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Xinjiang – The Silence of the Muslims

Muslim governments were not silent when Burma murdered thousands of Rohingya, its Muslim minority, and expelled 700,000 of them across the border into Bangladesh. They were unanimous in their anger when the Trump administration moved the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But they are almost silent on China’s attempt to suppress Islam in its far western province, Xinjiang.

It is the most brazen frontal assault on Muslims in modern history. Up to a million Chinese citizens have been sent to concentration camps in Xinjiang for the non-crime of being Muslim. They are also guilty of the non-crime of being a ten-million-strong ethnic minority, mostly Uighurs but including a million and a half Kazakhs, who do not feel sufficiently ‘Chinese’, but Islam is the focus of the state’s anger.

And in the face of this repression, the 49 Muslim-majority countries of the world have said almost nothing. Malaysia refused to send a dozen Uighur refugees back to China last year, four members of Kuwait’s parliament made a public protest in January, and Turkey loudly condemned China’s behaviour last month, but the other 46 governments have assiduously avoided the issue. It is very strange.

When Turkey finally did cut loose, foreign ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said: “It is no longer a secret that more than a million Uighur Turks exposed to arbitrary arrests are subjected to torture and political brainwashing” in Chinese prisons….“The reintroduction of concentration camps in the 21st century and the systematic assimilation policy of Chinese authorities against the Uighur Turks is a great embarrassment for humanity.”

But even then, other Muslim countries remained silent. With the honourable exception of Al-Jazeera, the issue is rarely even mentioned in the Arab media, and popular awareness of what is happening is minimal in big Muslim countries like Iran, Pakistan and Indonesia. Why?

It’s true that the mass repression of the Uighurs and other Muslims in China only became known abroad in the past year, although it was already state policy at least two years ago.

It’s true, too, that a lot of the evidence is circumstantial. While there are plenty of first-person reports of the brutal treatment of the Uighurs, for example, the estimates of how many are actually imprisoned – “up to a million”, which would be one-tenth of all the Muslims in Xinjiang – are really estimates of how many the camps could hold, based on satellite observations of their size.

China denies both the scale and the purpose of the repression. These camps, it says, are ‘vocational training centres’ that tackle ‘extremism’ through ‘thought transformation’ (what used to be called ‘brainwashing’, an old political tradition in Communist China).

The detainees are held indefinitely – there are no formal charges or sentences, but hardly anybody has been released in the past couple of years – and are allegedly volunteers. They are ‘trainees’, said the top Chinese official in Xinjiang, Shohrat Zakir, last October, who are grateful for the opportunity to “reflect on their mistakes.”

Shohrat Zakir is obviously a Muslim name: as always, there are collaborators and careerists among the oppressed. But it is a classic late colonial situation, with a Communist twist.

The population of Xinjiang was over 90% Muslim and Turkic-speaking when the new Communist regime in China reconquered the region in 1949. Beijing’s original solution, as in Tibet to the south, was to drown the native population in Han Chinese immigrants: Muslims are now only 45% of the population.

When the inevitable push-back came – anti-Chinese race riots and some terrorist attacks – the Chinese regime responded with intense surveillance and repression of the native population. Part of the package was an attempt to curb Islamic observance and the use of the local Turkic language. And when that wasn’t producing the desired result, Beijing began expanding the ‘re-education centres’ that now hold up to a tenth of the Muslim population.

There is nothing surprising in all this. Assimilation to the Han Chinese norm was the policy of all Chinese governments even before the Communist takeover. What is surprising is the response – or rather, the lack of response – of Muslim governments elsewhere.

Why are they silent? Mainly because China is lavishing loans and grants on them: $20 billion in loans to Arab countries, a rumoured $6 billion to Pakistan, even more to the nearby Muslim countries of Central Asia ($27 billion in joint industrial projects in Kazakhstan alone). They need the money, so they shut up. So do their tame media.

When the de facto dictator of Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, visited
China recently, he endorsed China’s right to take “anti-terrorism” and “de-extremism” measures in Xinjiang. Of course, he needs China’s support in fighting off the accusations that he ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi even more than he needs the money.

