China imposes harsh rules on Chinese Muslims

Published: October 18, 2008
KHOTAN, China — The grand
mosque that draws thousands of
Muslims each week in this oasis
town has all the usual trappings
of piety: dusty wool carpets on
which to kneel in prayer, a row
of turbans and skullcaps for men
without headwear, a wall niche
facing the holy city of Mecca in
the Arabian desert.
Times Topics: China | Uighurs
Enlarge This Image
Gilles Sabrie
Khotan’s mosque draws
thousands of Muslims each week.
In Kashgar, Uighurs prepared to
break their daily fast during
Ramadan last month.
But large signs posted by the
front door list edicts that are
more Communist Party decrees
than Koranic doctrines.
The imam’s sermon at Friday
Prayer must run no longer than a
half-hour, the rules say. Prayer in
public areas outside the mosque
is forbidden. Residents of Khotan
are not allowed to worship at
mosques outside of town.
One rule on the wall says that
government workers and
nonreligious people may not be
“forced” to attend services at the
mosque — a generous wording
of a law that prohibits
government workers and
Communist Party members from
going at all.
“Of course this makes people
angry,” said a teacher in the
mosque courtyard, who would
give only a partial name,
Muhammad, for fear of
government retribution.
“Excitable people think the
government is wrong in what it
does. They say that government
officials who are Muslims should
also be allowed to pray.”
To be a practicing Muslim in the
vast autonomous region of
northwestern China called
Xinjiang is to live under an
intricate series of laws and
regulations intended to control
the spread and practice of Islam,
the predominant religion among
the Uighurs, a Turkic people
uneasy with Chinese rule.
The edicts touch on every facet
of a Muslim’s way of life. Official
versions of the Koran are the
only legal ones. Imams may not
teach the Koran in private, and
studying Arabic is allowed only at
special government schools.
Two of Islam’s five pillars — the
sacred fasting month of
Ramadan and the pilgrimage to
Mecca called the hajj — are also
carefully controlled. Students and
government workers are
compelled to eat during
Ramadan, and the passports of
Uighurs have been confiscated
across Xinjiang to force them to
join government-run hajj tours
rather than travel illegally to
Mecca on their own.
Government workers are not
permitted to practice Islam,
which means the slightest sign
of devotion, a head scarf on a
woman, for example, could lead
to a firing.
The Chinese government, which
is officially atheist, recognizes
five religions — Islam,
Protestantism, Catholicism,
Taoism and Buddhism — and
tightly regulates their
administration and practice. Its
oversight in Xinjiang, though, is
especially vigilant because it
worries about separatist activity
in the region.
Some officials contend that
insurgent groups in Xinjiang
pose one of the biggest security
threats to China, and the
government says the “three
forces” of separatism, terrorism
and religious extremism threaten
to destabilize the region. But
outside scholars of Xinjiang and
terrorism experts argue that
heavy-handed tactics like the
restrictions on Islam will only
radicalize more Uighurs.
Many of the rules have been on
the books for years, but some
local governments in Xinjiang
have publicly highlighted them in
the past seven weeks by posting
the laws on Web sites or hanging
banners in towns.
Those moves coincided with
Ramadan, which ran from
September to early October, and
came on the heels of a series of
attacks in August that left at least
22 security officers and one
civilian dead, according to official
reports. The deadliest attack was
a murky ambush in Kashgar that
witnesses said involved men in
police uniforms fighting each
The attacks were the biggest
wave of violence in Xinjiang since
the 1990s. In recent months,
Wang Lequan, the long-serving
party secretary of Xinjiang, and
Nuer Baikeli, the chairman of the
region, have given hard-line
speeches indicating that a
crackdown will soon begin.
Mr. Wang said the government
was engaged in a “life or death”
struggle in Xinjiang. Mr. Baikeli
signaled that government control
of religious activities would
tighten, asserting that “the
religious issue has been the
barometer of stability in
Anti-China forces in the West and
separatist forces are trying to
carry out “illegal religious
activities and agitate religious
fever,” he said, and “the field of
religion has become an
increasingly important battlefield
against enemies.”
Uighurs are the largest ethnic
group in Xinjiang, accounting for
46 percent of the population of
19 million. Many say Han Chinese,
the country’s dominant ethnic
group, discriminate against them
based on the most obvious
differences between the groups:
language and religion.
The Uighurs began adopting
Sunni Islam in the 10th century,
although patterns of belief vary
widely, and the religion has
enjoyed a surge of popularity
after the harshest decades of
Communist rule. According to
government statistics, there are
24,000 mosques and 29,000
religious leaders in Xinjiang.
Muslim piety is especially strong
in old Silk Road towns in the
south like Kashgar, Yarkand and
