The month of Ramadan should have been a time of fasting, charity and prayer in China’s Muslim west. But here, in many of the towns and villages of southern Xinjiang, it was a time of fear, repression, and violence.And in attempting to socialize or modernize or otherwise change behaviors, the authorities only strengthen that which they'd like to eliminate.
China’s campaign against separatism and terrorism in its mainly Muslim west has now become an all-out war on conservative Islam, residents here say.
Throughout Ramadan, police intensified a campaign of house-to-house searches, looking for books or clothing that betray “conservative” religious belief among the region’s ethnic Uighurs: women wearing veils were widely detained, and many young men arrested on the slightest pretext, residents say. Students and civil servants were forced to eat instead of fasting, and work or attend classes instead of attending Friday prayers.That's not the way to win friends and influence people.
The religious repression has bred resentment, and, at times, deadly protests. Reports have emerged of police firing on angry crowds in recent weeks in the towns of Elishku, and Alaqagha; since then, Chinese authorities have imposed a complete blackout on reporting from both locations, even more intense than that already in place across most of Xinjiang.
China says foreign religious ideas — often propagated over the Internet— have corrupted the people of Xinjiang, promoting fundamentalist Saudi Arabian Wahhabi Islam and turning some of them towards terrorism in pursuit of separatist goals.Give people something to buy into, and their behavior and appearance will likely change. Harass them with commissars, though, and they'll push back.
Some 200,000 Communist Party cadres have been dispatched to the countryside, ostensibly to listen to people’s concerns. Yet those officials, who often shelter behind compound walls fortified with alarms and barbed wire, appear to be more interested in ever-more intrusive surveillance of Uighur life, locals say.But the rediscovery of medieval practices is, in a China that doesn't get assimilation, a way of subverting the dominant paradigm.
In Shache, known in Uighur as Yarkand, an official document boasts of spending more than $2 million to establish a network of informers and surveillance cameras. House-to-house inspections, it says, will identify separatists, terrorists and religious extremists – including women who cover their faces with veils or burqas, and young men with long beards.
In the city of Kashgar, checkpoints enforce what the authorities call “Project Beauty” — beauty, in this case, being an exposed face. A large billboard close to the main mosque carries pictures of women wearing headscarves that pass muster, and those — covering the face or even just the neck — which are banned.
Anyone caught breaking the rules faces the daunting prospect of “regular and irregular inspections,” “educational lectures” and having party cadres assigned as “buddies” to prevent backsliding, the billboard announced. In the city of Karamay, women wearing veils and men with long beards have been banned from public buses.
Until a decade or two ago, Xinjiang’s Uighurs wore their religion lightly, known more for their singing, dancing and drinking than their observation of the pieties of their faith. But in the past two decades a stricter form of the religion has slowly gained a foothold, as China opened up to the outside world.The lesson for immigration policy-makers in the United States should be clear.
While worship was allowed at officially sanctioned — and closely supervised — mosques, a network of underground mosques sprang up. Village elders returning from the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, brought back more conservative ideas; high levels of unemployment among Uighur youth, and widespread discrimination against them, left many searching for new ideas and new directions in life. The rise of Islam was, in part, a reaction against social inequality and modernity.
But Joanne Smith Finley of Britain’s Newcastle University, an expert on Uighur identities and Islam, says religion has become a “symbolic form of resistance” to Chinese rule in a region where other resistance is impossible.
Not every Uighur in Xinjiang is happy with the rising tide of conservatism: one academic lamented the dramatic decline in Uighur establishments serving alcohol in the city of Hotan, while insisting that many young girls wear veils only out of compulsion.Yes ... how many civil rights activists of the early twentieth century turned to communism for lack of a more mainstream (libertarian?) option?
But China’s clumsy attempts to “liberate” Uighurs from the oppression of conservative Islam are only driving more people into the hands of the fundamentalists, experts say.
“If the government continues to exaggerate extremism in this way, and take inappropriate measures to fix it, it will only force people towards extremism” a prominent Uighur scholar, Ilham Tohti, wrote, before being jailed in January on a charge of inciting separatism.