When Erkin Tuniyaz, chairman of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), visited the largest mosque in Urumqi before the Eid al-Fitr holy day marking the end of Ramadan, he used the opportunity to promote Beijing’s policy of assimilation of non-Chinese people in its far western regions.
“According to the arrangements and invitation of the autonomous region party committee, we must hold absolutely tight to the plan for Sinicizing the Islamic religion in Xinjiang and actively take the lead in fitting the Islamic religion into socialist society,” he said at the Noghay Mosque, as quoted in an April 30 article by Xinjiang Daily.
Though the 19th-century mosque is technically open, the complex is cordoned off with fences and barbed wire. In recent years, Chinese authorities removed the Arabic shahada, or testament of faith from above the entrance gate to the building — the largest mosque in Urumqi (in Chinese, Wulumuqi) — also known as the Tatar Mosque.
They also installed a security checkpoint next to the gate where Muslim worshippers must pass facial recognition scanners to verify their identities as uniformed guards look on.
A few days before Erkin made his statement, XUAR Party Secretary Ma Xingrui commented on China’s political strategy in the region, reemphasizing the concepts of “the shared sense of belonging of the Chinese nation” and “ethnic fusion” in an April article in the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Ma proposed strengthening assimilative policies in the XUAR along with the further tightening of the CCP’s religious policy by Sinicizing Islam.
Sinification policies and debates long predate the 1949 Communist Party seized of power, said a recent study in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, which defined it as “ the process by which all non-Han or non-Sinitic people who entered the Chinese realm, no matter whether as conquerors or conquered, eventually were inevitably assimilated as Chinese.”
But under the decade-long rule of CCP chief Xi Jinping, coercive assimilation has picked up pace — not only in Xinjiang, but also in Tibet, Inner Mongolia and other areas populated by minorities.
The drive to erase differences among the cultures is enforced in Xinjiang by a vast high-tech mass surveillance system, heavy-handed grassroots policing and mass internment camps that have targeted a significant number of the 12 million Uyghurs.
The Sinicization of religion in the XUAR takes aim at the Islamic aspects of the Uyghur identity—a policy whose heavy-handed imposition that some Western governments say constitutes genocide under international law.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet will travel to Urumqi and Kashgar (Kashi), during a May 23-28 visit to China, the first by a U.N. human rights chief since 2005.
Her trip has raised questions about her freedom of movement through the region, with many Uyghur groups and rights experts warning her that Beijing will put on a staged tour and use it for propaganda against its critics.
Xi first put forward the concept at the Communist Party’s 19th People’s Congress on Oct. 18, 2017. At the time, Chen Quanguo, then party secretary of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, was stepping up what’s become a well-documented campaign of oppression against the Uyghurs as part of a forced assimilation effort.
Chen and his successor Ma Xingrui, who was appointed XUAR party secretary in late 2021, executed state policies concerning the “Sinicization of religion” and “creating awareness of the shared sense of belonging to the Chinese nation.”
During a recent inspection of the XUAR, Wang Yang, a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the CCP and chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, issued a special directive regarding the “resolute advancement of the Sinicization of Islam in Xinjiang.”
The Chinese government has vigorously implemented its policy not only for Muslims in Xinjiang, but also for Tibetan Buddhists, Christians, Protestants and others throughout the country, demanding that the religious groups adhere to and support the CCP’s rule and ideology.
For Muslims, the policy means being forced to renounce their Islamic faith, according to testimony given by Uyghur survivors of detention camps in Xinjiang. Authorities have forced Uyghurs to eat pork, which is forbidden in Islam, have gathered and burned copies of the Quran, and have restricted the wearing of beards for men and of long clothing and headscarves for women.
Uyghur names such as “Muhammad,” “Ayishe,” and “Muhajid” have been forbidden and, in cases where those names have been given to children, the authorities have implemented very strict policies to change them. Applying for passports and traveling abroad have been reasons for detention in camps, which means that Uyghurs have lost their right to go on the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are expected to make at least once during their lifetime.
