Here is an excerpt from the Christian Science Monitor:
The worst violence in the Chinese province of Xinjiang in many months erupted earlier this week between ethnic Uighur Muslims and Chinese police, as the Holy Month of Ramadan began.
Between 18 and 30 people were killed and more injured in an attack on a police checkpoint in Kashgar, an ancient Muslim city along the storied Silk Road through Central Asia.
A Radio Free Asia dispatch corroborated by the New York Times says that the incident happened on Monday. A car driven by Uighurs refused to stop at a checkpoint, then backed up hitting a police officer and breaking his leg. Two people emerged from the car and stabbed unarmed traffic police, at which point other assailants joined in what became a larger fray.
RFA quotes a local policeman Turghun Memet, saying:
By the time armed police reached the scene, three more suspects had arrived by sidecar motorcycle and attacked the checkpoint and police cars with explosives, killing one regular police officer, another traffic policeman and one auxiliary officer… At that point, our [armed officers] arrived and killed 15 suspects we designated as terrorists.
The Times writes that:
A police officer, who did not give his name because he was not permitted to talk to foreign news organizations, confirmed [the clash] and sent a photo of a document, which he said was a police notice…It said that 15 attackers and two police officers had been killed and that the police had seized more than 100 firebombs, seven explosive devices and three large knives.
Relations are tense between Xinjiang’s 40 percent ethnic Uighur population and Chinese authorities. Turkic-speaking Uighurs accuse Beijing of making them second class citizens and of efforts to strip them of their cultural identity, and of repression and policies hostile to their faith of Islam.
Last fall a prominent Uighur scholar, Ilham Tohti, was arrested and later sentenced to life in prison. Human rights organizations objected that Mr. Tohti was a moderate who had tried to bridge differences and create dialogue.
It’s unclear what spurred Monday’s attack, which wasn’t reported in China’s official media. But it comes amid a series of prohibitions and official strictures on Muslim behavior during Ramadan.
In recent weeks, reports Pakistan Today, Uighur officials and community leaders were asked to take an oath not to fast, part of the religious requirement for devout Muslims. And restaurant owners in Xinjiang were told to keep their establishments open all day or face visits by government inspectors.
In recent days, [Chinese] state media and government websites in Xinjiang have published stories and official notices demanding that party members, civil servants, students and teachers in particular do not observe [Ramadan] something that happened last year too.
One “government worker” in Xinjiang told RFA, a US government-funded news service, that the latest attacks were correlated with Ramadan because of laws in the locality that apparently forbid children and youth under 18 from joining any formal religious observance.
“I think this is the first reaction to this year’s Ramadan restrictions,” he said. “If such restrictions were implemented in other parts of the [Muslim] world, they would have led to bloody incidents on a mass scale, but we Uyghurs are a defenseless and helpless people and this is the reaction.”
The narrative – as it’s been the case all to often – is of bad old China suppressing another hapless minority.
I have never been to Xinjiang nor do I have any special privileged information to the region. However, from what I read (including linked articles above as well as articles such as this from the Daily Sabah), I know information as perpetrated cannot be but distorted and biased and want to take the opportunity to shed some light on interpreting spotty information.
In particular I want to focus on the accusation that the Chinese government is oppressing Uighur’s cultural and religious identity … and the presumption that the Chinese only have themselves to blame for pushing certain Uighurs to rebel.
Beards and Scarfs
Consider for example the many reports that Muslims men are forbidden from wearing beards and women from wearing scarfs in Xinjiang. These are presented as self-evidence facts of religious and/or cultural oppressions.
The facts on the ground however is much more nuanced. The Chinese government has not “banned” all beards, for example: only the more non-traditional (complete untrimmed facial beard), and not the traditional beards wore by Uighurs. The non-traditional form of beard has been recently brought in from other Muslim nations and is often associated with areas under Sharia Law. The Chinese government has traditionally not cared one way or the other about what beard Uighurs wore, but recently – i.e. in the last couple of years – it has gotten into “regulating” these type of beards … primarily because these beards have taken on a political meaning.
Similar things have occurred for headscarf wore by women. The traditional headscarf wore by Uighurs in Xinjiang are not banned, only the non-traditional headscarf brought from other Muslim nations that have taken on – in the eyes of local officials – political overtones.
It is well known that in France and other countries throughout Europe Muslim head veils are banned. While that practice is not without controversy, it is not deemed per se a suppression of religion or personal freedom. Many people accept the proposition that head veils in Europe has taken on such political meaning that displaying it openly in public can be too oppressive on the public and is incompatible with an open civic atmosphere not tied to any religion.
