In the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), another Ramadan inevitably ushers in an intensified campaign to crack down on the Uyghurs’ religious beliefs, practices, and identity, alongside year-round social, political, and religious restrictions. As in previous years, local Xinjiang authorities have instituted a ban on Ramadan fasting this year for Uyghur civil servants and students, prohibited mosque attendance for Uyghurs under eighteen years of age, monitored mosque sermons and staff, and forced Uyghur restaurants and businesses to stay open during the daytime. During this year’s Ramadan, local authorities have taken additional measures to increase the difficulty for Uyghurs to perform their religious obligations during the Muslim holy month, leading to stern reaction and condemnation by Muslim countries and organizations.
Various local authorities, including municipal, town, and village government officials, school administrators, and police throughout XUAR have instituted their own restrictive policies targeting Ramadan fasting and other religious practices. On several occasions, local authorities provided food to Uyghurs and reportedly force-fed some Uyghurs during daytime hours when they would otherwise be fasting. According to Chinese reports authorities in Minfeng County in Hotan Prefecture attempted to break Uyghurs’ religious prohibitions against drinking alcohol by holding a beer festival.
In fact, some local authorities actively promoted cigarette and alcohol consumption to loosen Uyghurs’ adherence to religious proscriptions. Uyghur shop owners in Lasikui town in the southwest of Hotan, were ordered to sell five different types of cigarettes and alcohol by a May deadline, or else they would “be pursued for legal and political responsibilities”
In addition, Uyghur students have been under considerable pressure from school administrators to reject religious observance during Ramadan. In the capital city of Urumqi, Uyghur students at the Second Affiliated Hospital of Xinjiang Medical University were instructed not to fast and pray. Uyghur students have been threatened with punishment or academic expulsion for disobeying these regulations.
This year’s Ramadan ban comes amid a stronger central government crackdown on terrorism and so-called religious extremism in XUAR. On 25 May 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a year-long campaign against terrorism in Xinjiang that would last until June 2015. Xi’s announcement came three days after Uyghur suicide bombings at an Urumqi marketplace killed thirty-nine people and injured ninety-four. The XUAR has experienced waves of ongoing unrest and violence in the years following the July 2009 ethnic riots in Urumqi that left 197 dead and injured 1,721, according to official Chinese estimates. Zhang Chunxian, Communist Party chief of Xinjiang, pledged “a people’s war” against terrorism in the region, which entails enhanced security measures and “special campaigns to regulate illegal religious activities.” (Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) Annual Report 2014, p.163.) The Xinjiang Party chief called for strengthened management of religious affairs and crackdown on criminal offences by religious extremists. Zhang’s remarks and subsequent restrictive policies indicate a continuation of the hard-line policies of his predecessor Wang Lequan on the Xinjiang Uyghur population.
[The Thousands Ruk`u on Eid-ul Fitr at Id Kah Mosque. Image by Preston Rhea via Flickr]
Following the declaration of the year-long anti-terrorism campaign across China and especially in Xinjiang, Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang were subject to greater government interference and restrictions on religious practice. In 2014, Xinjiang authorities listed seventy-five behaviors of religious extremism to be reported, scrutinized, and suppressed by authorities. They include not attending official mosques; praying at mosques outside of one’s village; refusing to shake hands; resistance to interethnic marriage; refusing to apply for or accept the government social welfare program; pausing restaurant service during Ramadan; and teaching Turkish, Urdu, and Arabic. Local authorities also unveiled Uyghur women, shaved off long beards, confiscated religious texts and publications from homes, and pressured teachers, even retirees, to disavow religious practice. In another example, the Yining/Ghulja municipal government in 2013 organized public campaigns and training classes against Saudi-inspired Wahhabism.
In an entertainment TV show made by Hunan TV in Dubai, Chinese actress Ning Jing’s head and body were superimposed with a cactus to conceal her black veil and long body dress. These measures and restrictions are part of the broader campaign to weaken religious observance in Xinjiang.