While China’s legal guarantee of religious freedom are touted in propaganda, and said to be composed according to Western standards, “it exists simply on paper,” said Nury Turkel, vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
“This is a means of deceiving people, of [China] trying to portray its own system as perfect.”
‘Eradication of Islam’
Chinese authorities have detained more than 1,000 imams and clerics for their association with religious teaching and community leadership since 2014, according to a May 2021 report titled “Islam Dispossessed: China’s Persecution of Uyghur Imams and Religious Figures” issued by the U.S.-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP).
“The Sinicization of Islam is the eradication of Islam,” Turghanjan Alawudun, vice chair of the executive committee of the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) and a Uyghur religion scholar, said.
In 2016, Chinese authorities began demolishing mosques and old cemeteries in the XUAR, with the destruction reaching a climax in 2018.
Since about 2017, up to 16,000 mosques, or roughly 65%, of all mosques have been destroyed or damaged as a result of government policies, according to the UHRP. About 30% of Islamic sacred sites such as shrines, cemeteries and pilgrimage routes have been demolished and another 28% damaged or altered.
Religious leaders and ordinary Uyghurs alike who practiced their faith privately in their homes have been detained on accusation of various crimes. Children are not allowed to learn about their religion from parents or neighborhood religious leaders.
Upon his appointment as XUAR party secretary in August 2016, Chen Quanguo said “the work of eliminating extremism is a major factor in the social stability and eternal security of Xinjiang, and of national security.”
In 2017, authorities began illegally detaining thousands of Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in “re-education” camps in an effort, they said, to prevent religious extremism and radicalism, later calling the facilities “closed training centers” or “transformation through education training centers” or “vocational training centers.” Evidence quickly emerged that inmates had been deprived of their freedom under the pretense of political education.
It is believed that authorities have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and others accused of harboring “strong religious” and “politically incorrect” views in a vast network of internment camps in Xinjiang since 2017 and have jailed or detained hundreds of Islamic clergy members in recent years.
The U.S. and the parliaments of several Western governments have declared that China’s rights abuses in Xinjiang constitute genocide and crimes against humanity.
Muhammad Salih Hajim, the first person to have translated the Quran into the Uyghur language, is among the Uyghur religious elite to have been detained. He was in his 80s when he was placed in an internment camp in Urumqi (Wulumuqi) in December 2017. He died there about 40 days later.
Chinese propaganda has sought to portray the detained Uyghurs and others as people “infected with religious extremism and ideas about brutal terrorism and thus in need of treatment,” suggesting that they were ideologically “sick.” To treat the so-called “sicknesses” in a timely manner, authorities deemed it necessary to build “training centers” in each prefecture, county, city, and district, to provide free “treatment.”
“There is a widespread view in the policies being implemented in China that religious practice is a sign of spiritual sickness,” Turkel said. “They say that religious practice is an expression of a virus in the mind.”
“If we could turn the question around, we should ask them whether believing in the ideology of communism, as they do, is an expression of spiritual sickness, or if practicing religion, which forms a set of morals that teach people to be good, benevolent, kind, honest, and giving members of society, is a spiritual sickness,” he said. “We must ask this question.”
The XUAR Regulations on De-extremification, approved by the Standing Committee of the People’s Congress of the XUAR in March 2017, and officially implemented on April 1 of the same year, forbade certain religious practices. Beards and hijabs were prohibited, religious practices were restricted, and the reading of nikah or Islamic wedding rites was banned.
Another 15 restrictions were added to the list, including the use of the word “halal” in advertising food and beverages, intentionally mutilating ID cards and encouraging religious interest in children.
“The regulations are a typical example of Beijing and local authorities’ plans to erase the identity of Uyghur Muslims and separate them from their religion, culture, language and traditional customs,” Tina Mufford, former deputy director of policy and research at USCIRF, said in an interview with RFA in March 2017, right before the internment camp program was launched.