Xinjiang’s Muslims have been abandoned by the ‘umma’, the world community of Muslims. They are on their own, and they are suffering.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9, 10 and 15. (“The detainees…twist”; and “When…money”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

India-Pakistan: Maybe War, But Not a Water War

After the terrorist attack on Indian troops in Kashmir two weeks ago that killed 40 Indian soldiers, but before Tuesday’s retaliatory air strikes across the border into Pakistan by the Indian Air Force, the Indian government did something unprecedented. It threatened to cut off Pakistan’s water. Or at least, it sounded like that.

On 21 February, Nitin Gadkari, India’s transport minister, tweeted: “Our Govt. has decided to stop our share of water which used to flow to Pakistan. We will divert water from Eastern rivers and supply it to our people in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab.” Dangerous talk: that way lies nuclear war.

In December 2001, after a Pakistan-backed terrorist attack on the Indian parliament, there was a seminar in Karachi designed to calm everybody down. It was going quite well until somebody alleged that India had plans to use the ‘water weapon’. At that point a Pakistani participant stated flatly that any conflict over water would lead to a nuclear first strike against India by Pakistan.

So Nitin Gadkari’s threat had everybody scared – for about five minutes. Then it became clear that it was only hot air. He was just referring to an existing plan to build a dam on the Ravi River, one of six that feed the giant Indus river system.

It would stop some of that river’s water from flowing on into Pakistan, but all the water in the Ravi belongs to India according to a 1960 treaty between the two countries. India has been letting some of it flow through, but it doesn’t have to.

India could do a great deal of harm to Pakistan if it chose to. Five of the Indus’s six tributaries flow across Indian territory before they reach Pakistan, and 85% of Pakistan’s food is grown on land irrigated by the waters of the Indus system.

Ignorant Indian nationalists often think threats about water are a good way to control Pakistan. In fact, they are a good way to get nuked. But there’s an election in India this spring, and Gadkari is not the sharpest tool in the box.

As soon as the grown-ups intervened, the ‘water weapon’ was off the table, which is a good thing. But there is now a ‘limited war’ underway between India and Pakistan, and it is getting less limited by the hour.

The suicide attack on Indian troops in Kashmir two weeks ago was the deadliest in three decades, and Jaish-e-Mohammad, a militant Islamist group based in Pakistan, took credit for it. The retaliatory air strikes ordered by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi were the first to cross the border into Pakistan proper since the 1971 war.

Now Pakistani planes have bombed Indian territory, and another Indian fighter that crossed into Pakistan has been shot down and its pilot captured. There is shell-fire both ways along the Line of Control in Kashmir.

Why does this sort of thing go on happening? The short answer, alas, is because the Pakistani army needs it to continue.

When the Indian and Pakistani leaders signed the Lahore Declaration of 1999, committing the two countries to a peaceful resolution of the conflict over Kashmir, the Pakistani army and its accompanying militants almost immediately invaded the Kashmiri district of Kargil, on the Indian side of the LoC.

It took quite a serious little war for the Indian army to push them out again – but then, the whole object of the operation, from the Pakistani army’s point of view, was to have a little war. They didn’t need to win. They just had to kill the peace process.

In 2008 Pakistan’s president said that the country was willing to adopt a ‘no first use’ policy for its nuclear weapons. Shortly afterwards, while Pakistan’s foreign minister was in Delhi, Pakistan-based militants of Lashkar-e-Taiba slaughtered 166 people in a terrorist attack in Mumbai (Bombay). Like Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Taiba has close links with the Pakistani armed forces.

And when India’s Prime Minister Modi made a surprise visit to Pakistan in 2016, talking peace and friendship, Jaish-e-Mohammad militants attacked the Indian airbase at Pathankot one week later. Is there a pattern here?

Other countries have armies, but Pakistan’s army has a country. The army dominates not only politics but the economy. It sells insurance, clothes, meat, and concrete. It owns huge chunks of the country’s real estate. It provides very well for its officers while they are on active service, and also in retirement.