The increasingly tense situation in XUAR also comes at a time when China has vowed to improve Xinjiang’s economy. According to Chinese media, Chinese state-owned enterprises had invested $95 billion in the first few months of 2014. As a result, Han migrants from other provinces relocated to Xinjiang in pursuit of new economic opportunities. However, Han migrants are often given priority in employment over local Uyghurs, thereby contributing to the widening income inequality between the two ethnic groups. Han-Uyghur inequality and discriminatory hiring practices continue to be a major source of tension in interethnic relations. While Kashgar city, a center of Uyghur culture, was being “innovated” and modernized, Uyghur traditional architectural sites were destroyed in the process. Furthermore, state-owned enterprises provided unfair compensation at below market prices when purchasing owned by Uyghurs.
The rise of Xinjiang violence also comes at a time when Chinese President Xi Jinping has elevated the region’s geostrategic position as a major conduit in his “One Belt, One Road” initiative to connect China with Southeast Asia, South and Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe through networks of roads, railways, ports, and pipelines. XUAR, strategically bordering Central Asian states, has been primed as the major financial, and logistical center of the Silk Road Economic Belt, according to local authorities. Xinjiang is a major focal point in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which envisions the construction of a 1,488-mile highway from Pakistan’s Gwadar port to Kashgar in XUAR, with a parallel oil pipeline along that route that would provide a safer and shorter energy route that bypasses the Straits of Malacca. China is also planning to build a high-speed rail from Urumqi to Germany, crossing Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, and Turkey. The Beijing government has encouraged foreign companies to invest in China’s comparatively less developed western regions, such as the XUAR. China has invited Turkey, which has longstanding linguistic, cultural, and historical ties to the Xinjiang Uyghurs, to invest in Turkish business such as industrial park in Xinjiang.
Paradoxically, those countries identified by China as straddling its Silk Road map—many of which are Muslim-majority countries—have expressed concern over the Chinese restrictions on Uyghur religious practice. In response to the numerous media reports on the Ramadan ban in Xinjiang this year, several governments have issued critical statements. Scores of Malaysian demonstrators gathered outside the PRC embassy in Kuala Lumpur to protest the restrictive policies leveled at the Uyghurs. Al-Azhar University in Cairo and the International Union on Muslim Scholars have also expressed concerns over Xinjiang restrictions on Ramadan fasting and praying. As a Muslim and Turkic country, Turkey’s response has been understandably strong. The Turkish Foreign Ministry recently said in a statement, “Our people have been saddened over the news that Uyghur Turks have been banned from fasting or carrying out other religious duties in the Xinjiang region.” The statement also added that Turkey has conveyed its concerns to China’s ambassador in Ankara. The recent Ramadan crackdown has led to vocal protests in Turkey about the heavy-handedness of Chinese policies towards ethnic Turkic communities in XUAR. According to some media reports, Chinese citizens living in Turkey have been harassed in public places in relation to the situation in Xinjiang.
XUAR authorities have long justified their repressive measures on the Uyghur population by tying them to the fight against the “three evil forces” of separatism, terrorism, and religious extremism in the region. However, the crackdown on religious practice and identity throughout the past year, which was aimed at preventing Uyghur terrorist attacks, did not actually lead to a cessation of conflict. On the contrary, there was a rise in Uyghur violence targeting checkpoints, police stations, government buildings, and public marketplaces. A number of violent clashes were directly motivated by the oppressive controls on religious practice. Some began as protests against intrusions into Uyghurs’ daily lives—such as the ban on headscarves—and later degenerated into deadly conflict with Chinese security personnel. Thus far, Chinese authorities have shown no desire to distinguish between standard Islamic practices such as fasting and extremist behavior that encourages violence. The bans on Ramadan fasting and prayer, headscarves, beards, and reading of Islamic texts are all counterproductive, as they actually serve to increase Uyghur animosity towards local authorities and will continue to fuel civil and violent resistance by the Uyghurs.