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Uighurs: Wary of Islam, China Tightens a Vise of Rules

October 20, 2008

Gilles Sabrie
The New York Times
October 18, 2008

KHOTAN, China -- The grand mosque that draws thousands of Muslims
each week in this oasis town has all the usual trappings of piety:
dusty wool carpets on which to kneel in prayer, a row of turbans and
skullcaps for men without headwear, a wall niche facing the holy city
of Mecca in the Arabian desert.

Khotan's mosque draws thousands of Muslims each week. In Kashgar,
Uighurs prepared to break their daily fast during Ramadan last month.

But large signs posted by the front door list edicts that are more
Communist Party decrees than Koranic doctrines.

The imam's sermon at Friday Prayer must run no longer than a
half-hour, the rules say. Prayer in public areas outside the mosque
is forbidden. Residents of Khotan are not allowed to worship at
mosques outside of town.

One rule on the wall says that government workers and nonreligious
people may not be "forced" to attend services at the mosque -- a
generous wording of a law that prohibits government workers and
Communist Party members from going at all.

"Of course this makes people angry," said a teacher in the mosque
courtyard, who would give only a partial name, Muhammad, for fear of
government retribution. "Excitable people think the government is
wrong in what it does. They say that government officials who are
Muslims should also be allowed to pray."

To be a practicing Muslim in the vast autonomous region of
northwestern China called Xinjiang is to live under an intricate
series of laws and regulations intended to control the spread and
practice of Islam, the predominant religion among the Uighurs, a
Turkic people uneasy with Chinese rule.

The edicts touch on every facet of a Muslim's way of life. Official
versions of the Koran are the only legal ones. Imams may not teach
the Koran in private, and studying Arabic is allowed only at special
government schools.

Two of Islam's five pillars -- the sacred fasting month of Ramadan
and the pilgrimage to Mecca called the hajj -- are also carefully
controlled. Students and government workers are compelled to eat
during Ramadan, and the passports of Uighurs have been confiscated
across Xinjiang to force them to join government-run hajj tours
rather than travel illegally to Mecca on their own.

Government workers are not permitted to practice Islam, which means
the slightest sign of devotion, a head scarf on a woman, for example,
could lead to a firing.

The Chinese government, which is officially atheist, recognizes five
religions -- Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Taoism and Buddhism
-- and tightly regulates their administration and practice. Its
oversight in Xinjiang, though, is especially vigilant because it
worries about separatist activity in the region.

Some officials contend that insurgent groups in Xinjiang pose one of
the biggest security threats to China, and the government says the
"three forces" of separatism, terrorism and religious extremism
threaten to destabilize the region. But outside scholars of Xinjiang
and terrorism experts argue that heavy-handed tactics like the
restrictions on Islam will only radicalize more Uighurs.

Many of the rules have been on the books for years, but some local
governments in Xinjiang have publicly highlighted them in the past
seven weeks by posting the laws on Web sites or hanging banners in towns.

Those moves coincided with Ramadan, which ran from September to early
October, and came on the heels of a series of attacks in August that
left at least 22 security officers and one civilian dead, according
to official reports. The deadliest attack was a murky ambush in
Kashgar that witnesses said involved men in police uniforms fighting
each other.

The attacks were the biggest wave of violence in Xinjiang since the
1990s. In recent months, Wang Lequan, the long-serving party
secretary of Xinjiang, and Nuer Baikeli, the chairman of the region,
have given hard-line speeches indicating that a crackdown will soon begin.

Mr. Wang said the government was engaged in a "life or death"
struggle in Xinjiang. Mr. Baikeli signaled that government control of
religious activities would tighten, asserting that "the religious
issue has been the barometer of stability in Xinjiang."

Anti-China forces in the West and separatist forces are trying to
carry out "illegal religious activities and agitate religious fever,"
he said, and "the field of religion has become an increasingly
important battlefield against enemies."

Uighurs are the largest ethnic group in Xinjiang, accounting for 46
percent of the population of 19 million. Many say Han Chinese, the
country's dominant ethnic group, discriminate against them based on
the most obvious differences between the groups: language and religion.

The Uighurs began adopting Sunni Islam in the 10th century, although
patterns of belief vary widely, and the religion has enjoyed a surge
of popularity after the harshest decades of Communist rule. According
to government statistics, there are 24,000 mosques and 29,000
religious leaders in Xinjiang. Muslim piety is especially strong in
old Silk Road towns in the south like Kashgar, Yarkand and Khotan.

Many Han Chinese see Islam as the root of social problems in Xinjiang.

"The Uighurs are lazy," said a man who runs a construction business
in Kashgar and would give only his last name, Zhao, because of the
political delicacy of the topic.

"It's because of their religion," he said. "They spend so much time
praying. What are they praying for?"

The government restrictions are posted inside mosques and elsewhere
across Xinjiang. In particular, officials take great pains to
publicize the law prohibiting Muslims from arranging their own trips
for the hajj. Signs painted on mud-brick walls in the winding
alleyways of old Kashgar warn against making illegal pilgrimages. A
red banner hanging on a large mosque in the Uighur area of Urumqi,
the regional capital, says, "Implement the policy of organized and
planned pilgrimage; individual pilgrimage is forbidden."

As dozens of worshipers streamed into the mosque for prayer on a
recent evening, one Uighur man pointed to the sign and shook his
head. "We didn't write that," he said in broken Chinese. "They wrote that."

He turned his finger to a white neon sign above the building that
simply said "mosque" in Arabic script. "We wrote that," he said.

Like other Uighurs interviewed for this article, he agreed to speak
on the condition that his name not be used for fear of retribution by
the authorities.

The government gives various reasons for controlling the hajj.
Officials say that the Saudi Arabian government is concerned about
crowded conditions in Mecca that have led to fatal tramplings, and
that Muslims who leave China on their own sometimes spend too much
money on the pilgrimage.

Critics say the government is trying to restrict the movements of
Uighurs and prevent them from coming into contact with other Muslims,
fearing that such exchanges could build a pan-Islamic identity in Xinjiang.

About two years ago, the government began confiscating the passports
of Uighurs across the region, angering many people here. Now
virtually no Uighurs have passports, though they can apply for them
for short trips. The new restriction has made life especially
difficult for businessmen who travel to neighboring countries.

To get a passport to go on an official hajj tour or a business trip,
applicants must leave a deposit of nearly $6,000.

One man in Kashgar said the imam at his mosque, who like all official
imams is paid by the government, had recently been urging congregants
to go to Mecca only with legal tours.

That is not easy for many Uighurs. The cost of an official trip is
the equivalent of $3,700, and hefty bribes usually raise the price.
Once a person files an application, the authorities do a background
check into the family. If the applicant has children, the children
must be old enough to be financially self-sufficient, and the
applicant is required to show that he or she has substantial savings
in the bank. Officials say these conditions ensure that a hajj trip
will not leave the family impoverished.

Rules posted last year on the Xinjiang government's Web site say the
applicant must be 50 to 70 years old, "love the country and obey the law."

The number of applicants far outnumbers the slots available each
year, and the wait is at least a year. But the government has been
raising the cap. Xinhua, the state news agency, reported that from
2006 to 2007, more than 3,100 Muslims from Xinjiang went on the
official hajj, up from 2,000 the previous year.

One young Uighur man in Kashgar said his parents were pushing their
children to get married soon so they could prove the children were
financially independent, thus allowing them to qualify to go on the
hajj. "Their greatest wish is to go to Mecca once," the man, who
wished to be identified only as Abdullah, said over dinner.

But the family has to weigh another factor: the father, now retired,
was once a government employee and a Communist Party member, so he
might very well lose his pension if he went on the hajj, Abdullah said.

The rules on fasting during Ramadan are just as strict. Several local
governments began posting the regulations on their Web sites last
month. They vary by town and county but include requiring restaurants
to stay open during daylight hours and mandating that women not wear
veils and men shave their beards.

Enforcement can be haphazard. In Kashgar, many Uighur restaurants
remained closed during the fasting hours. "The religion is too strong
in Kashgar," said one man. "There are rules, but people don't follow them."

One rule that officials in some towns seem especially intent on
enforcing is the ban on students' fasting. Supporters of this policy
say students need to eat to study properly.

The local university in Kashgar adheres to the policy. Starting last
year, it tried to force students to eat during the day by prohibiting
them from leaving campus in the evening to join their families in
breaking the daily fast. Residents of Kashgar say the university
locked the gates and put glass shards along the top of a campus wall.

After a few weeks, the school built a higher wall.

Huang Yuanxi contributed research.

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