Former Chelsea striker Demba Ba has called on footballers to stand up for Uighur Muslims and condemn China’s treatment of the minority group regardless of the financial consequences.
U.N. experts estimate than more than a million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims have been detained against their will for several years in camps in the far western region of Xinjiang.
China denies mistreatment of the group, saying the camps holding many Uighurs provide vocational training and are needed to fight extremism.
“When are we going to see the rest of the world stand up for Muslims?” Ba, himself a Muslim from Senegal who suffered at least one incident of racial abuse when he played for Chinese side Shanghai Shenhua in 2018, told the BBC.
“I have to try and organise something so football players can get together and, in the meantime, talk about this matter because not a lot of people want to.
“I know there are footballers who want to fight for justice. As sportspeople, we have a power we don’t even know. If we get together and talk, things change. If we stand up, people stand up with us.”
Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil, a German Muslim of Turkish origin, last year called Uighurs “warriors who resist persecution” and criticized both China’s crackdown and the silence of Muslims elsewhere in the world in response.
China’s state broadcaster CCTV removed Arsenal’s game against Manchester City from its schedule after Ozil spoke out.
Arsenal were quick to distance themselves from Ozil’s comments at the time and Ba, 35, who now plays for Turkish club Istanbul Basaksehir, believes players are being pressured to stay silent on such matters.
“Arsenal talked about Black Lives Matter but when it was about Uighur lives Arsenal didn’t want to talk about it because of the pressure and economic impact,” he said.
“When there are financial benefits, some people close their eyes. Money has more value than real values. I think clubs put a lot of pressure on players not to get involved, but how can you not when you see the injustice with your own eyes.”
The U.S. National Basketball Association said it incurred substantial financial losses in China after a Houston Rockets official tweeted his support for Hong Kong’s anti-China protests last October, infuriating Beijing.