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Thursday, October 21, 2021

The Religion Can Wait

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The fate of Afghanistan is a topic that is being discussed far and wide, be it local news channels or international ones. Every step of the Regime 2.0 is being micro-analyzed and rightfully so. However, an oddity in this was observed when an internationally recognized journalist during prime time was discussing the non-congruency of the Taliban stance in regards to China. To drive the point home, the tweets of Christina Scott were displayed in the background.

Christina Scott is the UK’s Deputy Head of Mission in China. Last year, she tweeted about the Ningxia Hui Mosque in China whose dome had been removed by the government. She happened to notice the similar fate of another mosque this year, which she tweeted about on September 12, 2021, in Qinghai province near Xinjiang. The Great Dongguan Mosque – built during Ming Dynasty in the 14th century – is an ancient place of worship, whose green dome and both minarets have been removed.

The removal of crescents and domes is routine Chinese Communist Party CCP praxis under the project of ‘Sinicization’ of Islam. Aiming to replace the religious creed and devotion with loyalty towards the state and party, CCP launched a 5-year plan in 2018 to ‘Sinicize’ Islam. This includes the promotion and propagation of a certain brand of Islam, one which is adept with Chinese patriotism. Thus, any symbol (read suspect) of a pan-Islamic identity i.e. Arabian-characterized architecture is unable to find a place for itself in the People’s Republic. Australian Strategic Policy Institute in 2020 published a report estimating the number of mosques destroyed in Xinjiang to be around 16,000 since 2017.

This nihilism of Muslim identity is not limited to infrastructure only, but also to individuals. Uyghurs and Kazakhs undergo concentration camp internment, systematic reeducation, mass surveillance, and forced labor. In some extreme cases, also mass sterilization. In addition to these forsaken groups, of late, Hui Muslims – who are much similar to China’s indigenous Han populace – are also being targeted increasingly so owing to their religious identity. President Xi can dismiss these facts as “slanderous rumors” but it is a well-known secret that Islam and the Islamic in China need to look, sound and seem in line with the fundamental Chinese tradition to survive.

Given the non-conforming and non-reforming stance of China, the host and the guests were absurdly surprised when the most ideologically inclined, self-proclaimed ‘emirate’ of Islam – Taliban 2.0 – finds a warm friendship in a nation that is engaged in the systematic, cultural genocide of the very faith they derive their ideology from. The latter is presenting “a fundamental and extraordinary opportunity” for the former according to their spokesperson. This contradiction was sullenly questioned that how the could Taliban extend a hand of friendship to the Chinese who are “crushing” their Muslim brethren back home.

It is true that Taliban 2.0 looks towards China for reliable alliance while most of the Muslim world sits back and judges which side of the fence to come down on. For this relationship, the religion has been assigned the back seat – or maybe, no seat at all. But the catch is that this dynamic between the two is not being established today, instead, this has been the case for a long.

This odd pair of a religious hardliner group and the world’s leading communist state dates back to the 1990s. It started off as both being antagonists owing to East Turkestan Islamic Movement ETIM which was carrying out its anti-Sino terrorism from their safe harbors in Afghanistan. Thus, China backed the sanctions against Taliban 1.0 in the UN. When the BRI dream started to gain momentum, China realized that instead of denunciating the Taliban, engaging them would be more beneficial in securing their interests in the region. The diplomacy might also open doors for trade with an isolated and sanctioned nation. Moreover, China could also benefit from the vast Afghani mineral wealth.

China took the first step in 1999 – with the assistance of Pakistan, of course – and established economic ties with the regime – in fact, the only country on the entire international stage to do that. Both took baby steps towards improving bilateral ties: Taliban 1.0 restricted the ETIM (but did not eradicate them), China abstained from the new set of UN sanctions against the Taliban regime (but did not oppose them).

The Sino-aid assisted to uphold the battered economy of Afghanistan. This aid to Afghanistan continued even during the ‘War on Terror’ post 9/11. This war was although, ideologically backed by China but not militarily. Some informal contact between the two was always present, proof of which could be asserted in the fact that Chinese developmental projects were never once targeted by the Taliban 1.0.

China and the regime engaged via Pakistan on multiple occasions to ensure the safety of CPEC which is no longer a dream but a geopolitical-altering reality. As massive in magnitude, as it is, it is equally vulnerable due to the volatility in the region. Keeping the Taliban closer gives Beijing an opportunity to not only secure its investments in Central Asia but also deepen its investments in Afghanistan. Both the involved parties serve to gain abundant from this relationship.

Just like Egypt, at first and now, UAE and Bahrain did when they established ties with Israel. The Gulf improved their trade and Israel reduced its regional isolation while the Palestinians were left holding a wooden spoon. The majority of members of OIC could never explicitly raise their banner for the Kashmiri Muslims being subjected to brutal crackdown under the Modi regime because they do not want to frown on the neo-strategic ally of the US. Saudi Arabia backed by a multinational coalition is fighting a war of regional dominance against Iran who shares the same creed with them.

The question was posed that how the Muslim Taliban could ignore the ill-treatment of Muslim Uyghurs? And the answer to that is simply because they can afford to do that. They can afford to ignore the Uyghurs but cannot afford to ignore the Afghans, whose present and future are in the hands of these inexperienced rulers. Creed is a non-issue.

Taliban 2.0 cannot afford to isolate itself from the international comity of nations. They see the writing on the wall: the corruption in governance, the humanitarian situation, the containing of the terrorist organizations using Afghan soil in addition to the brain drain, the absolute dearth of technology, and the imminent economic collapse will not be managed if they are pariah-field internationally. The treatment of Uyghurs and Islam can be dealt with once the regime manages to stay afloat.

Beijing’s backing provides the economic as well as political capital to Taliban 2.0 – which the Taliban very direly need and Beijing very keenly provides. The pan-Islamic brotherhood can wait in the same line in which the UAE support to the Palestinian cause and Saudi backing to Kashmir debacle is waiting.

It was absurd to question the Taliban about their warming up to China. International alliances could be expected to be governed by the faith but are always steered by political and economic safeguards.

Let the money flow in, the religion can wait.

Khaula Rafeeq Aalam

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