By: Umar Farooq
Chinese authorities have imposed restrictions on Uighur Muslims during the month of Ramadan, banning government employees and school children from fasting, in what rights groups say has become an annual attempt at systematically erasing the region’s Islamic identity.
Chinese authorities have justified the ban on fasting by saying it is meant to protect the health of students, and restrictions on religious practices by government officials are meant to ensure the state does not support any particular faith.
Yet in Kashgar, in Xinjiang province, China’s westernmost city, close to the border with Tajikstan and Kyrgyztan, Uighur Muslims say the restrictions have backfired. Not only have locals become more observant of Islamic practices, but many have found ways to flaunt Chinese laws restricting everything from who may attend the mosque, to which copies of the Quran are read.
“That is Mao ZeDong,” said Omar, a taxi driver, pointing to a 24m-tall statue of the founder of the People’s Republic of China, as he navigates his taxi through traffic across People’s Square. “He brought all the Chinese here,” he added, out of earshot of the soldiers lining up across the street.
A few minutes later, the soldiers pile into trucks and move to the city’s commercial centre down the road, where police frisk shoppers at the entrance to a shopping mall. Across Kashgar, security forces have been deployed to thwart potential attacks by Uighur militants seeking to wrestle control of Xinjiang province from Beijing.
Home to some of China’s largest deposits of oil, natural gas, and coal, Xinjiang has a majority Muslim Uighur population – a Turkic ethnic group with a language and culture closer to Central Asia. Before the region was absorbed into the People’s Republic of China in 1949, almost everyone here was Uighur, but the numbers have have since declined, dropping to below half by the year 2000, as tens of millions of Han Chinese – the majority population of mainland China – were encouraged to settle here by the government.
That demographic shift, which accelerated in the 1990s as Beijing began to develop Xinjiang, combined with Chinese laws restricting Islamic practices by Uighurs and the 1997 execution of 30 Uighur separatists by Chinese authorities, triggered a wave of violence by militants that has left hundreds of people dead, mostly civilians.
Last month, a suicide bomber killed 39 people in the provincial capitol of Urumqi, and police claimed to have killed 13 men who attempted to ram an explosives-laden vehicle into their office near Kashgar.
The deadly violence – including an attack by knife-wielding men at a train station in Kuming that killed 29 in March – has sparked a massive crackdown by Beijing, with authorities announcing the convictions of more than 400 people across Xinjiang. Last Wednesday, Kashgar authorities announced 113 people had been sentenced for crimes, including supporting terrorism and inciting ethnic hatred and ethnic discrimination.
“The government says every Uighur, if they have a beard or wear a hijab, they are a terrorist,” said Abdul Majid, who owns a mobile phone shop near People’s Square. He says the last time tensions were this high was in 2009, after 184 people died in clashes between Uighurs and Han Chinese in Urumqi.
‘All these problems started after September 11’
A world away from Kashgar’s commercial centre lies the city’s heart: a nearly 2,000-year-old Uighur quarter that is currently being rebuilt, literally brick by brick, by mostly Han Chinese migrant workers. Kashgar’s ancient mosques are being restored and the homes in the old city re-imagined with hints of Central Asian architecture and with help from the Chinese government. It’s part of a programme that authorities say is aimed at making the area earthquake-resistant.
But not everyone is happy about the renovations.
“If Allah wants to kill us, he will send an earthquake, and he will kill us,” said Hajji Abdul Razzak, a silk merchant who has chosen not to have his home in the old city rebuilt. “A lot of people have left, and just put their houses out to rent.”
Around the corner from Kashgar’s 572-year-old Id Kah Mosque, a large notice board implores Uighurs to adopt modern attire. One half of the board is covered in pictures depicting traditional Uighurs, women in colourful dresses and flowing hair and clean-shaven men. The other half shows rows of men with beards and women in headscarves or face-covering veils, all with a red X over them.
“All these problems started after September 11th,” said Abdul Razzak. “The Pakistan border [with China] was completely sealed, and when it opened a few years later, these Uighurs from Pakistan and Afghanistan came. They are doing all these [bombings], but we are being oppressed.”
Yet, Abdul Razzak and other Uighurs said the attempt to clamp down on religious expression has backfired in Kashgar, with more and more locals flaunting the restrictions.
Nearly every business in Kashgar’s old city is closed during the hottest part of the afternoon when Al Jazeera visited this week during Ramadan.
In the evening, throngs of young women in headscarves or full face veils pass signs posted at Kashgar’s main hospital reminding them veiled women cannot enter.
Along with government employees, children under the age of 18 are barred from attending mosques, yet dozens of men attending night prayers at one of Kashgar’s medieval mosques have brought along their children. Toddlers line up next to the adults, imitating their movements during prayers.
“Sure, it’s against the law to bring kids to the masjid [mosque], but we do it anyway,” said Ghulam Abbas, a middle-aged Uighur man who makes a living selling fried fish on the main boulevard in the old city.
He added that, for centuries, parents sent their children to maktaps, part-time schools at the mosque, where they memorised the Quran – but this practise, along with most organised religious instruction, is now prohibited in Xinjiang.
Asked if Uighurs are forgetting how to recite the Quran as a result, Abbas called his eight-year-old son over and, after some coaxing, convinced him to recite a chapter from memory. “They want to cut our children off from Islam,” Abbas said. “We are not allowed to teach them the Quran, but we do, at home – secretly.”
It is not the only restriction that is being ignored by the Uighurs in Kashgar.
“The Chinese don’t want us to have kids, but we just pay fines or bribe people,” says Abdul Razzak, who has five children – three more than allowed by law. His three extra children, two sons and a daughter, have cost him around 60,000 yuan ($9,670) in fines. He said he is worried they will forget how to speak Uighur.
Other restrictions – like the ban on fasting for schoolchildren – are more difficult to get around. Chinese authorities require that school teachers, who are barred from fasting themselves, also discourage students.
“It depends on the teachers,” said Mehmet, a high-school student in Kashgar. “[Some] bring water, bread, candy, put it in front of you, and you have to eat.”
Meanwhile, certain styles of headscarf are still not acceptable to authorities. “The abaya was very popular here, starting four or five years ago,” said Abdul Majid, a 20-something Uighur who imports women’s clothes from Turkey. “But last year, police started bothering women, so now, I can’t find anyone who wants to buy them.”
Under Chinese law, only state-approved copies of Islamic literature like the Quran are allowed. “If they catch you with a different version, a different translation, or a book from Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, you go to jail,” explained the owner of a small bookstore across the street form the Id Kah mosque, who asked not to be named.