Nov 30, 2005

East Turkestan: China's Grip on Xinjiang Muslims

The young men studying at the Islam College in Urumqi, near China's western border, sit ramrod straight listening intently to their teacher
The young men studying at the Islam College in Urumqi, near China's western border, sit ramrod straight listening intently to their teacher.

Most hope one day to become imams in the many mosques of the Muslim-dominated Chinese region of Xinjiang.

"I believe in Islam, I came here to deepen my faith, to learn more," said 24-year-old, Bolo Alashankur.

"I learnt about Islam at home, from my family, but now I've come to the college for formal training," he said.

But learning about Islam is difficult here. Almost 2,000 miles from the capital, Beijing, the curriculum of the Islam College must be approved by the ruling Communist Party. Imams must attend political education camps - the authorities even dictate which version of the Koran should be used.

Human rights groups accuse China of conducting a campaign of repression against its Muslim minority, especially in Xinjiang. Despite a promise of religious freedom guaranteed in the constitution, in practical terms, few are at liberty to practise their faith as they would like.

China's war on terror is concentrated on Xinjiang. The province borders eight separate countries. Foreign fighters, including members of the Taliban, have been captured here.

At a press conference, Communist Party boss Wang Lequan warned that the province was under attack.

"In Xinjiang the separatists, religious extremists and violent terrorists are all around us - they're very active. We deal with these criminals using the law. In China, endangering national security is the number one crime. We have to crack down on it severely," he said.


But others have accused China of muddying the waters between religious extremism and religious freedom. The authorities are just as worried about the threat from within as from outside.

"Fear is definitely pervasive in Xinjiang," said Nicolas Becquelin of pressure group Human Rights in China.

"People from the Uighur community are very much at risk of being arrested, detained, tortured or sentenced to labour camps for anything the government equates to separatist feelings, or for holding religious activities," he said.

At the central mosque in Urumqi, the sights and sounds are not entirely Muslim. The old mosque was knocked down a few years ago and replaced by a handsome brick building. But when it was rebuilt, it came with the addition of a shopping mall. Now the faithful pray above a KFC and next to a Carrefour supermarket.

Those around the mosque are afraid to speak. Uighur men and women have been imprisoned for simply speaking to foreign journalists.

The BBC was monitored by undercover policemen for most of our time in Xinjiang. We slipped away briefly and spoke to a Uighur who was unhappy about the redevelopment.

"It really isn't appropriate," he said. "We come here to worship - but sometimes we can't hear our prayers because of the music and singing from the bazaar."

Life is difficult for Muslims in Xinjiang, he said, warning that he could get into trouble for speaking to the BBC.

"It's getting more and more difficult for us to earn money now. Uighurs are doing anything they can to make a living - there's no alternative," he said.

Northern Xinjiang is rich and fertile, and it has oil. But Uighurs enjoy little of its riches, especially since China has flooded the province with Han Chinese. In 1950 Uighurs were 94% of the population - they are now less than half.

This ethic dilution is denied by officials such as Yahfu Wumar, director of Urumqi's Religious and Ethnics Affairs Committee.

"There's very little difference in the ethnic balance between now and the early 1950s," he said.

"The central government established the "Go West" policy to bridge the economic gap between east and west China. It has brought entrepreneurs here - but it certainly isn't an issue of moving Han people to Xinjiang," he said.

One of the few places where Uighur culture is celebrated in Urumqi is at a folk performance for tourists. But it is another fabrication - the gaudy costumes include glittering cowboy hats and most of the songs are sung in Chinese, not Uighur.

Beijing says its priority is to stop religious extremism and terrorism in this far-off province.

But critics say it is criminalizing an entire race of people, and that this repression will only radicalize those who want the freedom to pray and the chance to share in China's new-found riches.

Source: BBC World