In the camps and other political education centers, the Chinese government has sought to replace religious faith with devotion to the communist government and Chinese leader Xi. This is the second time in Chinese history, following Mao Zedong, that this type of praise has been demanded.
While Muslims around the world fasted, prayed and recited the Quran during the holy month of Ramadan from April 1-May 1 this year, the Chinese government used the period to inculcate communist ideology in Uyghur Muslims, as it has been doing for the past five years, said WUC’s Turghunjan Alawudun.
They intensified activities for men and women in cities and villages throughout the region, including alcohol-drinking contests, fashion competitions and political education activities meant to spread communist ideology, he said.
“China’s basic intention in its insistence on Sinicizing Islam is to eliminate the religious practice of the Uyghurs,” said Alawudan. “Once their religious beliefs are gone, Uyghurs will be the same as Chinese people. For this reason, they also want to eliminate their language and lifeways, and force them to use Chinese. Thus, making Uyghurs into a people without religion is also a way of eliminating the group by genocide.”
‘Islam as a propaganda tool’
Ma Ju, an ethnic Hui and independent political commentator based in New York, who runs a popular YouTube channel, said the Chinese government’s intention to eliminate Uyghurs is clear.
In its annual report on human rights, the U.S. State Department repeatedly has accused China of attacking religious freedom, allegation that the government vehemently denies.
At a press conference on Nov. 18, 2021, Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, responded the report, saying the “Chinese government protects citizens’ freedom of religious belief in accordance with law.”
Xu Guixiang, a spokesman for the XUAR government, echoed the statement during an April 2021 press conference in Beijing, saying there were no issues with human rights in China, and that none of the country’s minority groups experience ethnic, regional, gender or religious discrimination.
USCIRF released its annual report on global religious freedom days after Xu’s comment, noting that religious freedom conditions in China deteriorated in 2021.
“The government continued to vigorously implement its ‘sinicization of religion’ policy and demand that religious groups and adherents support the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) rule and ideology,” the report said.
Ilshat Hassan Kokbore, a political observer and vice chairman of WUC’s Executive Committee, said Chinese officials are Sinicizing Islam in the XUAR through additional measures. In recent years, they have forced Uyghurs to raise Chinese flags inside or outside mosques, promote state policies through sermons during Friday prayers, and pray to Xi Jinping when doing zikr or dua, prayers of invocation, he said.
Chinese authorities also have collected copies of the Quran in the Uyghur language, retranslated them into both Chinese and Uyghur languages with various modifications and published them, Kokbore said.
“The Chinese government is using Islam as a propaganda tool of the Chinese Communist Party,” he told RFA. “This is an affront to and trampling upon the Muslim world, of the ummah, or body of believers.”
Kokbore pointed to China’s targeting of all Uyghur elites, not just religious figures, to eliminate leaders from Uyghur society to hasten the assimilation of Uyghurs.
“By eliminating cultural leaders, they want to put all Uyghurs into a foolish state, from which they intend to eliminate the group,” he said.
Prominent Uyghur detainees include Minzu University professor Ilham Tohti, Xinjiang University president Tashpolat Teyip, Xinjiang Medical University president Halmurat Ghopur, Xinjiang University folklore institute director Arslan Abdulla, well-known folklore professor Rahile Dawut, editor-in-chief of Xinjiang Civilization journal Qurban Mamut, and famous literary critic Yalkun Rozi, said prominent Chinese human rights lawyer Teng Biao.
“The Chinese government has intentionally persecuted the Uyghur elite, including academic elites, cultural elites and commercial elites,” Teng said. “They detained the scholars, the imams, university presidents and other intellectuals, and Uyghur entrepreneurs and businesspeople. That’s part of their plan, to eliminate or to limit the influence of Uyghur culture and Islamic culture.”
“They want to make it such that Uyghurs will be unable to [recognize] their own culture after the government has eliminated the Uyghurs’ ethnic and religious identities,” he said.