The Muslim holy month of Ramadan has begun last week. Because of its religious significance, hundreds of millions of Muslims throughout the world are expected to fast from dawn to dusk.
In total disregard to the religious rights of its Muslim minorities, the Chinese government has, once again, banned observation of Ramadan in parts of the far western Xinjiang province (formerly Eastern Turkestan) affecting millions of its indigenous Uyghur (also spelled as Uighur) people. There is much to criticize the Chinese government action.
China is long known for her harsh treatment of Muslim minorities. The Uyghurs are Turkic speaking Muslims who are one of the worst persecuted people in our time. In recent years, the Chinese authorities have blamed separatist Uyghurs for a string of attacks on Han settlers (of Chinese descent) and government institutions, but the group has consistently denied involvement.
The Chinese government has forbidden Muslim party members, civil servants, students and teachers in the districts of the Xinjiang province from fasting. The Uyghur leader, Dilxat Raxit, sees the move as China’s attempt to control their Islamic faith and warned that the restrictions would force the Uyghur people to resist the rule of the Chinese government even more. He added: “The faith of the Uyghurs has been highly politicized and the increase in controls could cause sharp resistance.”
Human rights activists have long-accused Beijing of exaggerating the threat as an excuse to impose restrictions.
Mr. Raxit told Radio Free Asia: “They [the Chinese government] are extracting guarantees from parents, promising that their children won't fast on Ramadan.”
According to the government’s website, halal restaurants near the Kazakh border are being encouraged by food safety officials to stay open during daylight hours in Ramadan.
Shops and restaurants owned by Muslins have also been ordered to continue selling cigarettes and alcohol over the course of the month – or be shut down altogether.
Although the Chinese government tries to portray its actions as justifiable crack-down against ‘religious extremism’ all human rights groups call it ‘religious repression’, adding that authorities want to prevent Muslims from ‘instilling religion’ into public bodies.
The ruling Communist party says religion and education should be kept separate and students should not be subject to ‘religious influences’, although this rule is rarely enforced for children of Han Chinese, who – if they have a religion – are mostly Buddhist, Daoist or Christian. So what we are witnessing in China vis-à-vis its treatment of the Uyghur people is plain double-standard, and there is no way to hide this serious problem.
As I have noted before, the Uyghur Muslims of China are some of the worst persecuted people in our planet because of their ethnicity and religion. The Chinese government is after their natural resources, and has been treating the resources-rich Xinjiang region more like a colony settling millions of Han Chinese from outside, threatening the demographic makeup of the restive region. More problematically, the Uyghurs are denied jobs and are discriminated in their own region like a third-class citizen while they see the 0utsiders – the majority Han Chinese – taking all such jobs, while they remain unemployed.
While lack of employment is a big issue for most Uyghurs, they face discrimination in all areas of life, including where they can live and travel. They are discouraged and in some cases forbidden from displaying any outward sign of their Islamic identity, such as growing beard for adult men, and wearing hijab for women. The Chinese government has also been closing down Uyghur language schools to delink its history and heritage to Islam and the rest of the Muslim world, esp. Turkey. Instead, their students must take all subjects in Chinese. And even when they graduate, they are discriminated in the job market simply because of their race and religion. They are also spied and spat upon by the racist Han settlers.
Any protest or sign of disapproval of the apartheid-like treatment of the Uyghurs against the racist Han Chinese settlers has been treated by the colonial Chinese government as an act of terrorism.
Last year, the Chinese government sentenced Professor Ilham Tohti, an economics professor of Uyghur descent, to life imprisonment in a kangaroo court. He was found guilty of separatism, an absurd charge of no validity at all. He was also stripped of all his assets – a punishment that has inflicted extra hardship on his family. Professor Ilham was no separatist, and has always stressed that Xinjiang should remain part of China and promoted greater understanding between Han Chinese and indigenous Uyghurs. As I have noted before, Professor Tohti’s unjust imprisonment would only destabilize the restive Xinjiang region.
Last Thursday (the first day of Ramadan in many parts of our world), another Uyghur man was killed in the Chinese city of Xi’an, a popular tourist destination for being the starting point of the Silk Road and home to the famous Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. According to government report the man approached a ticket counter with a brick, as if to harm ticket buyers, and when he didn't stop, he was killed by a Chinese police man.
Given China's censorship and tense relationship with the ethnic Uyghurs, we shall probably never know the whole truth about what really happened in Xi’an. Did the man really pose any danger to anyone? And if he did, was he reacting to the appalling repression of his people, including the banning of fasting during the holy month of Ramadan?
By treating all Uyghurs as separatists, and by default as terrorists, and driving every manner of dissent, including peaceful protests, underground, the Chinese government is behaving like an arrogant colonist that fancies that its repressive, heavy handed approach and apartheid-like policies will win the ultimate battle in East Turkestan (Xinjiang autonomous region). It is foolish thinking.
The Chinese government’s latest ban on fasting for Uyghur Muslims once again highlights the government's extreme repressive policies in Xinjiang, which are sure to provoke more unrest. Beijing risks inciting the very radicalism of its persecuted Uyghur Muslims it fears.
Peace with the Uyghur Muslim minorities would require Beijing to respect the Uyghur people as equal citizens having similar aspirations as anyone else inside China, and to respect their religion - Islam, without restricting their religious duties. It would also require Beijing to listen to its own Mandela – Professor Ilham Tohti - and not more repression, and surely neither Hanification of Xinjiang nor locking up voices of moderation like Ilham.