Tariq A. Al-Maeena
Many of us are blessed to live in countries that allow a degree of religious freedom, one that enables us to practice our faith. But for the Uighur Muslims living in the far western Xinjiang region of China such a freedom has been increasingly curtailed by the central government.
The Uighurs in China, who at the turn of the 21st century numbered an estimated 10 million, are Muslims in a country where Buddhism has the widest influence with Taoism and Confucianism as the other major religions. Islam and Christianity are followed by a minority in a population of over 1.3 billion. Muslims make up the majority of the native population of the sparsely populated western province.
The month of Ramadan has often been referred to as the “best of times”. It is also widely believed that the Holy Qur’an was first revealed to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) during this holy month. In the hot summer months, it is indeed a trial for the fasting Muslim who is deprived of all food and water from before sunrise until the setting of the sun in the evening. The Chinese Uighurs, however, have to contend with additional trials. Chinese officials have banned Muslim party members, civil servants, students and teachers from fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.
Restrictions on Islamic religious freedom have come under attack by minority leaders in recent years and have fueled a rise in militancy against what is often perceived as targeted oppression. Prior to the advent of the holy month for all Muslims, Dilxat Raxit, spokesperson for the World Uighur Congress (WUC) – a group that lives in exile – charged that “China is increasing its bans and monitoring as Ramadan approaches. The faith of the Uighurs has been highly politicized, and the increase in controls could cause sharp resistance. This is another attempt by China to control their Islamic faith. It can only have dire consequences as such restrictions would force the Uighur people to resist Chinese rule even further.”
Raxit, who is the Swedish based spokesperson for the WUC, told the media that among other tactics, the Chinese government “are extracting guarantees from parents, promising that their children won’t fast in Ramadan. China’s goal in prohibiting fasting is to forcibly move Uighurs away from their Muslim culture during Ramadan. Such policies that prohibit religious fasting are a provocation and will invariably only lead to instability and conflict.”
The government has not been discreet about their intentions either. The state media reports that Muslim officials are required “to give verbal as well as written assurances guaranteeing they have no faith, will not attend religious activities and will lead the way in not fasting in Ramadan.”
Just prior to the beginning of Ramadan, the education bureau in the city of Tarbaghatay in the northern part of Xinjiang ordered schools to communicate to students that “during Ramadan, ethnic minority students do not fast, do not enter mosques, and do not attend religious activities,” with threats of strict disciplinary action if such rules were violated.
Muslim-run shops and restaurants have also been ordered to be open during fasting hours and sell tobacco products and alcohol or be shut down. In late December 2014, China banned the wearing of the Islamic veil in public in the capital city of Urumqi, which lies in the predominantly Muslim region.
Meanwhile, William Nee, a China researcher at Amnesty International, said that what is happening within China’s borders is worrying. He accused the Chinese government of heavy-handed tactics, saying that “the public wearing of veils, beards and T-shirts featuring the Islamic crescent has been banned in many cities across Xinjiang. Students have been restricted from observing Ramadan, and there have been reports of force-feeding those who insist on fasting. Others have been disciplined for openly worshipping or downloading unsanctioned material.”
Such restrictions against religious practices are bound to give fuel to a rise in militancy, just the thing the Beijing government should want to avoid. “Any religious practice that is not state-sanctioned is then characterized by the government as participating in religious extremism,” Nee contended.
Ramadan is much more than just abstaining from eating and drinking. It is also about caring for the welfare of others. In this Ramadan, let us remember the brave Chinese Uighurs in our prayers for their steadfast devotion to the faith, and also pray that the Beijing government sees the wisdom of removing all restrictions from the Uighurs in pursuing their spiritual duties. Let us also pray for the religiously oppressed everywhere, no matter what their faith.
— The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @talmaeena