The Republic of China is a predominantly Buddhist nation thus denoting that the experiences of Muslims in Xinjiang province are an analysis of individuals living as minorities. To some extent, this religious status has brought upon the people of Xinjiang province some developments but on the other hand, it has trampled upon their basic human rights. The intricacies of these assertions shall be examined below.
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Social-cultural and political life of Muslims in Xinjiang
Before examining current developments in the region, it is crucial to understand the history of Islam in this province of China so as to trace the root cause of problems synonymous with this region.
Islam was introduced in Xinjiang in the tenth and eleventh centuries. At that time, religion spread very slowly because inhabitants already had their own political and religious loyalties. Nonetheless, the leaders of the ruling dynasty known as Qing adopted the Islamic religion and made it a priority for its citizens to become Muslims as well. In other words, it was now a state religion. With time, members of Xinjiang customised the Muslim religion to suit their way of life as it possessed both elements of Chinese culture and local culture. Shortly after, the Republic of China was formed and Xinjiang was made part of this nation but still maintained its autonomy. It should be noted that there are a notable number of ethnic minorities that subscribe to Islam but most of them are located in different parts of the country and are disunited. In the province of Xinjiang, the Uygur is the group largely associated with this religion. (Broomhall, 2007).
The lives of Muslims in Xinjiang province have been marred by a series of violent incidents over the past few decades. As recently as 2007, the government of China raided Xinjiang province killing eighteen suspects accused of terrorism. Besides that, there have also been a series of attacks on these people during the nineteen nineties with the government citing separatism, terrorism, and extremism as being the major drivers of their aggressive actions. On the other hand, the Muslims of Xinjiang cite the issue of autonomy as their major grievance. Some of them claim that they would like the creation of a separate state from China while others assert that they would still like to remain part of the People’s Republic of China, however, they would prefer a greater extent of autonomy within the system. As it can be seen, the Muslims of Xinjiang do not possess a single political agenda and this has made it extremely difficult to deal with their grievances or desires. (Davis, 2008).
It should be noted that violent incidents in this province can be traced back to some historical occurrences and they include: political injustice, the state of poverty, low employment opportunities, and social inequalities between the Muslims of Xinjiang and the majority Chinese population i.e. the Han. Historically, any members of the People’s Republic of China who do not belong to the mainstream Buddhist religion have been seen as a major threat to the power and control of the Chinese government. This government has been known for its intolerance of any form of local nationalism especially when the group concerned seems to possess a very strong identity. This is the reason why the government engaged in a cultural crackdown during the nineteen sixties. At that time in history, it took the cultural objects of the Uyghur/ the Muslims of Xinjiang by first burning their religious books, destroying mosques as well as clamping down a series of garbs and cuisines. This marked some of the earlier tensions between the government and the latter group.
In the next decade, the government eased up on some of their policies against Muslims and this resulted in greater freedom hence opposition from the latter group. This opposition eventually caused the government to tighten its grip again in the nineteen nineties characterised by the Muslim crackdown of 1996. (Amnesty International, 2006).
Despite all the violence witnessed in Xinjiang, the government has still brought about a lot of development in this region over the past few decades. This is because it realised that complaints against its administration were largely centred on social-economic disparities. Consequently, the government felt that if it could reduce poverty levels in this province, then there would be less unrest there. In fact, statistics indicate that the region has witnessed dramatic changes in its economy. In a white paper released during the year 2009, the government asserted that the economy of the Uyghur people has been growing by eight point three percent annually over the past four decades. Besides that, the disposable income of the inhabitants has also grown by twenty-eight times from 1978 since it currently stands at about eleven thousand found hundred Yuan. This is also in line with some of the huge investments that have been made within this region. The paper shows that the government had dedicated about 386.23 billion Yuan to this province as of 2008. This report also asserts that the extent of religious freedom has increased in Xinjiang owing to the number of mosques that have been built recently and the number of Muslim clergy in the region. (Wen, 2009).
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The latter findings may hold some water because to some extent Muslims in Xinjiang are living a better life than they did in the past. Besides that, government policies on Islam have also appeared to be collaborative as it has asserted that the minorities all have a right to practice their religion and their way of life. (Government of China, 2005)While these policy statements may appear very liberal, it has been argued that the implementation of these policies has not been forthcoming. Instead, the Uyghur people have been subjected to a high-handed approach by their rulers. Crackdowns on militants from Xingjian province have been common especially after the nine eleven attacks when it was deemed okay by the international community to eliminate terrorism.
