Challenging Uyghur Muslim Identity: More Enforcement, Worse Results

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 17

Uyghurs fasting while observing Ramadan. (Credit: Al Jazeera)

Following deadly attacks in Beijing, Kunming and Urumqi over the last year, the Xinjiang government has intensified its efforts to regulate Uyghur religious activities. The provincial government has once again reinforced its ban on Ramadan fasting for Uyghur civil servants and students in 2014, as it has frequently done since at least 2001. Xinjiang has been developing its own policies to discourage Uyghur religious activities and decrease their observance of Islam since 1994, with the promotion of Wang Lequan to provincial Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Secretary. However, these policies have become increasingly counterproductive, as Uyghurs have reinforced their religious identity as a way of resistance, either peacefully or violently.

Ramadan Ban

During this year’s holy month of Ramadan in June and July, the fasting ban focused mainly on Uyghur elites, such as civil servants, Party members and students, as local government agencies, state-run companies and public schools required or encouraged Uyghurs to break their fast by eating during the day. At the beginning of the holy month, ethnic-religious and United Front officials in Hami (Qumul in Uyghur) held meetings on how to strengthen control over fasting during Ramadan (Hami Government, June 30). Leveraging their control over Uyghur Party cadres, local governments provided free meals for lunch, while cadres monitored them for compliance, namely, observing whether the Uyghurs ate their meals and thus broke their fast. Furthermore, these government institutions organized parties and celebrations offering food during the daylight hours throughout Ramadan. For example, the Tarim River Basin Management Bureau celebrated the anniversary of the founding of the CCP by holding a dinner party for its predominantly Uyghur employees on June 28, the first day of Ramadan this year (Tarim Basin Management Bureau, June 30). Similarly, the Pishan County (Guma nahiyisi in Uyghur) Industry and Commerce Bureau held “sincere conversation” meetings to prevent its Uyghur employees from fasting during Ramadan Xinjiang Administrative Bureau for Industry and Commerce, July 3). Additionally, Uyghur business owners were punished if they closed their shops or restaurants during the day, as is customary in many parts of the Muslim world during Ramadan.

Prior Crackdowns

Over the last 20 years, the Xinjiang provincial government has taken a leading role in regulating Chinese Uyghur citizens’ religious activities, especially under hard-line Party Secretary Wang Lequan. This year’s ban on fasting is not a first, but rather is a continuation and intensification of long-standing efforts to regulate Islamic practices and identity among Uyghurs. Since the early 1990s, the Xinjiang provincial government has sought to dampen Uyghur observance of Islam by imposing various restrictions on religious activities. The Xinjiang government has instituted a series of laws, regulations and campaigns aimed at restricting Islamic practices and behaviors among Uyghurs, including the aforementioned bans on fasting during Ramadan.

The ascendance of hardliner Wang Lequan to power as Party Secretary in Xinjiang in 1994 was accompanied by targeted attacks against Uyghur Muslim identity, as the local government instituted a series of restrictive policies on religion, directly attacking Islam and focusing on Uyghurs working for the government. In 1991, Wang stated that the major task of his government was to “manage religion and guide it in being subordinate to…unification of the motherland, and the objective of national unity” (Outlook, June 25, 2001, no.26, pp.52-53). In a similar statement in 2002, Wang repeated this stance when he called on his government to “oppose illegal religious activities that use religion to harm the socialist motherland and the people’s interests” (Editorial, Xinjiang Daily, October 13, 2002). Local laws and regulations affecting religion enacted under Wang’s leadership include, but are not limited to: The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Religious Affairs Regulations (effective in 1994), which tightened control over religion; Document 7 (1996) that mandates state leadership over religion; Instructions (1998), which called for cadres to fight against non-governmental religious activities; and the Interim Provisions on Disciplinary Punishments for Party Members and Organs That Violate Political Disciplines in Fighting Separatism and Safeguarding Unity (2000), which directly targeted ethnic Uyghur members of the Chinese Communist Party preventing prayer, Ramadan fasting and religious studies. These measures were aimed at opposing Uyghur separatism and preventing a Central Asian-inspired independence movement following the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Xinjiang appears to have intensified its “anti-terror” campaign. Beijing labeled some Uyghur groups terrorists and justified further crackdowns on Uyghur activities as part of its counter-terrorism efforts. The September 11 attacks came shortly after the Chinese government unveiled its own campaign against the “three evils” of separatism, extremism and terrorism in April of that year. As China supported the U.S. War on Terror internationally, Xinjiang’s local policies towards Uyghurs became more aggressive and restrictive. According to Uyghur rights activists, Uyghur youths were prohibited from entering mosques, which are all state-controlled and administered. Uyghur villagers were also forbidden to pray outside of their village mosques. Local police forcefully removed veils from Uyghur women’s heads and forced Uyghur men to shave their long beards, which caused family and communal anger and conflicts with the local law enforcement offices. Uyghur families were routinely subjected to surprise break-in searches by the local police (“Sacred Rights Defiled, China’s Iron-Fisted Repression of Uyghur Religious Freedom,” The Uyghur Human Rights Project, April 2013, pp.29-72). Unofficial publications of Islamic texts were deemed “pornography” by the Xinjiang government and thus targeted for confiscation and elimination.

