China's Uyghur Muslims
CBC News Viewpoint
August 28, 2006
Ashifa Kassam After years of experience in the field of human rights and social justice issues in Canada, Ashifa Kassam started to wonder how others around the world have been coping with their own challenges. With the intent of satisfying her curiosity, she is currently traveling across continents to volunteer with various grassroots development organizations. Originally from Calgary and educated at Queen's University, this freelance writer and activist aims to tell stories that will take readers far beyond tourism.
Devotional chants ring out all around me. The walls of this ancient mosque resonate in harmony with these chants, rewarding the hundreds of people deep in prayer with an atmosphere of surreal calm.
This calm contrasts sharply with the hectic city that lies just beyond the mosque's steps. Chaotic, narrow lanes that lead into the mosque are crammed with vendors selling everything from Muslim food to Chairman Mao memorabilia. Giant billboards adorned with skinny models and Mandarin phrases stare down at the pedestrians who crowd the streets. Kites fly above the whole scene, painting the last bit of untouched landscape with dozens of bright colours.
I am in Xian, once the capital of China and home to the Great Mosque of Xian. Built in the 18th century, this mosque is the hub of activity for the more than 60,000 Muslims who live in Xian. As this is one of the largest mosques in China, it is the most prominent clue regarding the story of Muslims in China. It is estimated that there are anywhere from 20 million to 40 million Muslims currently living in China.
The first recorded arrival of Muslims in China was in 650 A.D. Although the Muslim envoy failed at their mission to convert Emperor Gaozong of Tang China to Islam, the emperor demonstrated his respect by ordering the construction of the first Chinese mosque in the Tang capital city of Chang-an.
During the remainder of the Tang dynasty, and during the Song and Yuan dynasties, a steady stream of Muslims arrived from the Arab world, driven by trade opportunities along the Silk Road. This immigration slowed drastically during the Ming dynasty, isolating the Muslims in China from the rest of the Islamic world. As a result, these Muslims increasingly adopted the Chinese language, dress and surnames. The mosques of China, which are built using traditional Chinese architecture laden with Arabic devotional inscriptions indicate the extent to which these Muslims have integrated into Chinese society.
Collectively referred to as the Hui minority, these Muslims have been granted a certain degree of religious freedom in Communist China. But not all Muslims in China have been so lucky. In the northwest corner of China lies the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), home to the Uyghur Muslim population. The most recent Chinese government census put the population of Uyghur Muslims in the XUAR at nine million, but Uyghur exile groups claim there are closer to 18 million Uyghur Muslims living in the region.
Similar to the Tibetans who live in the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China, the Uyghurs are the indigenous majority of the XUAR. Their unique culture is revealed by their Central Asian heritage, their distinct language and their devotion to Islam. Like the Tibetans, the Uyghurs claim their culture has been systematically eroded by the Chinese government since the People's Republic of China (PRC) declared the XUAR part of China in 1949. As in the case of the Tibetans, this claim has been echoed by human rights organizations ranging from Amnesty International to Human Rights Watch.
But unlike the Tibetans, the Uyghurs have no charismatic leader-in-exile or celebrities in Hollywood to champion their cause. For this reason, few around the world ever hear the story of the Uyghur people.
In the late 1930s and late 1940s, the Uyghurs managed twice to declare an East Turkestan republic in the XUAR, but those successes were short lived. Since falling under Beijing's control, nationalist sentiments have continued to simmer in the XUAR, especially as the PRC continues their persecution of this ethnic group from every possible angle.
As Islam is the major feature underpinning the Uyghur culture, the PRC has taken strong measures to curb the religious practice of these Muslims. In contrast with the freedoms granted to the Hui minority, in the XUAR the PRC controls where religious gatherings may be held, who can be a cleric and what version of the Qu'ran may be used. Fasting is prohibited, in spite of being mandatory for Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan. Communist party members and anyone under the age of 18 are forbidden from participating in any religious activity. In order to enforce these rules, government officials keep all mosques in the XUAR under constant surveillance.
Other aspects of the Uyghur culture have been targeted as well. Many prominent Uyghur writers and poets are in jail, and history books that do not conform to the PRC-approved version of history have been banned. Despite the Uyghurs being the majority in the XUAR, the Chinese government recently changed laws to force all schools in the region to teach students in Mandarin rather than in Uyghur.
The Uyghurs have also been economically marginalized since the PRC began providing incentives for the Han population — the ethnic group that comprises the majority of China — to move to the resource-rich XUAR. In 1949, the official census placed the number of Han at six per cent of the population in the XUAR, but by 1978 that figure had climbed to 40 per cent. The Hans are always favoured for jobs and Uyghurs are often paid less than Hans who work the same jobs.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the treatment of the Uyghurs has worsened under the banner of the PRC´s commitment to the United States-led war against terror. Citing the strong nationalist sentiments that continue to exist among the Uyghur population in the XUAR, the PRC has labelled these peaceful farmers as an ethno-nationalist threat to the Chinese state. This classification is used to justify the continued marginalization of these people, in the name of "fighting terror."
This has led to an increasing number of arrests in the XUAR, most recently that of a Canadian citizen.
Huseyincan Celil fled China in the mid-1990´s and became a Canadian citizen in 2001. In absentia, China sentenced him to death on charges of organizing a political party to work on behalf of the Uyghur people. During a recent visit to relatives in Uzbekistan, he was extradited to China. The resident of Burlington, Ont., is now being held in a secret Chinese prison awaiting his sentence.
The Uyghur Canadian Association, arguing that Celil´s role in organizing the Uyghur people to demand their rights through non-violent means is protected by the UN´s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has appealed to the Canadian government to intervene on Celil´s behalf.
The Canadian government has tried to talk with the PRC about Celil, but their attempts have been met with silence. This silence doesn't bode well for Celil, and typifies the problem with silence that has plagued the Uyghur people for the last half-century.
For despite the fact that the Uyghurs remain the only people who continue to be executed on political charges by Chinese authorities, despite the rampant human-rights abuses that continue across the XUAR and despite the fact that the UN High Commissioner recently expressed her concern over the treatment of the Uyghurs by the PRC, the persecution of the Uyghurs in China remains a story that rarely finds an audience.