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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 6    Issue 6   16-31 August 2011

Professor A. R. Momin

Fresh Violence in Xinjiang

On 18 July, 2011, the China’s autonomous province of Xinjiang was once again rocked by turbulence and violence. While staging a protest against the Chinese authorities, a group of Uighur Muslims attacked a police station in Hotan and took some policemen hostages. The police opened fire on the protesters, which killed nearly 30 Uighurs. One police officer and two of the hostages were also killed during the violence. On 30 July violence broke out in Kashghar. There were two explosions and a hijacked car was driven into pedestrians on a crowded street in a predominantly Han Chinese area, which killed six people and injured 30. On 31 July a restaurant in Kashghar was set on fire and the owner and a waiter were killed. On 13 August China sent an elite military commando unit to Kashghar and Hotan to carry out an “antiterrorist mission.”

The Chinese authorities blamed the violence on Uighur separatism and on the group’s linkage to al-Qaeda, which is unfounded. The hallmarks of al-Qaeda operations, such as suicide bombings and attacks on civilian targets, are absent in the unrest in the region. The Uighurs, on the other hand, have been nursing a number of grievances. After the July 2009 Urumqi riots that left 200 people dead, many Uighur young men have been detained without trial. There has been uninterrupted, large-scale migration of mainly Han Chinese from the east into Xinjiang. The Uighurs complain that their jobs are being taken over by the Han, that in many cases their farmlands have been confiscated in the name of development, that they face discrimination in respect of jobs, and that young Uighur women have been prevented from wearing headscarves.

Xinjiang, an autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China, which was known as Chinese Turkestan in earlier times, has abundant oil and natural gas resources. It is home to a number of ethnic groups, including Uighurs, who constitute the largest group, Han, Kazakh, Hui, Kirghiz, Uzbek, Tatar and Mongol. The majority of these people follow Islam. During the past several decades China has carried out a policy of brutal repression and persecution of Uighur Muslims, as a result of which thousands of them have fled the country and taken refuge in Central Asia as well as in the US and Europe. The Uighurs, unlike the Hui Muslims, have scrupulously safeguarded their religious and ethnic identity. Most Uighur women cover their heads and alcohol is rarely served in Uighur-owned restaurants. There has been an evident revival and resurgence of Islamic identity among the Uighurs in recent years.

In the 1990s, when the Soviet Union was breaking up and its Central Asian republics were declaring independence, China feared that Xinjiang, which shares borders with Central Asia and had a Muslim majority, might secede from China. In order to forestall this possibility, the Chinese authorities embarked on a calculated policy of migration of Han Chinese into Xinjiang. As a result of the planned migration of Han Chinese to Xinjiang, the proportion of Uighurs in the region’s population has shrunk from 75 per cent in 1949 to 45 per cent today. The Han Chinese now form the majority (more than 70 per cent) of Urumqi’s population of 2.3 million.

Mr Wang Lequan, the Communist Party secretary and absolute power in Xinjiang for the past 15 years, introduced modernization in the region. He opened the region’s oil and gas fields to drilling, laid pipelines east to the Chinese heartland and west to Kazakhstan. Lured by rising employment opportunities, Han Chinese workers flocked to Xinjiang. During the 1990s, about 2 million Han migrated to the region. Xinjiang has undoubtedly developed, but large numbers of people, especially Uighurs, are still living in poverty. Ilham Tohti, an Uighur economics professor at the Central Nationalities University in Beijing, points out that 1.2 million workers migrated to Xinjiang from other parts of the country in 2008. “This indicates that there are abundant opportunities in Xinjiang, but why are these opportunities not for Uighurs,” he asks. Tohti emphasizes that unemployment remains the single biggest problem among Uighurs. Unemployment among Uighurs, according to him, is one of the highest in the world.

Mr Wang Lequan also carried out a policy of de-ethnicization of Uighur Muslims. He substituted Mandarin for Uighur in primary schools, saying that minority languages were “out of step with the 21st century,” and banned or restricted Islamic symbols and practices (including the Islamic veil, beards and praying and fasting while on the job) among government workers.