Some human rights groups and supporters of Muslims in Xinjiang province claim that the government is utilising the excuse of terrorism or Islamic militancy as an excuse to exert control upon this autonomous region. In the process of doing this, they are violating the rights of this ethnic minority group. On other hand, others have asserted that if the government is not serious about curbing militancy in the province, then this could give way to hard-core terrorism and penetration by radical groups such as Al Qaeda. In the end, this may lead to political stability in the country and even in the entire region as well. (Richards, 2009).
The government’s two-thronged approach to the ‘threat’ of the Uyghurs is through the economy as stated earlier and also through force. In 2001 it dispersed fifty thousand troops into the province to parade their ammunition to the country as a display of its commitment to fighting terrorism. Many government spokespersons have asserted that there is a link between separatism and religion hence the need to watch out for a region such as Xinjiang province.
Despite the latter justifications, one cannot ignore the fact that there have been gross violations of the rights of Muslims in this province hence indicating that there are no substantial justifications for such actions. For instance, the government has tried altering the demographic traits of this region in a series of ways. For example, as of 1949, statistics indicated that the ethnic majority i.e. the Han only inhabited six percent of the Xinjiang province. However, statistics released in 2002 indicate that their number has risen to approximately forty percent of the population in that region. What this implies is that there must be an external force that is causing such a substantial change in the region. Reports assert that the government has been deliberately assisting members of this majority ethnic community to find jobs in that region. (Morton, 2008) (LA times) This level of unfairness is further heightened when members of the Muslim community are required to engage in labour provision without necessarily being paid for their efforts. For example, the government established a system known as hashar where the Uyghur are supposed to send members of their families to go and engage in public service with very little pay. Clearly, the government is demonstrating double standards when it comes to dealing with this issue. (Human rights watch, 2009).
Besides this, life for the average Muslim in this province is relatively difficult as an expression of their religious beliefs tends to be suppressed. This is often seen in some of the unwritten rules prevailing in this region. For example, a series of mosques have been replaced by other types of buildings. Besides this, confiscation of a number of religious objects has also been done. Expression of the Muslim faith in public is frowned upon and could sometimes lead to the arrest of the concerned parties. There are fines for letting children engage in religious activities or for refusing to remove religious attire when asked to do so by law enforcement authorities. In fact, there are no other regions in the country that have such laws thus leading to the assertion that there is a lot of injustice there. (Uygur, 2009).
The government has also been unduly harsh upon Muslims of Xinjiang in what can be called an iron fist approach to the administration of this region. For instance, in the year 1997, inhabitants of Xingjian engaged in a peaceful demonstration as seen by the fact that they had no ammunition. The Chinese army shot and killed ten people, injured one hundred and ninety-eight protestors, and arrested five hundred of them. It was clear that such actions were brutal in nature and that they signified social injustice. When asked to respond to such assertions, the Government claimed that their security forces were only ensuring stability and unity in the country. (Rashdan, 2009).
This high-handed approach is definitely the wrong way to go for the government because by repressing the Muslims of Xinjiang, then they could merely be fuelling an uprising. Instead, a more transparent approach is necessary because, at the end of the day, Muslims in this province belong to an autonomous region with the freedom of religion, local rules of law as well as a government elected by the people. Such high-handedness has no place in the twenty-first century and governments must respect the needs and rights of their people.
The Chinese government fears that Muslims in Xinjiang will be susceptible to terrorism and that they could cause disunity in the country. On the other hand, the Uyghur have still been victims of unequal distribution of resources and low development. They have also been prevented from practising their religion and culture with frequent arrests and confiscation of their products. This has prevented them from reaching their full potential. In order to restore peace in this region, the government ought to respect the Muslims of Xingjian’s autonomy. Also, it should grant them equal economic and social opportunities.
Broomhall, M. (2007). Islam in China. New York: Routledge.
Davis, E. (2008). Uyghur Muslim separatism in Xinjiang. Asia Centre for Security studies.
Wen, P. (2009). China publishes white paper on Xinjiang. China Daily.
Morton, T. (2008). Labour agencies in Xinjiang. The LA times, 22.
Richards, M. (2009). Uyghurs fight for fair economic conditions. Christian Science Monitor, 3.
Government of China (2005). Implementation measures of the law on the protection of minors. XUAR report, 14
Amnesty International (2006). Uyghur ethnic identity under threat in China. Amnesty International report; P3467
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Human rights watch (2009). Life expectancy of Uyghur lower than Chinese settlers. Web.
Uygur.org (2009). Fighting religious identity. Web.
Rashdan, A. (2009). Xinjiang Muslims struggle for freedom. Web.