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A Ramadan That Uyghurs Will Never Forget

  • Bruce Pannier

A Uyghur woman walks on a street in Urumqi, the capital of China's Xinjiang region. (file photo)

A Uyghur woman walks on a street in Urumqi, the capital of China's Xinjiang region. (file photo)

The end of one of the most bizarre periods of Ramadan the Uyghur people have ever known is drawing to a close. The Turkic Muslim people living in the area of western China now called Xinjiang were forced by Beijing to forego the month's obligatory fasting, the latest intrusion by authorities into the Uyghur way of life. But at the same time, the plight of the Uyghurs has arguably been receiving the most international attention, well, ever.

Last month as Ramadan started, Chinese authorities moved to prevent Uyghurs from fasting. The state food and drug administration in Xinjiang's Jinghe County posted information that "food service workplaces will operate during normal hours during Ramadan" and that includes restaurants owned by Uyghurs. Officials in Xinjiang's Bole County were told, "During Ramadan, do not engage in fasting, vigils, or other religious activities."

Radio Free Asia (RFA) obtained a copy of a document sent to local officials in Xinjiang just before the start of the Muslim holy period warning them that "Ramadan is coming." RFA said village officials were urged to "keep a close watch on politically suspect families, who are required during the fasting month to report in person to authorities each morning and night."

The ban on fasting is a new tactic in an ancient conflict between the Uyghurs and the Han Chinese. In fact, problems between the Uyghurs and the Han started before Islam was a religion.

But in the age of Islamic extremism, religion has become one of the biggest contemporary problems between the two peoples, despite the fact that at its core, the Uyghur movement for independence from China is a nationalist movement. Many Uyghurs believe they face extinction as a culture and a people.

Uyghurs are resisting the rule of China's Communist Party just as Uyghurs have resisted the domination of previous Chinese governments. After the 1949 revolution, the new government in Beijing employed the old tactic of sending Han to work and live in the Uyghurs' homeland. However, what was usually just a trickle became a flood in the 1990s when oil and gas were discovered in the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang. Currently, the number of Han in Xinjiang is approaching parity with the indigenous Uyghurs.

As the arrival of Han has increased during the last two decades, so too has the level of violence in Xinjiang. There was a riot in the city of Yining in 1997 and bombings in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, the same year. Dozens, possibly hundreds, died in that violence.

Over the past two years, Uyghurs have attacked Han Chinese at Xinjiang bus and train stations and in the streets, killing dozens, followed quickly by police, security, and military forces killing dozens of Uyghurs. At least three Chinese policemen were killed at the start of Ramadan; at least 18 Uyghurs have been killed since its start.

Beijing has portrayed Xinjiang as a region rife with the "three evils" -- terrorism, religious extremism, and separatism. Chinese authorities have initiated a series of security operations in Xinjiang with code names such as Strike Hard, which gives some indication of the aggressiveness of these campaigns.

But increasingly these campaigns have focused on taming the Uyghurs by targeting their religion, and now that has invited the sort of international attention Beijing has sought to avoid.

Recent rules have forbidden all but elderly Uyghur men from growing beards. Women are prohibited from wearing burqas. People under 18 are not allowed to attend mosque.

But it was the ban on fasting that fired Muslim passions far from Xinjiang and brought the Uyghur issue into the spotlight in Turkey, home to an estimated 300,000 Uyghurs. Turkey's foreign minister released a statement that said, "Our people have been saddened over the news that Uyghur Turks have been banned from fasting or carrying out other religious duties in the Xinjiang region."

Protests against Chinese treatment of the Uyghurs started in Turkey in late June, with some demonstrators burning Chinese flags outside the Beijing's embassy in Ankara. There were reports of Chinese tourists being targeted by angry protesters, and several Chinese restaurants, most belonging to Turkish owners, were vandalized.

China issued a travel warning to citizens traveling to Turkey.

The focus of the Turkish demonstrators switched on July 9, when it was learned Thai authorities had deported 109 Uyghurs to China. Thailand temporarily closed its embassy in Ankara and its consulate in Istanbul after protesters stormed the consulate the same day.

Southeast Asian countries have become a prime destination for Uyghurs fleeing China, most hoping eventually to travel on to Turkey. The Uyghurs deported on July 9 had been in Thailand for more than a year claiming they were Turkish.

Thai authorities have allowed other Uyghurs to travel on to Turkey, and Bangkok seemed taken by surprise that the country's diplomatic missions in Turkey had suddenly become the focus of angry Muslim protesters.

Thai officials referred to the extradition request from China. Beijing claimed the 109 Uyghurs were headed to the Middle East to join extremist groups and that 13 of them had fled China after committing unspecified terrorist acts.

But protesters in Turkey won't soon forget photographs of the Uyghurs, in black hoods, being taken to the plane, sitting on board, and disembarking in China.

For the record, there are Uyghurs who have left China and joined Islamic extremist groups in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

At the same time, the "terrorist" attacks Beijing points to in Xinjiang are usually carried out with knives and axes. The day before Ramadan started, a Uyghur man was mortally wounded in the northwestern city of Xian when he attacked people waiting in line to buy tickets at a train station. His weapon: a brick.

China has tried for many years to avoid seeing its problem with the Uyghurs become a pan-Islamic issue, preferring to brand Uyghurs "separatists."

But this latest move -- banning fasting during Ramadan -- has brought the Uyghurs' plight to the attention of fellow Turkic Muslims in Turkey and between China and Turkey are Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan, lands of other Turkic Muslim peoples who share a kinship with the Uyghurs.

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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