In response to increased fear of terrorism, the provincial government discouraged Islam in general and specifically attempted to differentiate local Uyghur religious practices from that of more conservative sects, which it defines as Arab or Wahhabi. The Xinjiang government has officially designated full-body garments for woman and long beards on men as symbols of Wahhabism and the Ghulja city government, among others, have initiated several anti-Wahhabi campaigns (Yining Government, December 15, 2011). In April 2013, the government of Ili Kazak Autonomous Prefecture launched a training program to teach cadres how to resist the penetration of Wahhabism into Uyghur society (Guancha News, April 21, 2013).

More recently, the Xinjiang government has instituted a unique suite of religious policies aimed at Uyghurs, in contrast to the softer approaches to religion in other provinces of China. In March 2012, Uyghur civil servants and retired teachers were forced to sign agreements that they would not practice Islam (Radio Free Asia, March 21, 2012). More recently, the Xinjiang government issued a special identification card in Xinjiang to control domestic travel.

Further, Xinjiang officials appear to have taken a leading role in the development of policies towards Muslims minorities, especially under the rule of Wang Lequan from 1990s to 2010. These provincial leaders have not only made more efforts to control and confront Islam than China’s national government, but have exported these provocative policies to Muslim-populated neighboring provinces. In November 2009, the Xinjiang government announced a campaign targeting un-official and un-censored Islamic publications, called the “Tianshan Project,” spanning China’s entire northwest region including Qinghai, Gansu, Ningxia and Shaanxi (Xinhua, November 21, 2009).

Counter-Productive Results

Since the Xinjiang government has targeted Uyghur religious activities, Uyghurs unhappy with government restrictions on religion are likely to unify behind their Islamic identity, which serves as a political symbol of anti-Chinese resistance. As recent violent attacks indicate, the repressive religious policies have led Uyghur attackers to aggressively assert their Islamic religion by using religious symbols in their recent attacks, likely in the hopes of mobilizing their fellows Uyghurs to resist Xinjiang’s repressive religious policies. According to Chinese media, perpetrators of major attacks at Tiananmen Square and the Kunming railway station carried Shahada-bearing flags, a symbol of Islamic faith not previously seen during violent incidents involving Uyghurs. Xinjiang’s repressive policies towards Uyghur religion have produced counter-productive results for the government by contributing to the political and social alienation of elite Ughurs, religious revitalization among secular Uyghurs, and even radicalization of some Uyghurs.

These events appear to reflect a growing trend of Uyghur resistance that is likely exacerbated by current Xinjiang local provincial policies. More importantly, since Uyghur cadres bear the brunt of the religious regulations, they are forced to choose between their religious identity as Muslims and their occupation as CCP officials. This complicates their role as a bridge between the atheist CCP and the larger Uyghur population. The restrictions on religious expression among Uyghur elites have pushed them far from the state and closer to their own group, which will likely further polarize Xinjiang societal relations between the Uyghurs and the Han.