Muslims in Xinjiang - 'Foreigners should not prevent us from praying'

  • From: "Muslim News" <editor@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <submit@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Sun, 10 Mar 2002 09:43:20 -0000

On a visit from 22 February to 7 March to the two main cities of the
Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of north-western China, Keston
News Service found tight restrictions on the religious practice of the
native Muslim population and government attempts to woo Muslims away
from their faith. Controls on mosques were renewed in 1996 after a
period of much freer Muslim practice, as the central Chinese authorities
seem to have stepped up their concern about what they regard as links
between Uighur separatism and Islam. 

The main aim of the visit - to Urumqi, the regional capital, and
Kashgar, the region's second largest city, 1000 kms (600 miles)
south-west of Urumqi - was to gather information about the relationship
between the state and believers (primarily Muslims) and to establish
whether the Uighur separatist movement has a religious basis. Keston met
considerable difficulties in gathering information. Almost everyone who
spoke to Keston said that if the authorities learned that they had
supplied "negative information" to a journalist they could get long
prison sentences. "In China even the walls have ears. Be very careful if
you don't want to cause us problems," was a frequent comment from local
people. Keston therefore cannot give the names of its informants. 

Situated in the north-west of China (bordering Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan,
Mongolia and Russia) the XUAR (or Eastern Turkestan) is China's largest
province with 16 percent of its territory. According to official Chinese
statistics, the population of the XUAR is 16.5 million. About half of
the population are Chinese and the other half are Turkic-speaking
nationalities of Muslim background (Uighurs 42%, Kazakhs 6.2% and Kyrgyz

Historically Eastern Turkestan forms one ethno-cultural region with
Central Asia. The native Turkic-speaking peoples are close in language,
culture, customs and history to the native peoples of the Central Asian
republics. In ancient times the Uighurs had a powerful civilisation
which had an enormous influence not only on Central Asia but also on
China. In 1759 under pressure from Manchurian-Chinese forces the Uighurs
lost their independence. The occupied territory became known as Sinkiang
(Xinjiang - "New frontier" in Chinese). Since their conquest by China
the Uighurs have rebelled over 400 times. 

Relations between Uighurs and Chinese became especially tense in 1950,
when Beijing began the mass settlement of Chinese in Eastern Turkestan.
While in 1949 there were only 200,000 Chinese (about 10% of the
population), today there are about 8 million (about half the region's
population). Since the early nineties there has been a powerful Uighur
separatist underground in the XUAR, with occasional acts of terrorism
and spontaneous rebellions. In 1990 a bus was blown up in Kashgar and in
1992 another in Urumqi. In 1990, after the authorities denied believers
access to the mosque, there was an uprising in the settlement of Baren
(a suburb of Kashgar). In 1995 in the town of Khotan (Hotan), 530 kms
(330 miles) east of Kashgar, there was an uprising after the authorities
replaced the local imam. 

The most serious unrest in recent years occurred in February 1997 in the
town of Yining (close to the border with Kazakhstan, 390 kms - 240 miles
- west of Urumqi). A demonstration of Uighurs carrying banners demanding
that the Chinese authorities observe the rights of Muslims grew into
open rebellion. The uprising was brutally quashed by the Chinese army.
At least 25 people were killed and 200 injured. 

Beijing regards Uighur separatism as a serious threat to the security of
the state. "Today in private conversation it is possible to criticise
the communists, but to express support for Uighur independence is not
possible, even within one's own family, under the threat of arrest,"
Keston was told. At first sight Muslims in the Xinjiang-Uighur
Autonomous Region are not repressed by the authorities. Working mosques
can be seen almost everywhere in the Uighur districts of Urumqi and
Kashgar. Keston found that the number of functioning mosques is
considerably greater in the XUAR than, for example, in Uzbekistan, where
the authorities are trying to limit the number of Muslim places of
worship. Everyone said, however, that the mosques are under the strict
control of the authorities: for example, all the imam-hatybs are
appointed by the authorities. 

