As Muslims around the world began celebrating the holy month of Ramadan last week, Uighur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province are being prevented from congregating in mosques or homes, and students and employees at schools are being told not to fast. The FT explains:
According to Human Rights Watch, Beijing is using the month of Ramadan as a loyalty test to the Communist party.
‘The Chinese state profoundly distrusts the Uighur,’ said [Human Rights Watch researcher Nicholas] Bequelin, ‘including Uighur party members. [So] Ramadan becomes a test of how loyal to the party a person is.’
According to Mr Bequelin religious observance in Xinjiang by the Uighur is seen ‘akin to religious extremism’ by the government and that other Muslim minorities in the western province face less restrictions.
Things have been more tense than usual in Xinjiang recently—paramilitary police flooded into the province to maintain order after dozens of people died in two attacks earlier this month that the authorities blamed on “religious extremists.” Blanket suppression of Uighur Muslims is, in the eyes of policy-makers in Beijing and Urumqi, the best way to stop that kind of thing from happening.
Unfortunately, this clumsy approach won’t help in the long run. It will encourage extremists and unsettle moderates. And it is likely to have a negative impact on China’s relationship with Pakistan.
Officials in Beijing and Islamabad frequently describe their relationship in grandiose terms: “higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel, dearer than eyesight, sweeter than honey” and so on, but when it comes to Xinjiang the two governments don’t see eye to eye. China thinks Pakistan doesn’t do enough to clamp down on radical Islamists and supports terrorist groups in Afghanistan on Xinjiang’s western frontier, and Pakistan is troubled by China’s heavy-handed oppression of Muslims.
For China, like Russia, radical Islam is both a domestic and foreign policy issue; stopping terrorists from finding safe haven in nearby countries is just as important as suppressing them at home. Unfortunately, blanket oppression of Islam, like banning Ramadan festivities and rituals, isn’t going to help China deal with the Uighur question.