Islamophobia in China Keeps Rising With Anti-Religious Measures Against the Uyghurs

In a previous article I briefly explained the historical context between the Uyghurs and the Chinese government. Let’s continue with the political problems that the Uyghurs have to deal with in today’s China.

At the end of the last part we saw that Chinese Turkestan, better known as Xinjiang, was definitively annexed in 1949 by the communist People’s Republic of China. In theory Xinjiang would remain an autonomous province, and the Uyghurs would have rights and duties identical to those of the Chinese citizens, but in reality this seems quite far-fetched.

The importance of Xinjiang for the Chinese and their anti-religious attitude against the Uyghurs

After Mao Zedong’s coup in 1949, Xinjiang came under Chinese rule. Three reasons will clear things out. Firstly, Xinjiang borders Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, India, and Pakistan, therefore it lies in a very strategic location. Secondly, the province has an enormous oil and gas supply, which is highly important to the Chinese. A third reason would be the will to fully control the constant revolts and turmoil caused by the Sunnite Muslims (= the Uyghurs). In this article we will focus on that.

Since 1949, Xinjiang has become a territory home to systematic torture. This cultural and religious Uyghur identity was (and still is) under pressure by the Han-Chinese migration that was enforced (and still is being enforced) by the Chinese government. As from 1949 onwards, the Uyghurs had to bend the knee for the process of assimilation that was created by Mao Zedong. Every expression of cultural, religious, and traditional ideas is not only strictly forbidden but also seen as evil by China’s non-religious communist policy. The Arabic alphabet and the Turkish language are prohibited and have been replaced by the Latin alphabet. The incorporation of Han vocabulary was promoted and seen as modernizing. Officially, these measures serve to reduce illiteracy. However, in reality, they exist in order to undermine the Islamic influence.

The serious measures against the Uyghurs mainly took place during the Cultural Revolution (between 1966 and 1976). During that time, the process of assimilation radically influenced the Uyghurs: the Four Elders (which stand for “the old ways of thinking, the old culture, the old culture and the old habits”) were endangered by the Red Guards. Mosques were plundered, Quran books were burnt publicly. After the Revolution, some Muslims witnessed that they were forced to produce and consume pork.

After the Cultural Revolutions, China started to promote a liberal and political tolerance towards Islam. This type of policy had nothing to do with human rights, however. Rather, it served as a way to achieve economic and political relations with wealthy Muslim countries. The Chinese used the Uyghurs as a way to fix the political connections with Central Asia, and to promote the political and economic relations with the Middle East. They wanted to show the world how they helped repair China’s damaged mosques and make them accessible (through subsidies from the government), how they allowed Quran books again, and how they incorporated the Arab and Turkish language back into Xinjiang’s schools. All of this remained under strict (Chinese) government control.

The attempt for a controlled but ethno-religious liberalization process soon proved to be a mere illusion, however. Discrimination towards the Uyghurs would be seen on various levels: at work, in education, at home, through the difference in life standard between the Han Chinese and the Uyghurs, agricultural competition, the Chinese controlling the Xinjiang’s entire oil production (instead of Xinjiang’s proper inhabitants, being the Uyghurs), the nuclear tests in the province (and the resulting Uyghur deaths),… The list goes on.

Promoting Islamophobia to justify genocides against the Uyghurs

Last years have only helped the clearly visible harshness against anything related to the Uyghurs. Especially after 9/11, and with the “War on Terror” measures, the Chinese government uses this opportunity to continue the harsh oppression policy towards the Uyghurs. China claims that the Uyghurs promote rather radical extremist ideologies and movements. They are convinced that they will “cause a threat to the country once they are out of China and will perform acts of terror against China,” which explains why they are not allowed to travel. Every Muslim (both Chinese Muslims and Uyghurs) is seen as a potential terrorist by the Chinese government.

What does China’s political climate towards the Uyghurs look like today? Well, the Uyghurs are currently living in a very bad environment. Some international reports have shown that, during the last few decades, tens of thousands of Uyghurs have been imprisoned and executed in Xinjiang. Uyghur political figures who succeed to represent the Uyghurs in the National People’s Congress and who dare to mention the problems of the Uyghurs (people like Rebiyaa Kadeer), and human rights activists who dare to defend the Uyghurs are prosecuted, arrested, tortured, and may be imprisoned for years before they receive a fair trial. They are also discriminated on the labor market. As mentioned before, Uyghurs are not allowed to travel and therefore it is (nearly) impossible for them to get passports. As a consequence, many attempt to illegally move to Kazakhstan. The Han Chinese are allowed to physically attack the Uyghurs. Should they report this abuse, they will in their turn become a victim of the police, and risk imprisonment. Uyghur students at the University of Xinjiang who support the Uyghur independence movement are not allowed to/able to graduate.

It is now more than ever that there is an intense anti-Islamic climate in China. Islamophobia is highly promoted by the Chinese government. Even the Chinese media have become an important tool to sow islamophobia. As a consequence, the Uyghurs have become an easy victim or even target: their schools are under strict control, fasting peacefully during Ramadan is impossible (this year they were even forced to eat and drink during the day), and houses in which Quran lessons are taught are torn down. Uyghur women who wear a headscarf or niqab and Uyghur men with beards are easily arrested and tortured. The atmosphere in Chinese schools is filled with anti-religious propaganda. The Uyghurs may also be forced to sign a commitment in which they are prohibited to pray in government hospitals. Religious books and Uyghur literature are forbidden and are confiscated immediately.

These are but a few examples of the sad reality which the Uyghurs have to deal with. Whether their situation will become better or worse remains a mystery.

Written by Afifa Thabet

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Afifa Thabet is 33 years old. She studied Oriental Languages and Cultures and volunteers as a teacher. She's interested in everything concerning Islamic history and Arab societies.