It will continue to control the lion’s share of the economy only so long as it has the threat of the Indian ‘enemy’ as an excuse, so it works hard to keep that threat alive. The Indians are no angels in this relationship – maybe they should ask themselves why they even want Kashmir – but it is Pakistan’s army that keeps the game alive.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“India…box”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Pakistan: Dammed If You Do, Damned If You Don’t

“India is shrinking the flow of water into Pakistan,” said Pakistan’s Chief Justice Saqib Nisar on Saturday, renewing a ban on showing Indian TV shows and Bollywood films on Pakistani television. “They are trying to [obstruct the construction] of our dam and we cannot even close their [television] channels?”

On the face of it, this is a decision that invites ridicule. Let us suppose for a moment that India really is stealing Pakistan’s water. How does banning Indian content from Pakistani television hurt India back?

The Pakistani public loves Bollywood films and Indian TV shows: despite their religious differences, these are two closely related cultures. The Pakistani channels pay very little or nothing for the Indian content, but the ban will deprive Pakistanis of stuff they really like.

It’s self-defeating and stupid – but the quarrel behind it is deadly serious. The planned Diamer-Bhasha dam on the upper course of the Indus River will be the third-largest in the world if and when it is completed, and the 4,500 megawatts of electricity it produces would almost double Pakistan’s hydro power. That would help a lot in a country so short of generating capacity that it has ‘electricity riots’.

The big dam has become more urgent, as Pakistan’s new prime minister Imran Khan pointed out recently, because without it there may be a serious shortage of water for irrigation by 2025, leading to drought-like conditions in most of the country. But construction on the dam has still not begun because the money is not there.

Pakistan’s previous big dams have all depended on huge investments by international organisations like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. This time they are not forthcoming, because the projected dam would be in the part of Kashmir province that is controlled by Pakistan but still claimed by India.

Pakistan seized the northern part of Kashmir when the British-ruled Indian empire was partitioned in 1947, while India grabbed the southern part including the densely populated Vale of Kashmir. For all practical purposes the Kashmiri border is permanent, but India’s persistent claim on the northern part scares international capital away.

That’s what made Chief Justice Saqib Nisar so cross. It’s also why Prime Minister Imran Khan has launched a campaign seeking contributions from Pakistanis at home and abroad in order to get the dam started. The renewed ban on Indian TV and film is really a way of getting the Pakistani public’s attention for this campaign.

Like everything else about this dispute, the appeal for voluntary contributions is mostly symbolic: you can’t raise the $12 billion needed to build the dam that way. What is not symbolic is the 2025 deadline for more water storage capacity to avoid a collapse in food production in Pakistan.

It’s not clear from the public debate in Pakistan how much of this expected water shortage is due to climate change, and how much to the relentless growth of Pakistan’s population. (Pakistan has one of the highest birth rates outside of Africa, twice as high as India or Bangladesh.)

Back in 1951, shortly after Pakistan was created, the country’s 34 million people had 5,300 cubic metres of water per capita available to them. The rivers still contain the same amount of water, but there are now 210 million Pakistanis, so there is only 1,000 cubic metres per capita – and falling. The population is still growing fast, and climate change is coming.

The future of the Indus river system’s six tributaries in a warming world is to flood for a decade or two while the glaciers that feed them melt, and then to dwindle in volume when the glaciers are gone. Five of those six tributaries (though not the one the Diamer-Bhasha dam would be built on) cross Indian territory before they enter Pakistan.

The 1960 treaty that shares out the Indus system’s water between the two countries never foresaw that the flow might drop drastically. It just said that India could take out a fixed volume of water for irrigation and other purposes before letting the rest flow onwards to Pakistan.

If the flow should drop drastically due to climate change, therefore, India would still be entitled by treaty to take the same amount of water as before from those five tributaries, even though that would leave little for Pakistan. If India did that, however, Pakistan would start to starve, because 85 percent of its food production depends on irrigation from the Indus system.

It’s hard to believe that an India which was also facing food shortages – a predicted 25 percent loss in food production at 2 degrees Celsius higher average global temperature – would voluntarily give up water it is entitled to by treaty. It’s equally hard to believe that Pakistan would let its own people starve without threatening war with India.