Many Han Chinese see Islam as
the root of social problems in
“The Uighurs are lazy,” said a
man who runs a construction
business in Kashgar and would
give only his last name, Zhao,
because of the political delicacy
of the topic.
“It’s because of their religion,” he
said. “They spend so much time
praying. What are they praying
The government restrictions are
posted inside mosques and
elsewhere across Xinjiang. In
particular, officials take great
pains to publicize the law
prohibiting Muslims from
arranging their own trips for the
hajj. Signs painted on mud-brick
walls in the winding alleyways of
old Kashgar warn against
making illegal pilgrimages. A red
banner hanging on a large
mosque in the Uighur area of
Urumqi, the regional capital, says,
“Implement the policy of
organized and planned
pilgrimage; individual pilgrimage
is forbidden.”
As dozens of worshipers
streamed into the mosque for
prayer on a recent evening, one
Uighur man pointed to the sign
and shook his head. “We didn’t
write that,” he said in broken
Chinese. “They wrote that.”
He turned his finger to a white
neon sign above the building
that simply said “mosque” in
Arabic script. “We wrote that,” he
Like other Uighurs interviewed
for this article, he agreed to
speak on the condition that his
name not be used for fear of
retribution by the authorities.
The government gives various
reasons for controlling the hajj.
Officials say that the Saudi
Arabian government is
concerned about crowded
conditions in Mecca that have led
to fatal tramplings, and that
Muslims who leave China on their
own sometimes spend too much
money on the pilgrimage.
Critics say the government is
trying to restrict the movements
of Uighurs and prevent them
from coming into contact with
other Muslims, fearing that such
exchanges could build a pan-
Islamic identity in Xinjiang.
About two years ago, the
government began confiscating
the passports of Uighurs across
the region, angering many
people here. Now virtually no
Uighurs have passports, though
they can apply for them for short
trips. The new restriction has
made life especially difficult for
businessmen who travel to
neighboring countries.
To get a passport to go on an
official hajj tour or a business
trip, applicants must leave a
deposit of nearly $6,000.
One man in Kashgar said the
imam at his mosque, who like all
official imams is paid by the
government, had recently been
urging congregants to go to
Mecca only with legal tours.
That is not easy for many
Uighurs. The cost of an official
trip is the equivalent of $3,700,
and hefty bribes usually raise the
price. Once a person files an
application, the authorities do a
background check into the
family. If the applicant has
children, the children must be old
enough to be financially self-
sufficient, and the applicant is
required to show that he or she
has substantial savings in the
bank. Officials say these
conditions ensure that a hajj trip
will not leave the family
Rules posted last year on the
Xinjiang government’s Web site
say the applicant must be 50 to
70 years old, “love the country
and obey the law.”
The number of applicants far
outnumbers the slots available
each year, and the wait is at least
a year. But the government has
been raising the cap. Xinhua, the
state news agency, reported that
from 2006 to 2007, more than
3,100 Muslims from Xinjiang
went on the official hajj, up from
2,000 the previous year.
One young Uighur man in
Kashgar said his parents were
pushing their children to get
married soon so they could
prove the children were
financially independent, thus
allowing them to qualify to go on
the hajj. “Their greatest wish is
to go to Mecca once,” the man,
who wished to be identified only
as Abdullah, said over dinner.
But the family has to weigh
another factor: the father, now
retired, was once a government
employee and a Communist Party
member, so he might very well
lose his pension if he went on
the hajj, Abdullah said.
The rules on fasting during
Ramadan are just as strict.
Several local governments began
posting the regulations on their
Web sites last month. They vary
by town and county but include
requiring restaurants to stay
open during daylight hours and
mandating that women not wear
veils and men shave their beards.
Enforcement can be haphazard.
In Kashgar, many Uighur
restaurants remained closed
during the fasting hours. “The
religion is too strong in
Kashgar,” said one man. “There
are rules, but people don’t follow
One rule that officials in some
towns seem especially intent on
enforcing is the ban on students’
fasting. Supporters of this policy
say students need to eat to study
The local university in Kashgar
adheres to the policy. Starting
last year, it tried to force students
to eat during the day by
prohibiting them from leaving
campus in the evening to join
their families in breaking the
daily fast. Residents of Kashgar
say the university locked the
gates and put glass shards along
the top of a campus wall.
After a few weeks, the school
built a higher wall.


About qualandar

I am a lawyer and social activist based in Delhi the capital of India. I report the nuances of our culture and life.
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