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Mona Eltahawy Headshot

If Only the Uighurs Were Buddhist and China Was Israel

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NEW YORK - Pity the Uighurs -- the wrong kind of minority, the wrong kind of Muslims, fighting the wrong kind of enemy.

For years, Uighurs -- a Turkic people who are largely Muslim -- complained of economic, cultural and religious discrimination under the harsh fist of Beijing. The latter made sure the Uighurs were outnumbered in the western Xinjiang province by Han Chinese migrants.

In the worst ethnic unrest in China in years, Uighurs took to the streets of the provincial capital Urumqi on Sunday, apparently after a protest at government handling of a June clash between Han Chinese and Uighur factory workers in southern China, where two Uighurs died.

At least 156 people died in weekend riots.

The Chinese government quickly blamed exiled separatists and Muslim militant groups, arrested dozens and tried to curb information by stifling the internet. On Tuesday, Han Chinese armed with iron bars and machetes went looking for revenge on Uighurs.

Following the news that did make it out of Xinjiang, I thought if only the Uighurs were Buddhists like the Tibetans with whom the Uighurs share almost mirror grievances against Beijing.

If they were Buddhists, Bjork, Sting, Bono and all those other one-named saviors of the world's poor and oppressed would have held "Free Xinjiang" concerts already. But the West continues to largely ignore the Uighurs. Maybe they're not as cuddly as the Tibetans or their leader the Dalai Lama.

Perhaps the U.S. State Department would issue stronger words in their defense if only the Uighurs weren't the wrong kind of minority in a country that produces half the goods we use and which currently lends the wobbly global economy enough money to keep it just this side of total collapse.

The Uighurs aren't Buddhists but are instead Muslims and us Muslims don't get much love these days. You'd think the U.S. at least would be paying a bit more attention to Uighurs after locking up four of their brethren at the prison camp at Guantanamo without charge for seven years. They were released earlier this year to Bermuda.

If the West seems deaf to Uighur complaints, then where are their fellow Muslims? Surely this is a chance for Muslims across the world to march in protest at the stranglehold the godless Communist Chinese keep over the Uighurs?

Think again.

The Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas put it bluntly on the micro-blogging site, Twitter -- where thousands follow him -- when he asked why no one was paying attention to the Uighur "intifada," the Arabic word for uprising that is usually associated with Palestinians fighting back against Israeli occupation.

That's precisely the problem -- the Uighurs are no Palestinians and the Chinese are not Israel. Many Muslims -- Arab Muslims especially -- pay attention only when the U.S. and Israel are behaving badly. Palestine followed by Iraq always take precedence leaving little room for other Muslim grievances.

Look at Darfur, where the suffering goes ignored because those who are creating the misery are neither Americans nor Israelis but instead fellow Arab Muslim Sudanese.

China is coincidentally one of Sudan's biggest trade partners and sells Khartoum plenty of weapons which Darfuris complain are used against them. So it's unlikely Sudanese President Omar Bashir, who declared himself the guardian of Islam in 2007 by putting on trial a British teacher for insulting Muslims when she named a class teddy bear "Mohammed", will condemn Chinese oppression of Uighurs.

Perhaps Israel can save the day and invade Xinjiang.

Xinjiang and its Muslim inhabitants are almost complete unknowns in the Arab world, much to China's relief, I'm sure. During a visit in 1995 to attend the United Nations conference on women in Beijing, I tried to visit Xinjiang. But not a single airline office would sell a ticket to a "radical lesbians," as conference attendees were seen. No "restive regions" for us.

Further afield from the Arab world, Shaaz Mahboob, a British Muslim friend of Pakistani descent, wondered on Facebook "Where are the Pakistani emotions which rage whenever there is an issue to do with Muslims anywhere on this planet (thank God there aren't Muslims being persecuted on the Moon or Mars -- yet!)?"

He asked Imran Khan, the former Pakistani cricket superstar, and other Pakistanis who have supported militant groups why "they would not even support the militant Uighur groups who have allegedly initiated this chain of violence?

"They remain mysteriously silent over the plight of Chinese fellow Muslim. Or is it that the "friendship" with China takes precedence over helping fellow Muslims this time?"

As I said -- wrong enemy.

The Chinese government quickly boosted security to crush Sunday's Uighur uprising and arrested dozens of men, leaving many women to demonstrate on Tuesday, waving their the identity cards of male relatives they say were arbitrarily detained.

Those women just might be the Uighurs' best hope of getting the world's attention. Or at least one of them and no, I don't mean Rebiya Kadeer, the exiled Uighur businesswoman and activist whom Beijing blames for orchestrating the violence from her home in the U.S.

Reuters' photographer David Gray took a picture of a lone Uighur woman in a headscarf leaning on a crutch and facing off with two Chinese security vehicles behind which stood dozens of security personnel.

It was reminiscent both of the picture of the lone Chinese student facing off with the tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and of the ubiquitous images of Iranian women from that country's recent demonstrations,

So now they have an iconic image, here's hoping the Uighurs start to register on our radar.