Both of these countries have nuclear weapons. Their problem-solving abilities, as currently displayed, do not inspire confidence.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 3 and 11. (“The Pakistani…like”; and “Back…coming”)

India: Changing Identities

When India got its independence from Britain 70 years ago this week, it was founded as a secular democracy – secular because it acknowledged the status and rights of Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and other religious minorities as equal to those of the Hindu majority. Mahatma Gandhi, the great hero of the independence movement, was a devout Hindu, but he was murdered by a Hindu fanatic for defending Muslim rights after Partition.

It was one of the most fortunate assassinations in history, because Hindu radicals had been using Pakistan’s declaration that it was a “Muslim state” to demand that India be declared a “Hindu state”. After Gandhi’s murder, Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister, was able to round up tens of thousands of Hindu extremists and exploit popular reverence for Gandhi to nail down India’s identity as a secular state.

India is still a democracy, but a portrait of one of the men who conspired to assassinate Gandhi now hangs in India’s parliament. The prime minister, Narendra Modi, leads the BJP (Indian People’s Party), which was created as the political wing of the RSS (National Volunteer Organsation), a Hindu supremacist paramilitary organisation. And secular is now spelled “sickular” by the Hindutva trolls on Twitter.

Hindutva is Hindu exceptionalism of the kind that gives rise to the trope that “to be Hindu is to constantly take offence.” It sees India as a “wounded civilisation” because it has spent most of the past thousand years under the rule of various foreign invaders (hardly a unique experience), and proposes to remedy that with a highly simplified, almost kitch version of politicised Hinduism.

It’s just another brand of populism, in other words, but its chief Indian proponent, Narendra Modi, must deal with far deeper divisions in society than his American counterpart, Donald Trump. He is a much more disciplined man, however, and he does not waste his time in tweeting insults and picking fights with random people.

Modi is relentlessly focussed on economic growth, and in particular on raising the living standards of the lower-middle-class Indians who are his strongest supporters. But to get and keep the parliamentary majority that would let him carry out his programme he must appeal to a broader audience.

For more than half a century India got along with the secular principle that religion is a private matter, but Modi supported a national ban on cow slaughter (many states already banned it) when he took office. More recently he banned the slaughter of buffalo as well. So it’s hardly surprising that “cow protection” vigilantes have been attacking people suspected of trading in beef; half a dozen have been beaten to death in the past couple of years.

Modi supports the ban because high-caste Hindus (the group from which the BJP draws most of its support) believe that cows are sacred and must not be eaten. However, lower-caste Hindus, the so-called Dalits (untouchables), do eat beef, and they make up about a quarter of India’s voting population. This poses a serious political problem for the BJP.

Muslims, who dominate the beef and leather trades, make up another 14 percent of the voters, but Modi doesn’t worry about losing their votes because they were never going to vote for the BJP anyway. He cares very much about the Dalit vote, because they are the key to making the BJP the natural party of government.

Modi won a landslide majority in 2014 in the Lok Sabha (the lower house of parliament), but he did it on only 31 percent of the popular vote. The first-past-the-post system regularly delivers such lopsided results. But the Rajya Sabha (upper house or senate) is elected by the state legislatures, where Dalits are often quite prominent politically. The BJP will never get a majority in the senate without Dalit support.

So Modi walks a tightrope on the issue of sacred cows, promoting their protection to appeal to his upper-caste voters, while weakly condemning the murder of butchers and leather workers by “cow protection” vigilantes (who are backed by the RSS, the BJP’s parent organisation).

Indeed, Modi’s whole take on Hinduism is quite ambivalent. Two years ago, for example, talking about health care in India, he got off track and started talking about the elephant-headed god Ganesha: “We worship Lord Ganesha. There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery.”

It is certainly not Hindu orthodoxy to suggest that Ganesha was a chimera created by ancient plastic surgeons. On the other hand, the idea that India led the world in plastic surgery a few thousand years ago will appeal to the more naive Indian nationalists. It’s a bizarre mixture of ideas, but not untypical in populist politics.

The bottom line, alas, is that the “sickular libtards” are in retreat, the religious minorities are being marginalised, and the people who define India as a “Hindu country” are in charge. It’s too early to say that this is an irreversible change, but it’s a radical departure from the country’s founding values. It’s still a democracy, but it’s starting to look a lot more like Pakistan.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“Indeed…politics”)