Only older men allowed in mosques
There are many mosques in Xinjiang, where only Muslim men can worship. Paul Mooney / The National
HOTAN, CHINA // It is Friday afternoon and the scene in front of the Jama mosque in the old city of Hotan, once a trading point for jade along the historic Silk Road, is much as it has been for centuries, save for the few cars and motorcycles fighting for space with the donkey carts laden with produce and travellers.
The street is lined with pedlars selling myriad goods: live poultry and rabbits, lamb’s head, donkey and camel meat, and Muslim hats, known in Uighur as doppa.
A stream of men, many with long wispy beards, push through the narrow door of the mosque, taking off their shoes and donning white hats before beginning their prayers.
But something does not seem right. The worshippers are all older men. Children, university students, women and government employees are all curiously missing, prohibited from entering the mosque in the Muslim majority province of Xinjiang in north-west China, where the government fears separatist tendencies among the Uighur majority, a Turkic ethnic group that bridles at Chinese control of the area.
Observers say that the Chinese government is carrying out nothing less than a systematic cultural destruction. The fear in Xinjiang is so strong that not one of the local people quoted in this story would agree to use their names.
“There’s an ever-increasing degree of invasiveness in people’s daily lives,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, and an expert on the province. “What the Chinese government is trying to do is remake the social fabric of Xinjiang.”
He said there is a huge pressure regarding anything that involves cultural identity, which he says the government views as a political threat. “Culture is the battlefront of national security for the country,” Mr Bequelin said. “They are destroying the whole cultural heritage.”
“Beijing perceives Uighurs as an ethno-nationalist threat to the Chinese state, and it views Islam as feeding Uighur ethnic identity,” said Nury Turkel, former president of the Uighur American Association, and a lawyer in Washington. “The Religious Affairs Bureau [RAB] officials in East Turkestan believe they won’t be able to dilute Uighur culture unless religion is wiped out entirely.”
Like many other Uighurs who do not recognise Chinese control, Mr Turkel refers to the area as East Turkestan.
Uighurs say state interference is pervasive. Imams are selected by the government and are closely monitored. In addition, religious schools and books on Islam are controlled or banned.
Uighurs in Hotan say there are hidden cameras at some mosques and that plain-clothes police watch who comes and goes. In recent weeks, seven Muslim schools have been shut down, according to an announcement last week by the World Uighur Congress, which is based in Germany.
There is also interference in Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim year, when strict fasting is observed. Mr Bequelin said officials of the RAB were ordered to reduce the influence of Ramadan.
The government attempts to restrict fasting during this period, trying to ferret out which government officials are observing the practice by seeing which homes have lights on in the very early morning hours, when families are preparing their morning meal before fasting begins at dawn.
Uighurs claim that local officials force restaurants to remain open during the fasting period. State units organise lunches for government employees, and in some areas, say students in Hotan, universities provide free lunches for students, hoping to encourage them to break the fast.
A list of 23 prohibited religious practices pertaining to Uighur Muslims was posted on local government websites in the region last year. Such activities as having an imam say a particular prayer at a wedding, mourning ceremonies, and people praying together outdoors were banned. Each of more than a dozen mosques visited had large posters containing the State Council’s Religious Affairs Regulations, which lay out government control of religion in China.
Uighurs are only allowed to participate in the haj under the strict auspices of the Chinese government. Quotas limit the number of Uighurs allowed to travel there and the few who can go pay exorbitant fees. Throughout the old part of Kashgar, an admonition has been stencilled on the walls of houses in both Arabic script and Chinese: “Unauthorised religious pilgrimages are illegal religious activities.”
More seriously, Mr Turkel said, the government has seized virtually every Uighur person’s passport to prevent people from travelling abroad.
“Passports have been systematically confiscated,” he said. “Getting a passport is almost impossible for a Uighur individual. The world needs to know about this.”
“Everyone’s passports have been taken away,” confirms a student standing in the large square in front of the Idkah Mosque in Kashgar, nervously looking over his shoulder to see if anyone is listening. “You can get a passport to go abroad to study, but it’s very difficult, unless your family has a lot of money or government connections.”
Mr Turkel said the Chinese see religion as a “stumbling block to the full assimilation of the Uighurs into China proper,” adding that the travel restrictions are another way of controlling Islam.
“They want Uighurs to be less religious, less spiritual,” he said. “For the Chinese government, having a group of Uighurs who have been outside China would result in more exposure of the human abuses against the Uighurs.”
He adds that the Chinese do not want Muslims to have a real sense of Islam. “They want Uighurs to continue believing the Chinese government trained imams’ teaching and preaching of Islam,” he said. “They want to impose the Chinese version of Islamic beliefs.”
A graduate student in Hotan who has researched education said that in 2012 the teaching of the Uighur language will officially be halted in Xinjiang schools.
There has also been pressure on students and government employees not to grow beards, a common practice among Muslim men.
“During the National People’s Congress in March, Chinese TV showed minorities entering the Great Hall of the People wearing all sorts of minority costumes,” a high school teacher said behind the closed doors of a small electronics shop in Hotan. “But here we can’t even wear a Muslim hat.”
Xinjiang, the only Chinese province with a Muslim majority, was incorporated into China in 1884, during the Qing dynasty, although it enjoyed several short periods of independence before being brought back into the Chinese empire in 1949, when the Communists came to power.
Since then, the Chinese government has encouraged large-scale migration of ethnic Han from overpopulated coastal cities to Xinjiang. The immigration programme has resulted in a demographic shift in the province of 18 million: what was once 90 per cent Uighur is now more than 40 per cent Han. In 1949, the Han made up just six per cent of the total. And the proportion is expected to grow even larger when the rail line between Urumqi, the capital, reaches Hotan next year.
“A lot of people are worried about this,” the education researcher said. “With the arrival of the railway, a lot more Chinese will come here. The majority of the people are strongly against this.”
Uighurs also denounced the forced transfer of young women to eastern China to work in factories, arguing it is an attempt to reduce the Uighur population and break the tradition of women serving as the propagators of Islam among children.
Alim Seytoff, director of the Uighur Human Rights Project in Washington, which has sent secret investigators to interview the women, says “hundreds of thousands” of children have been sent into “slave labour”. “They’re locked up, can’t call their parents and can’t leave,” he said. “And if they do flee, their parents will be severely punished.”
The graduate student expressed indignation that teenage girls from his village were being sent away to work in factories as the government was encouraging Han Chinese to move to Xinjiang. In many large hotels and government agencies, the staff is predominantly – if not completely – Han.
“Why are they sending so many of our women away and then bringing in Chinese here to work?” he asked while sitting in a Hotan restaurant.
Perhaps most disappointing to Uighurs in Xinjiang is that the Muslim world has remained silent.
“Muslim countries aren’t doing anything to show concern about how the Chinese government is abusing the faith of nine million Muslims,” said Mehmet Tohti, the vice president of the World Uighur Congress. “Not one has said anything on behalf of the oppressed Uighur Muslims in China,” he said. “All the countries that could have said something are politically leveraged by Beijing. Speaking up for the Uighurs is too costly for them economically and politically.”
Mr Bequelin said that even the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, whose website says its goal is to “safeguard and protect the interests of the Muslim world”, has remained silent. “The Uighur issue is a forgotten issue for most Muslim countries,” he said.