But when the Chinese government takes a similar stance, they are categorically denounced as oppressive tyrants. Even if one suspects that some Chinese officials are using people’s fear of Islam as a pretext for suppressing Islam, it still doesn’t excuse the wholesale discounting of the official Chinese perspective and categorical one-sided rants of the Chinese tyrants suppressing Uighur customs and/or religion.
There have also been other accusations such as that Chinese government forcing Uighur stores to sell all types of food, not just “halal” food (see, e.g., Daily Sabah article linked above). These facts too are reported as self-evident facts of oppression. Reality too again is more nuanced.
“Halal” foods are food products that are deemed permissible to eaten by Muslims under a broad set of Islamic guidelines. The notion is similar to the concept of “Kosher” food under the Jewish faith. In practice though, because of the broad nature of these traditional guidelines, and the application of what is “Kosher” or “halal” in modern society depends not on some objective criteria, but on whether some food had been “certified” by a certain local Rabbi or Imam or religious institution.
When Chinese government looks at an entire neighborhood where Uighurs are the main constituencies, I can see their predicament. What do you do when all stores refuse to sell a wide range of foods or sell only a narrow range of food? What do you do when a local Imam or temple gains sufficient power to dictate what produce is sell in the local markets?
When a religious majority get to control the local economy, I can see why local officials – depending on the local circumstances – may become concerned about stores only “halal” products or refusing to sell any but “halal” products, the idea being that the local Imam – however revered – should never, for example, replace the health ministry.
Are regulations prohibiting types of stores in certain locales from selling “halal” only products per se an infringement of religion?
In the U.S., there are “Scientology” practitioners who believe that God is living and will heal all believers and thus would refuse and withhold medical treatment for themselves as well as their children. However, no matter how deeply some people may believe in “faith healing,” no one accuses the government of suppressing religion in prescribing minimum and “reasonable” medical responsibilities on its citizens, Scientology practitioner or not.
Something similar is going on with the Chinese government in Xinjiang.
Public Praying and Fasting
There has also been reports that the Chinese has banned Uighurs from praying and fasting and that food places are required to remain open during Ramadan. Again, these facts too are reported as self-evident facts of oppression.
But the truth is that the government has only banned praying and fasting in certain public places – such as government offices and schools – and only in certain locales (i.e. not blanket across all of Xinjiang), and only recently (i.e. the last few years).
Throughout most of PRC’s history, the government has never had any problems with Uighurs praying or fasting … in their homes or in public. The basis of the recent bans – including those requiring stores in certain locales to be open during Ramadan – arise yet again from the political overtones public praying have taken recently in some areas of China. It is a shame that certain elements of Islam and hence Uighur culture has been politicized by radical groups such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. It is not unlike what the Dalai Lama has done with Tibetan culture … politicizing it and using it as a basis for separatist ideology and movement.
Yet none of this context is ever evoked in recent International reporting of Xinjiang (or Tibet…). Everyone points a figure at the government, crying suppression of religion or culture.
To simply report any “regulations” on religious or culturally motivated acts as intrusions of the “state” is a gross biased representation of facts on the ground. Such reporting completely ignores the possibility that for many in China, it is religion that has grossly intruded into the sphere of the State, that has unbecomingly hijacked the civic life of China, that is threatening the very notion of what it is to be China. International reporting of Xinjiang today deafeningly ignores the white elephant in the room that is political Islam, of the role they should play in “modern” society – communist or not.
The topic of the role of politics for Islam is beyond the scope of this post. I will not do the dis-service of caricaturing the issues by pigeon-holing the topic in terms of noble-deafening ideals of “separation of church and state” or “freedom of religion.” But it is a vast gross stretching of the truth to accuse the Chinese government of “politicizing” Islam in Xinjiang (see e.g. again links above). Political Islam is a global phenomenon rooted in a long tradition. The phenomenon would have arisen – and threatened China – even if the Chinese government had chosen to do nothing to counter such movements.
China has some 140 million Muslims. Most of them – including Uighurs – have traditionally practiced “moderate” forms of Islam where Islam is not too politicized (despite some commentators’ argument that Islam has always been more about politics than religion). With the global politicization of Islam, China – and the broader world – is still trying to balance – even as it modernizes – the role the party, religion, and individual citizens play in modern China.
Whatever the balances are ultimately struck in each locale, there will need to be many more discussions … in China – yes – but also throughout the Middle East, S. Asia, Europe, Africa,, Russia, and even the Americas. I hope this post has re-opened doors of discussions that so many others have previously slammed shut.