East Turkestan: Notices Show Religious Activity Restrictions
Many women go unveiled or just wearing a loose head-scarf, in contrast to the head-to-foot coverage common in nearby Afghanistan. Sufism is popular, as is folk Islam with worship of saints at shrines, which is quite alien to "fundamentalist" Islamic movements such as Wahhabism. China, by its repression of the Islam traditional to the region, is in danger of encouraging radical Islam in the very people it wishes to win over.
Among the casualties of the 'war on terror' are the largely forgotten Muslim peoples of Xinjiang. This huge area is almost as large as the whole of Western Europe and was traditionally inhabited by the Muslim Uighurs, Kazaks, and some smaller groups. However, the last two decades have seen a massive influx of Han Chinese migrants and the native Muslim population is in danger of being outnumbered in its own heartland. Today there are about 8.5 million Uighurs and 1.25 million Kazaks out of a total population of 18 million. Making allowance for some of the smaller groups (Tajik, Kirgiz, Mongol, etc.) it seems that, based on the official census figures, something like 45% of the population are Han Chinese. The real figure may be higher.
Resentment against Han Chinese political and cultural domination simmers and has sometimes erupted into riots and even warfare. The most notable incident was the armed uprising at Baren near Kashgar, in April 1990, which was quickly crushed by the People's Liberation Army (PLA). Local Uighurs have expressed to Forum 18 strong opposition to the way the territory is being exploited by Beijing: it is rich in mineral, oil and natural gas deposits, but these are being siphoned off for the benefit of eastern, urban China. Large PLA garrisons are found in the southern oasis towns. Armoured personnel carriers periodically patrol the desert roads and local people have to prove their identities at PLA checkpoints.
A small number of Uighur terrorists sought training from the Taliban in Afghanistan. But this seems to have become a pretext for the Chinese authorities to suppress any moderate expression for Uighur autonomy. Islam was widely tolerated in the 1980s and there was a spate of mosque building. But, in recent years it has come under increasingly tight control. Tight censorship has interfered with legitimate publishing by Uighur scholars of historical and cultural works which in any way question the state orthodoxy that Xinjiang has always been part of the Chinese 'motherland'. Amongst some Uighur's Forum 18 has spoken to, it appears that, over time, repression has had the effect of causing a radicalisation of their demands.
The four Chinese official documents, are clear documentary evidence of the effects of this repression on religious freedom in Xinjiang. All four documents are on public display in a mosque in Xinjiang, and are very revealing of China's major concerns about religion in the region.
Firstly and unsurprisingly the preaching of jihad (holy war) is prohibited.
Secondly, 'unity of the motherland' and 'unity of the nationalities' (the 50 or more ethnic groups officially recognised by the state in China, apart from the Han Chinese majority) are paramount, as are 'social stability' and opposition to 'ethnic separatism'. All religious activities must be subservient to these overall political goals.
Thirdly, while lip-service is paid to "freedom of belief according to the law," it is perhaps noteworthy that this is only mentioned in fourth place after "love for the motherland" and "obedience to the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) policy on religious freedom."
Fourthly, these regulations stand very much in the old "leftist" tradition within the CCP, with its emphasis on control of religion through "patriotic" religious associations (Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism) firmly controlled by the CCP's United Front Work Department and Religious Affairs Bureau. Only "normal" religious activities, as defined by the Party, not religious believers, are tolerated.
Fifthly, the detailed regulations for the control of religious clergy and for the repair of mosques show clearly that the CCP in Xinjiang claims ultimate control over all religious affairs.
Many of the provisions in these documents clearly target the local Islamic communities in Xinjiang. However, there are general similarities between these documents and the regulations on religion that have been promulgated by the central government and other provincial-level governments. But despite these regional variations, the state's inherent hostility toward and desire to control religious communities and activities unfortunately remains consistent.
In relation to Xinjiang, the irony is that Islam in this region, with some exceptions, has been of a moderate variety. Many women go unveiled or just wearing a loose head-scarf in contrast to the head-to-foot coverage common in nearby Afghanistan. Sufism is popular, as is folk Islam with worship of saints at shrines, which is quite alien to "fundamentalist" Islamic movements such as Wahhabism. By its clumsy prohibitions, China is in danger of encouraging radical Islam in the very people it wishes to win over.