Ramadan is here. Across the world, Muslims will begin fasting during daylight hours as part of this month-long observance.
But in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang), Chinese authorities see fasting as a “sign of extremism”.
Open or even private displays of religious affiliation – including growing an “abnormal” beard, wearing a veil or headscarf, regular prayer, fasting or avoidance of alcohol – are categorized as “signs of extremism” in some locations.
Any of these can land you in one of Xinjiang’s internment camps, which the government calls “transformation-through-education centres” and are reportedly arbitrarily detaining up to 1 million people.
Numerous counties in Xinjiang have posted notices on government websites in recent years, stating that primary and secondary school students and Communist Party members were not permitted to observe Ramadan.
Mass internment and surveillance have intensified in recent years, but Muslim religious and cultural practices have long been discouraged in the region.
Ramadan in schools
Gulzire, a Uyghur woman from Yining, in Xinjiang’s northwest, said that when she was attending high school in in the early 2000s, her teachers urged students not to fast because they needed good nutrition to prepare for their public exams. Some students fasted anyway and stayed in the classroom to rest during lunch instead of going home or going to the canteen to eat. To discourage fasting, teachers would go into the classrooms to check on students. Gulzire remembers showing a teacher the lunch she brought as proof that she was not fasting. But she said the restriction was not very strictly enforced back then, and some still managed to fast secretly.
These restrictions were also not uniformly enforced across China. When Gulzire left Xinjiang to study in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen in 2006, she was pleasantly surprised by the openness she found there. During religious festivals, Shenzhen University would bus Gulzire and her Xinjiang friends to the mosque or to other religious and cultural events. She said her classmates – most of whom came from China’s Han ethnic majority, were also very open-minded and supportive of Uyghur cultural practices.
A turn of events
Things took a turn for the worse in the summer of 2009. Inter-ethnic violence in Urumqi, Xinjang’s capital, left nearly 200 dead. In response, a much stronger military and security presence was deployed throughout Xinjiang, stoking even more tension.
Gulzire said her parents told her to stop going to mosque, even in Shenzhen. Fearful of being labeled an extremist family, they also stopped talking to her about the Qur’an and stopped saying festival greetings to her over the phone, such as “Qurban bayram mubarek” (Greetings on the Festival of Sacrifice), like they used to.
Things also changed at Gulzire’s university in Shenzhen. A Uyghur teacher from Urumqi was sent to her university. And when the school arranged for a bus to take students to the mosque during Ramadan, this teacher called a meeting with leaders of the university and stopped students from going. Gulzire believes the teacher felt that these were activities not allowed in Xinijang and should therefore be considered “extremist”.
Since then, the situation has continued to deteriorate. A series of laws were passed to justify religious and ethnic discrimination, and the crackdown intensified in Xinjiang.
According to a regulation passed in 2017, people can be labelled “extremist” for refusing to watch public radio and TV programmes, wearing burqas or having an “abnormal” beard.
In April 2017, the government reportedly published a list of prohibited names, most of which were Islamic in origin, and required all children under 16 with these names to change them.
Well wishes from outside Xinjiang
This Ramadan, many Muslims in Xinjiang are separated from their loved ones – some are missing, while others are known to be in internment camps.
Radio Free Asia journalist Gulchehra Hoja left China 18 years ago. It was only after she moved to the United States that she was finally able to fully observe Ramadan. Speaking of her time in Xinjiang, she said:
“I remember only elderly people like my grandma were fasting and making dua (prayer) asking Allah to forgive her children for not fasting. Now it’s my turn to continue to pray for my family and the entire Uyghur people.”