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China's Muslims say Ramadan a time of repression


By WILLIAM FOREMAN, AP
September 28, 2008

All that was left on the chin of the Muslim man praying at the huge brownstone mosque was a small patch of stubble. He said officials had forced young men in China's far western Xinjiang region to cut off their beards at the start of the holy month of Ramadan.

"If I didn't shave, they would do this to me," said the man, who put his wrists together as if handcuffed, his eyes bulging with anger. "If I say more, I could be arrested."

He gave only part of his name, Arem, and stomped away.

For Muslims, Ramadan is a time of fasting and prayer. But for China's Muslim ethnic Uighurs, the holy month is also full of fear and seething resentment about increasingly tight restrictions on how they practice their moderate form of Islam, influenced by the Sunni and Sufi sects.

Managing the restive Turkic people is developing into one of China's biggest challenges. Like the Tibetans, the Uighurs have been unwilling to buy into the government's plan: greater economic prosperity instead of greater religious freedom or autonomy.

This year has been especially jittery in Xinjiang, a sprawling territory three times the size of France that is home to 9 million Uighurs (pronounced WEE-GURS). Despite ramped-up security in the region before the Beijing Olympics, a string of bombings and deadly attacks the worst wave of violence in a decade deeply embarrassed China under the global spotlight.

China blamed terrorists, but has yet to release evidence that links terror groups to attacks that killed 33 people in Kuqa and Kashgar in western Xinjiang.

With the Olympics over and the world's focus elsewhere, it seems to be payback time for Xinjiang. Overseas Uighur rights groups have accused the government of mass arrests, which police deny. Uighurs interviewed by The Associated Press in Kuqa and Kashgar complained of sweeping detentions but would not say more. In Kuqa, security officials followed an AP journalist for most of his visit.

The most obvious signs of tension are the tight restrictions on Ramadan, which ends this week.

Several local governments have posted lists of warnings on their Web sites, including a detailed one by the township of Yingmaili in Xayar county, near Kuqa. Government employees, teachers and students can't fast during Ramadan. Mosques can't host out-of-town visitors or play video and sound recordings. Proselytizing in public is prohibited. Surveillance of mosques must be increased. Restaurants must stay open during the daylight fasting period.

"All effective means must be used to make sure that men shave their beards and that women remove veils that cover their faces," adds the notice.

A slogan painted on a wall in the area warns Muslims it is illegal to make the annual pilgrimage to Mecca except with a government-sanctioned tour group.

Such restrictions have long been on the books but were selectively enforced, said Dru Gladney, an expert on Uighurs at the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College in California.

"The government has really been enforcing these restrictions in Xinjiang more than in the past," Gladney said. "In other Muslim areas in China, you certainly don't see these similar kinds of restrictions."

In many ways, Xinjiang is China's Siberia. This harsh land of snowcapped mountains and scorching deserts is broken up by oil fields and oasis cities surrounded by lush fields of cotton, melons and grapes. The territory has been China's nuclear test ground and home to an extensive "laogai," a gulag-like prison system.

Xinjiang also shares borders with Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other Central Asian nations a volatile neighborhood that makes Beijing nervous.

In a recent 14-page speech, regional Communist Party leader Nuer Baikeli accused "hostile Western forces" of trying to foment Uighur discontent, politicize religion and split Xinjiang from the motherland. He also warned that crazed Islamic extremists in neighboring countries were training Uighurs to carry out terrorist attacks in China.

Military and security forces frequently restrict access to Xinjiang. An AP journalist was stopped at a police checkpoint and detained for a half hour until county officials arrived.

When shown Yingmaili's Ramadan restrictions, Ablmit Ahmet, a senior official responsible for religious issues, quietly scanned the document for a minute.

A junior official said, "Things really aren't this restrictive. Some local governments are just being a bit overzealous," and Ahmet nodded his head and handed back the list to the reporter.

Ahmet referred the issue to a Muslim cleric, or imam.

With officials at his side, Amudula Rehemutula stood amid a patchwork of ornate rugs in the high-ceilinged Ake Mosque, the county's biggest. The young imam said he agreed with the government that children should not be allowed to worship in the mosque until they are 18 old enough to decide whether they believe in religion. He added that teachers and students should not fast during Ramadan because they need to be energetic in the classroom.

"I am extremely pleased with the religious policy of the (Communist) Party and the government," Rehemutula said in a monotone voice and unfocused gaze, before ending the five-minute meeting to go to pray. During the brief interview, he glanced at his wristwatch several times.

Imams must study at state-sanctioned schools and answer to government officials, who have sacked those deemed unreliable or too outspoken.

"The imams get paid by the government and they help inform on us. We don't trust them," said Mamat, a recent college graduate looking for work in the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar in western Xinjiang. Like others quoted in this story, Mamat asked that his full name not be printed for fear of being detained for speaking to a journalist.

Fear pervades Xinjiang. Two Uighur college students on a sidewalk in Kashgar worried their images were captured by surveillance cameras. A taxi driver in Kuqa was concerned that a black car behind him was recording his conversations with eavesdropping equipment. Even some foreign scholars worried China might blacklist them if they made remarks deemed too critical of the government.

Mutual contempt is common between Uighurs and the Han Chinese majority.

"This is a beautiful ancient Silk Road city surrounded by mountains and deserts," said Li, a Han Chinese taxi driver. "The only problem is that there are too many Uighurs." The driver claimed Uighurs are uneducated and rude.

Many Uighurs, in turn, are ignorant of Han Chinese holidays and speak only their language instead of Mandarin, China's official language.

One Uighur businessman named Mattursun praying at a mosque in Yarkent said he despised the Han Chinese. "They no longer really believe in Marxism or communism," the man said. "All they believe in is money. Money is their god."

The government insists most Uighurs are happy because, like the rest of the country, Xinjiang is becoming more prosperous. In recent years, highways, airports and rail lines, schools, hospitals and even mosques have been built. The government has high hopes for deposits of oil, natural gas and minerals. Slogans on billboards and walls across Xinjiang tell people that social harmony and unity equal prosperity.

But many Uighurs aren't biting. They think the region is being colonized by Han Chinese, who have flooded into the territory in recent years.

"Sure, they're building roads and bridges. But that's just so that more Han Chinese will move to Xinjiang and take the place away from us," said Haji, a 34-year-old Uighur businessman in Kashgar.

Haji has a college degree and a successful enterprise that benefits from improved infrastructure and security, but he is fed up with the government's religious policy. In school he was allowed to observe Ramadan, but now his children cannot.

Haji said he doubted China would ever give Xinjiang independence, but hoped Beijing would eventually heed the words of the late leader Mao Zedong.

"Mao said that if there is more pressure, there are more problems," Haji said. "I believe someday the government will realize this and relax."

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