An unofficial instruction threatens Muslims working at state enterprises
with dismissal if they go to the mosque. Keston saw notices at mosques
stating that persons under the age of 18 are forbidden to attend. In
Kashgar Keston was told that during the school winter holidays (mid-
January to the end of February) teachers forced pupils to come to school
on Fridays to prevent them from praying at home. Religious education
outside the mosque is strictly forbidden. Keston was told of a woman who
was sentenced to prison for this even though she was pregnant at the
time. Keston was told in Kashgar that the authorities periodically
conduct searches of Muslim homes in order to confiscate banned religious
literature. At the same time the authorities are trying to secularise
the Uighurs. For example, an inhabitant of Karamai (an oil town 300 kms
- 185 miles - north-west of Urumqi) told Keston in Urumqi that Uighur
workers in the town are periodically given free gifts of strong
alcoholic liquor. 

It appears that restrictions do not apply to all faiths. On 24 February
Keston was told by parishioners at the Orthodox church in Urumqi (mostly
Russians whose parents fled from the Soviet Union in the 1930s) that
Chinese citizens may go to church as long as they are not members of the
Communist Party. 

From 1983 to 1996, however, state employees and young people were not
banned from attending the mosque. Keston was told that at that time
Muslims experienced virtually no oppression by the authorities.
Evidently in 1996 the Chinese authorities concluded that Uighur
separatism had a marked religious dimension. Indeed this is partly true.
Keston heard several times from Uighurs that their people could "never
live in peace with the Chinese because most of them are atheists". A
Uighur would never go to a restaurant owned by a Chinese as the food
would not be prepared according to Muslim rules. Many Uighurs do not
travel to other parts of China because it is difficult to find food
meeting Muslim requirements. There is great indignation at the Chinese
law limiting the birthrate (although the Uighurs as a national minority
are allowed one more child than the Chinese). "According to our Muslim
customs the more children there are in a household the more happiness
there is," Uighurs told Keston. "The Chinese law insults our faith." As
Keston found, the overwhelming majority of Uighurs have a strong
antipathy towards the Chinese. In Kashgar, for example, a Uighur will
never take a taxi with a Chinese driver, preferring to pay his money to
one of his own people. 

Here, interestingly, unlike in Central Asia both during and after Soviet
rule, there is no hatred of the "Russian colonialists". The attitude to
the Slavs was and remains favourable. For obvious reasons Keston was not
able to meet the Islamic underground. It was clear, however, that
Islamic radicals in China have much less opportunity to propagandise
their ideas. Keston met no-one who knew of the existence of
Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the international organisation seeking to unite Muslims
throughout the world in a single caliphate. Although this organisation
is banned in the Central Asian republics, its activity (distribution of
leaflets, verbal propaganda) is such that practically all the
inhabitants of Central Asia are aware of it. The term "wahhabism" is
unknown in Eastern Turkestan (in Central Asia this is the name given to
a strand within Islam seeking to return to original Islam unencumbered
by any regional customs) although, as Keston found, supporters of this
strand of Islam do exist here. Many young Uighurs, for example, consider
that veneration of mazars (the graves of famous Muslims) and expensive
weddings and funerals contradict the canons of Islam. 

While trying to reduce the Uighurs' religiosity, Beijing emphatically
respects their national culture. Teaching in schools and universities is
conducted in the Uighur language and there are Uighur television and
radio programmes and newspapers. In the Chinese army there are special
kitchens for the Muslim soldiers. At the same time, Beijing is trying to
combat Uighur separatism by investing in this backward province. The
changes are impressive. While in 1994 Keston found that the basic form
of transport in the towns of the XUAR was horse-drawn carts and
bicycles, today cars have become the norm. Even Uighur separatists
admitted to Keston that the standard of living in the XUAR has increased
considerably in the last ten years. After the suppression of the
uprising in Baren, Beijing declared this town a special economic zone
receiving additional government grants. 

However, Beijing's attempts to pacify the Uighurs are not yet having the
effect the government desires. "I can't take money with me to the grave,
for me it is much more important that foreigners in my own country
should not prevent me from praying to God and living according to the
laws of our ancestors," is how many local Muslims expressed themselves
to Keston. 

Source:  Keston News Service

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