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What Does China Have to Do with Islam and Democracy?

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In the most recent The American Interest, Charles Horner and Eric Brown discuss how and why Communist China is fearful of Muslims ("Beijing's Islamic Complex"). Inside China, the Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang, or Turkestan, who came onto many people's radars for the first time after last summer's riots in Urumqi, might be a threat to the People's Republic, though I cannot imagine so tiny a minority challenging so giant a state. More plausibly, the authors argue that global Muslim awareness of Uighur oppression jeopardizes China's outreach to the Islamic world. And China may need Islam to become a true superpower: "The Xinjiang episode drew somewhat less harsh comment from Washington, Tokyo and Sydney, but it engaged official and popular interest in predominantly Muslim countries in an unprecedented way."

I've previously written on how the Uighur crisis became a means by which "the next Islamists" challenge political orthodoxy in their countries of residence. In taking up this angle from a Chinese perspective, the authors provide a deep insight into how identity politics, colonialism, and modern narratives of history can collide. Unfortunately, the authors also make two mistakes. The first is forgivable, but the second is of much deeper concern.

The lesser error concerns their reference to Turkish history. I assume Horner and Brown are speaking about the Ottomans when they write "Turkey's own multiethnic imperial glory ... at its height, abutted contemporary China's own domains." So far as I and history know, the Ottomans barely made it to Azerbaijan's Caspian shore, and the Chinese were never anywhere near Turkmenistan (the opposite end of that sea). But anyway.

More problematic to me was their description of Turkey as "home to one of the Muslim world's few democracies." The language is inaccurate. While there are a large number of Muslim-majority countries that are not democracies, the majority of the world's Muslims live in democracies. Let me count the ways: Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan (right up against China's Uighur region), Turkey, Lebanon, Mali, Senegal, Nigeria, Tanzania, Ethiopia, the Maldives, etc. Between them, we have well over half of Islam's population. Nobody is saying that these democracies are stable, let alone ideal. (Though, to be fair, the idea of a perfect democracy seems absurd: democracies exist in a constant state of tension and incompleteness. Perfection is for dictators, the afterlife and Star Trek.)

Given that, why is it that so many authors paint the Muslim world as undemocratic, whether in theory or practice? Speaking on April 28th at the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy's annual conference, author Reza Aslan noted that, for years now, huge majorities of Muslims the world over have endorsed democracy as a political ideal -- one moreover that they want right now. I cannot presume to know Horner and Brown's intentions, and I do not desire to impute what might not have been aimed for in an otherwise intriguing essay. Still, let me say this: the demographics contradict their words, and the global distribution of Muslim-majority democracies, from Southeast Asia to West Africa, proves fictional any allergy between Islam and democracy. That in the end could be the foundation of Chinese and Muslim solidarity, or it could repel Muslim populations, tired of the dictatorships in their midst, from more of the same.

Haroon Moghul is Executive Director of The Maydan Institute. A Ph.D. Candidate at Columbia University, he is the author of The Order of Light (Penguin 2006). He has been selected one of over 500 global Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow. His sermons are available through the Islamic Center at New York University's new media services.