Repression of the Uighurs in China: Religious or Political Issue?

The repressive policy of Chinese Communist Party over the Uyghur ethnic minority is well-known and vastly documented. Tensions between the government and the Uyghur community have been spreading and increasing since when the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent Muslim states in Central Asia opened support for separatist groups in Xinjiang, the autonomous province in the northwest of China that borders Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan and house of the majority of Uyghurs.

In the last years, tension has escalated into violence and there have been numerous terrorist attacks. In response, the Chinese authorities launched a strong campaign against terrorism and many people faced a death sentence. Meanwhile, restrictions on social and economic mobility have been employed to discriminate Uyghurs from Han Chinese and other domestic ethnic minorities.

Uyghurs struggle with unfair competition in the job market within Xinjiang’s borders and with racism beyond them. Partly, it is due to their proud attachment to their cultural heritage. They speak their own language, wear their characteristic clothes, prefer their traditional cuisine and integrate more easily with communities from central Asia than with Han Chinese people. Moreover, activists have denounced severe restrictions on Uyghurs’ right to profess Islam, with a ban on attending prayers in mosques and strict control over religious schools. Uyghur officials and civilians working in Xinjiang government departments, as well as teachers and students in public schools are banned from fasting during the Ramadan and in many cities, women are banned from wearing veils and men from growing beards.

However, the most important reason for the government’s repressive treatment toward Uyghurs is neither religion nor terrorism, but territoriality. The Uyghurs experienced two brief separated periods of independence and many still yearn that the East Turkestan – the name used by separatists to indicate the province – should be a sovereign nation ruled by ethnic Uyghurs.

Unlike Uyghurs, the Hui – the China’s largest Muslim minority who descend from Persian, Mongol, South-East Asian and Arab merchants who crossed the Silk Road – have been living in China since the Tang dynasty (618-907) and intermarried with Han Chinese people, generating a fluid and hybrid community. Although concentrated within the Ningxia Autonomous Region, they are spread across the all China, Mandarin Chinese is their mother tongue and, except for pork and alcohol, they share the mainstream dietary preferences.

Thanks to the assimilation path they chose, the Hui are socially and economically successful. They are officially allowed to practice their religion: Hui woman can wear veils and Hui families can send their children to religious private schools and to mosques. Not only enjoy the Hui more freedom, but they also dominate halal food production and the sector of business intermediation between China’s SOEs and firms in Central Asia and the Arabic Gulf. The main reason lying behind the good relation they enjoy with the CCP, is simply that the Hui are neither agitating for increased autonomy, nor for a separation from their motherland: China. Thus, to the CCP, continuously gripped to its territorial authority, the Hui minority does not represent any source of instability.

The oppressive attitude toward the Uyghurs has been mainly described as a violation of religious freedom. Following the escalation of international and domestic terrorist attacks, the Chinese government has tightened its control over the Uyghur population, narrowing the possibility for them to gather in religious activities and to strengthen their religious identarian ties. For doing so, the CCP has been blamed of promoting Islamophobia. However, the religious, social, economic and political freedom enjoyed by the Hui-Chinese-Muslims, brings to a more comprehensive deduction. The reason that led China to suppress much of the Uyghurs’ freedom is not an aversion to Islam. Instead, its phobia is towards the threat of a loss of authority over its territory.

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