By Henryk Szadziewski
It is Ramadan. The Chinese government has mandated all restaurants remain open for business during fasting hours. Regulations stipulate that state workplaces provide free lunches for their employees, and non-Muslims wait to see if their Muslim co-workers will sit down to eat with them. Schools tell students under the age of 18 that they cannot go to the mosque and pray during the holy month, or indeed at any time. The state has proscribed the communal and private religious education of children to the extent that affinities to Islam are becoming diluted. Imams, all of whom have undergone political education classes, sermonize to the only people eligible to enter the mosque, that is, men aged over 18 not employed by the government. Every Koran in public use is state approved. Any outward expression of faith in workplaces, hospitals, and some private businesses, such as men wearing beards or women wearing headscarves, is forbidden. In short, the state controls the smallest details of individual expressions of religious belief and practice.
This is the stark picture of restrictions placed on the religious freedom of the Uyghur people, documented by the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) in a new report titled Sacred Right Defiled. The Uyghur are a Turkic Muslim people whose homeland, in China’s far northwest, is known as either Xinjiang or East Turkestan, depending on your politics. The distinct Uyghur cultural identity is besieged through a variety of state policies that include the exclusion of the Uyghur language in educational institutions, the demolition of traditional Uyghur neighborhoods, and a steady migration of Han Chinese into predominately Uyghur towns and cities. Sacred Right Defiled details how the Chinese state has implemented an array of ever-restrictive regulations on religion, a cornerstone of Uyghur identity. As scholar Arienne Dwyer states, “For both urban and rural Uyghurs, ethnic identity is linked with religious and linguistic identity.”
In 2005, Religious Affairs Regulations took effect across the People’s Republic of China. The regulations were the most comprehensive attempt to date to define the permissible aspects of religious expression across the nation, and marked the culmination of numerous regional regulations covering religious sites, government employees and religious leaders implemented since the late 1980s, especially in Uyghur and Tibetan regions. At the time the national regulations came into force, according to Ma Pinyan of the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences, the Uyghur region already had more religious regulations than any other province, proving them to be a “powerful legal weapon” to control religion. Sensing the effectiveness of heavy regulation in managing religious affairs in ethnic minority areas, Chinese authorities moved to contain burgeoning religious groups countrywide through national measures.
In a hallmark of authoritarianism, the Chinese government is codifying its repression through the development of legal instruments. Since 2005, the policy with regard to religion has continued unabated on a national and regional level. More regulations, as well as revisions of existing regulations, have been passed in an attempt to further narrow the scope of religious expression. In the Uyghur region, this has resulted in further curbs on imams, religious publications, and undertaking the Hajj among many other controls. Ramadan in 2012 was widely viewed as one of the most restrictive in years. State work units assigned personnel to check that colleagues were not worshipping at mosques in accordance with the ban on mosque attendance for government employees. China often cites security concerns in implementing such limitations. As recently as April, Wang Zuo’an, head of the State Administration for Religious Affairs said, “religion can become a lure for unrest and antagonism.” Many of the regulations targeting Uyghurs, especially those aimed to confine the religious beliefs and practices of Uyghur children, are not seen in other regions of China. Coupled with the absence of the Uyghur language in education, restrictions on the religious practice of Uyghur children weaken connections to ethnic identity and create disincentives for their use and practice in wider society.
The even darker side of China’s regulatory body to curb religious freedom is that many Uyghurs interviewed by UHRP described their confusion over what religious expressions were permitted under Chinese laws, as there were such a bewildering number of regulations passed. According to UHRP research, while officials continue to emphasize the need to make legislation clearer and more accessible, the latest Religious Affairs Regulations remain difficult to find on government websites. Confusion or innocent ignorance of religious regulations tended to make Uyghurs err on the side of caution rather than risk trouble with the authorities. Rightfully so, as UHRP documents, those Uyghurs who have been convicted of “illegal religious activities” face long terms in prison and even torture, as in the case of the Uyghur Christian, Alimjan Yimit.
China does have articles protecting religious freedom in the Constitution and the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law; however, urging China to respect them is only part of the picture. China implementation of harsh religious regulations against Uyghurs is one of many egregious violations of Uyghur human rights that also include abuses of political and economic rights. Yet it is through the Uyghurs’ faith in Islam that China is pressing hardest to validate an intensification of its repression on the Uyghur people. China’s recent attempt to equate a violent incident in Maralbeshi, near Kashgar, on April 23 with the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing illustrates how China is leveraging terrorism accusations to justify crackdowns on the Uyghur. In the murky case of Maralbeshi, where 21 people lost their lives in a clash between local police and alleged Uyghur terrorists, even the usually reticent U.S. State Department said China should “provide all Chinese citizens, including Uighurs, the due process protections to which they are entitled.”
While launching the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) 2013 Annual Report, USCIRF Chair Katrina Lantos Swett remarked on the importance of religious freedom to security. She concluded religious freedom encourages moderate factions to flourish and saves religious minorities from the dangers of marginalization. China’s future stability faces this challenge stemming from its current treatment of religious minorities within its borders. If China is to realize its potential as a global power, it must abide by its international standards; however, China also needs to appreciate the value of religious freedom to its own prosperity.
Henryk Szadziewski is a senior researcher with the Uyghur Human Rights Project
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