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China Divides Muslim Minorities

Published: 01/12/2012 01:18:18 PM GMT
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BEIJING - Imposing growing restrictions on Uighurs' freedom of religious practices, China is facing growing criticism over its double standard religious policy towards its Uighur and Hui Muslim citizens.“Chinese laws about (more)

BEIJING - Imposing growing restrictions on Uighurs' freedom of religious practices, China is facing growing criticism over its double standard religious policy towards its Uighur and Hui Muslim citizens.

“Chinese laws about religious freedom are very clear. But like any other good Chinese law, there is uneven enforcement,” Dru Gladney, an anthropologist at Pomona College in California, told Radio Free Asia on Friday, November 30.

“Xinjiang has strict religious freedom because the political situation of the region is much different than other regions.”

Though laws are the same in books, analysts believe China is practicing a double standard in its religious policy toward Uighur and Hui Muslims.

Islam flourishes in China's Ningxia and Gansu provinces, home to many of the country's 10 million Hui Muslims, where mosque-based schools offer religious teachings to adults and children.

Hui Muslims in other parts of China as well are also allowed to run religious schools.

But in the Xinjiang region in China's far west, where the mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uyghurs form an ethnic group 9 million strong, government policies bar women and anyone under age 18 from attending mosques.

Aside from restrictions on Islamic education and worship, Uyghurs are also subject to restrictions on traditional Islamic dress.

In July 2009, Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, erupted in violence when the mainly Muslim Uighur minority vented resentment over Chinese restrictions in the region.

In the following days, mobs of angry Han took to the streets looking for revenge in the worst ethnic violence that China had seen in decades.

The unrest left nearly 200 dead and 1,700 injured, according to government figures. But Uighurs affirm the toll was much higher and mainly from their community.

China's authorities have convicted about 200 people, mostly Uighurs, over the riots and sentenced 26 of them to death.

Following the unrest, Chinese officials added about 17,000 surveillance cameras to the tens of thousands already installed in Urumqi, basically in neighborhoods frequented by Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority.

Identity Problem

Being of a different ethnic group, Uighur Muslims differs from China's Hui Muslims.

“Hui Muslims are Chinese Muslims, but Uyghurs are not. Uyghurs are of a different race than the Chinese,” Uighur writer Ghulam Osman told

“Hui Muslims have never been a nation-state; they always lived together with the Chinese, because they belong to the same ethnic group as the Chinese,” he said.

Hui Muslims do not suffer the same level of repression as faced by Uighurs because they have been much more assimilated into Chinese culture, Osman added.

Xinjiang has been autonomous since 1955 but continues to be the subject of massive security crackdowns by Chinese authorities.

Rights groups accuse Chinese authorities of religious repression against Uighur Muslims, a Turkish-speaking minority of eight million, in Xinjiang in the name of counter terrorism.

Muslims accuses the government of settling millions of ethnic Han in their territory with the ultimate goal of obliterating its identity and culture.

And analysts say the policy of transferring Han Chinese to Xinjiang to consolidate Beijing's authority has increased the proportion of Han in the region from five percent in the 1940s to more than 40 percent now.

On the other hand, China's Hui minority includes all historically Muslim communities in the country who are not members of other ethnic groups.

“Uighurs are different; they had their own land and were invaded by China,” Osman said, referring to Xinjiang's past before it came under Chinese control following two short-lived East Turkestan Republics in the 1930s and 1940s.

Fearing a separatist movement in Xinjiang, China represses Uighurs' religious freedom because Islam is significant in the survival of their identity.

Yet, these policies were triggering more anger and frustration among Uighur Muslims.

“All the Uyghur movements against the Chinese government were caused by frustration that resulted from the heavy-handed repression of the Chinese government in the region, not by radical religious forces,” Gladney, the Pomona College anthropologist said.

Reproduced with permission from