while his motives should be questioned, the suffering of the Uighur Muslims should not. Despite the denials of the Chinese regime, the brutal campaign against the Uighurs in the Xinjiang region is real. According to Amnesty International, which has conducted hundreds of interviews with victims, about a million Muslims have been detained by the Chinese state. They suffer solitary confinement, beatings and the deprivation of food. China’s regime has built about 400 internment camps in Xinjiang: they describe these prisons as “re-education camps”, and leaked official documents call for China to “show absolutely no mercy” in the “struggle against terrorism, infiltration and separatism”.
Indeed, Beijing uses rhetoric strikingly similar to those who prosecuted the west’s “war on terror”, declaring that its offensive is being waged against Muslim extremists and terrorists. Unsurprising, then, that Tony Blair, one of the chief architects of that war on terror, has bemoaned “double standards” applied to China and called for recognition “that China is facing the same problem as we [the west] are facing”.
A perennial complaint lodged against the anti-war left is that it has been quick to take to the streets against, say, the Iraq war or Israel’s brutal occupation, but you won’t find them camped outside the Russian or Chinese embassies. This is, in general, a bad faith critique. Citizens have at least some potential leverage over their own governments: whether it be to stop participation in foreign action, or encourage them to confront human rights abusing allies. But that doesn’t mean abandoning a commitment to defending the oppressed, whoever their oppressor might be. To speak out against Islamophobia in western societies but to remain silent about the Uighurs is to declare that the security of Muslims only matters in some countries. We need genuine universalists.
Given political leaders such as Pompeo have a self-evident interest in stoking tensions with China rather than defending Muslims, some people worry that condemning a rival power’s human rights abuses risks providing cover for those aiming to foment a new cold war. But this is to sacrifice oppressed Muslims on the altar of geopolitics: and indeed, it is possible to walk and to chew gum; to oppose western militarism and to stand with victims of state violence. It would be perverse to cede a defence of China’s Muslims – however disingenuous – to reactionaries and warmongers.
The British government has declared China’s treatment of the Uighurs as torture and introduced measures to prevent companies profiting from forced labour in Xinjiang: here is a principle that should be extended to other countries. But this week the government defeated an amendment cancelling post-Brexit trade deals with countries committing genocide – underlining, as ever, that economic interests trump human rights considerations. We don’t know just how grave the situation is in Xiangjing, which is why Amnesty International’s demands for China to allow in human rights observers should be supported. Those of us who urge action against the abuses of western allies should, for example, oppose British arms sales to China. Either solidarity is consistent or it is insincere: and the tyrannised Uighurs deserve better than to be reduced to pawns in games between great powers.
Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist.