Muslim voices rising in China
Controls on Islam spur resentment among a restive minority
By Jehangir S. Pocha, Globe Correspondent | November 19, 2006
HETIAN, China -- On a recent Friday, the holy day of Islam, crowds swelled inside the antique Jame mosque, the largest in this ancient town in Xinjiang Province in the far west of China, home to the nation's small but restive Muslim minority. The turbaned and bearded clerics who preached to the gathered faithful had all been vetted for their political beliefs by local Chinese authorities, who determine what sermons they can give, what version of the Koran they may use, and where and how religious gatherings can be held.
The Chinese government forces all Muslims in China to adhere to a state-controlled version of their religion, and banners placed around town warn locals not to stray from the official faith. The imams are not even allowed to issue the call to prayer using a public address system.
The Chinese government has tightened its constraints on the Uighur ethnic minority in western China amid official fears of a rise in militant Islam. The Chinese are acutely aware of the growing strategic importance of Xinjiang in Central Asia and the large oil and natural gas reserves under its soil.
In turn, resentment among the Uighurs toward perceived repression by the Chinese has intensified. And increasingly, the Uighurs are speaking out and demanding autonomy, thanks in part to the emergence of articulate Uighur voices at home and in exile.
Though Xinjiang is ostensibly an autonomous province, Wang Lequan, the local Communist Party secretary, who is Chinese, has publicly called for Uighurs (pronounced Wee'-gurs) to learn more Mandarin and adopt more Chinese customs. To dissuade Uighur youths from inheriting their traditional Islamic culture, the government has banned children from entering mosques, studying Islam, or celebrating Islamic holidays.
During the month of Ramadan, when devout Muslims fast through the day, schools take special care to ensure that all their students eat, a local school principal said.
The fear and state control under which Uighurs live in Xinjiang was apparent when some foreign journalists, who are generally not allowed into the province, were taken on a tour by Chinese officials last month. The journalists were carefully monitored, but when they did manage to go out alone, most Uighurs were too scared to talk about the antipathy they bear toward China.
A man who identified himself only as Abdel rubbed his clean-shaven chin anxiously as the four Uighur Muslim friends finished their dinner of goat soup and noodles. "The government doesn't allow young people here to grow beards," h
e said as the sun set. "If you do, they will send you to the forced labor camps. This is a communist country and it is scared of Muslims. Our Uighur ethnic group is suppressed the most.
Abdel asked not to be fully identified out of fear of reprisal from local authorities. But his is just one of the angry whispers filtering through the crumbling buildings and twisted alleys of Xinjiang's Uighur cities and villages.
Resentment against Beijing has been building here since 1949, when Mao Zedong annexed the independent nation of East Turkestan and began to assimilate it into mainland China. To do this Beijing imposed strictures on Islam and sought to dilute the culture of the local Uighurs, a Central Asian people with a Turkic-Persian culture.
Abdel fidgeted uncomfortably throughout the few minutes he talked to the journalists, saying the biggest problem Uighurs face is that of social and economic exclusion.
"The truth is, where you see money there will be Han, where there is poverty you will see us Uighurs," Abdel said. Han is an ethnic group that makes up the majority of China .
Some Chinese officials say they are baffled by the criticism China receives for its policy on Xinjiang, where the nation's relatively small Muslim population of about 8 million is concentrated.
"On the one hand the world complains that Pakistan doesn't do enough to control its madrassas, and on the other they complain when China does not allow them," said one official, referring to Muslim religious schools. The official asked not to be identified as he was not authorized to speak to the press. "We believe Islam can be an unbalancing force so we need to control it."
Though Uighurs have traditionally followed a moderate blend of Sunni Islam and Sufi mysticism strongly influenced by local folklore and rural traditions, a rising Islamic mood is palpable in Xinjiang. More and more women are wearing veils, residents say, and mosques are packed on Fridays.
Mostly this is due to a rising interest in religion that is common across much of China, where people are reacting to the intense atheism of the Maoist years. But in Xinjiang, rising Islamic sentiment has also taken on a political hue, with many separatists demanding the re-creation of an independent East Turkestan on religious grounds. Some of these separatists have conducted armed attacks against Chinese targets, and Chinese officials say they are also behind most of the public protests that have rocked Xinjiang in recent years.
After the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, Chinese authorities have used the global war on terrorism to crack down on suspected separatists. Plainclothes policemen routinely roam the rustic mosques and bustling markets of Uighur towns. Human rights groups and local residents say anyone thought to be acting suspiciously is hustled away and often punished without a fair trial.
Though Chinese actions in Xinjiang have been very similar to its actions in neighboring Tibet, whose Buddhist culture has been systematically undermined by Beijing, the situation in this remote western province has received much less global attention.
That is changing, thanks to the emergence of a new generation of articulate Uighur leaders and to growing support for Uighur separatists from Islamists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other Central Asian countries -- part of the global upsurge in pan-Islamism.
Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur exile living in Washington, D.C., who reportedly had been considered a leading candidate for this year's Nobel Peace Prize for her human rights work in Xinjiang, says the world is taking notice of the Uighurs' suffering from what they see as Chinese colonization.
"The Chinese have denied us basic rights and freedoms -- that's why we now want them out of our land," Kadeer said in a telephone interview. "A lot of doors are being opened to me [in Washington] so I am able to raise the issue of the Uighur people at very high levels."
In the streets of Hetian, it is easy to see how different Xinjiang is from most of the rest of China. The skyline is crowded not with traditional Chinese sloping roofs but with Islamic domes and spires. Most of the older buildings have elegant Turko-Persian style balconies decorated with floral filigree work, and men wearing doppas -- small four- or five-cornered brimless embroidered hats -- sit on benches in the street smoking water pipes and eating grilled skewers of meat.
But Chinese officials insist Xinjiang was historically part of China until the Soviet Union briefly helped separatists create East Turkestan in the 1930s.
Part of the reason China is tightening its grip on Xinjiang is its growing strategic importance. The province has been found to be rich in oil. It also borders Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, and has become an essential launching pad for China's geopolitical interests in these areas, where the United States is also jockeying for influence.
Beijing is also worried that the disintegration of the Soviet Union and emergence of the independent "Stans" could motivate Uighurs to re-create East Turkestan.
Faced with the might of the Chinese state, many Uighurs fear their unique Persian-Turkic culture, which also includes its own language, will soon fade into history.
Ahmet, a 16-year-old student in Kashgar, a city near Xinjiang's southern border with Pakistan that is a hotbed of insurgent activity, said the solution his parents are holding out is simple.
"They tell me to marry a Han girl," he said. "That way we can get some chances. Otherwise, as Uighurs, life is very hard."
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