China has been accused by two US-based human rights organizations, Human Rights Watch and Human Rights in China, of conducting a “crushing campaign of religious repression against Muslim Uighurs”. This campaign is ostensibly carried out in the name of anti-separatism and counter-terrorism. The repressive measures of the government range from surveillance of imams and forced closure of mosques to the detention of thousands of people and executions. The curriculum of Islamic educational institutions is required to be approved by the authorities. Imams have to attend political education camps. Religious literature has to be screened and approved by the authorities before circulation. In the wake of 9/11, thousands of Uighur men were imprisoned on trumped-up charges of terrorism and religious extremism. East Turkestan Islamic Movement, the main religious and cultural organization of Uighurs in Xinjiang, has been declared a terrorist group by both China and the US. There have been frequent protests and demonstrations by Uighur Muslims against the repressive and discriminatory policies pursued by the Chinese authorities. According to Amnesty International, some 3,000 Uighurs have been arrested and 22 executed since the mid-1990s.

The Old City of Kashgar represents the best-preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in central Asia. There are about 40 mosques in the city where worshippers gather for the daily prayers following the muezzin’s call. Hundreds of artisans carry on with their traditional crafts using centuries-old methods and techniques. Hawkers sell their wares, including fresh-baked bread, dried toads and prayer caps, on the streets.

Kashgar’s centuries-old landscape and architecture are set to disappear in a few years. Chinese authorities fear that an earthquake could strike the city anytime, resulting in the destruction of old, fragile buildings and killing thousands of people. The authorities have decided to raze the city before the next calamity strikes. Large parts of the city wall, a 25-foot-thick earthen berm nearly 35 feet high, have already been torn down. Nine hundred families have been moved from the old city. Over the next few years, nearly 85 per cent of the city will be demolished and many of its 13,000 families, mostly Uighur Muslims, will be shifted to other locations.

The old city, according to the reconstruction plan, will be replaced by a new one, consisting of midrise, quake-proof apartments and plazas. The authorities take care to emphasise that the traditional architecture of the old city will be replicated in the new plan. There are misgivings and resentment about the reconstruction project among the city’s 200,000 residents and environmentalists. “From a cultural and historical perspective, this plan of theirs is stupid. From the perspective of the locals, it is cruel,” says Wu Lili, the managing director of the Beijing Cultural Protection Centre, a nongovernmental group devoted to the preservation of historical buildings and heritage sites. There is a widespread apprehension that the reconstruction project is aimed at undermining Uighur culture itself.

Move to Ban Face Veil in Italy

The issue of the Islamic veil, especially the face-covering burqa or niqab, has become extremely contentious and controversial across large parts of Europe. France’s president Nicolas Sarkozy created a huge controversy by stating in his first state of the nation address on January 22, 2009 that Islamic veils were a sign of women’s subservience and debasement and therefore not welcome on French soil. A cross-party commission of French MPs appointed by Sarkozy to consider a ban on face-covering veils recommended a ban on face-covering veils or burqas in schools, hospitals, post offices and other state-owned premises and while using public services. On September 14, 2010, the French Senate unanimously passed a bill banning the face-covering veil or niqab in public places. France is the first European country to pass such a law. The bill sets a fine of 150 euros for women who would violate the ban, and a fine of 30,000 euros and a year in prison for husbands or other relatives who are convicted of forcing the veil on a woman.

On April 30, 2010, 136 of Belgium’s 138 lower house legislators voted to ban the burqa in the country. According to the law, which came into force on 22 July, 2011, offenders face a fine of 137.5 euros and up to seven days in jail. Nearly four months after its general elections held in June 2010, the Netherlands is set to have a new coalition government, formed by the liberal VVD party and the Christian Democracts (CDA). But the minority government will have to rely on the parliamentary support of the far-right, anti-immigration Freedom Party, led by Geert Wilders, known for his fiery anti-Islamic rhetoric. Bowing to the pressures of the Freedom Party, the minority government agreed on 30 September, 2010 to ban the wearing of the face-covering niqab across the country. In Spain, nine cities in Catalonia, including Barcelona, have banned the burqa. Switzerland and Austria are considering outlawing face-covering veils. In the Canadian province of Quebec, the government has proposed a law aimed at banning face-covering veils in all public institutions. According to a survey carried out by the Washington-based Pew Research Centre’s Global Attitudes Project, a clear majority of Germans, French, Spanish and British support a ban on the burqa and the niqab. Most Americans, on the other hand, disapprove the ban.

A parliamentary committee in Italy passed a bill aimed at banning women from face-covering veils in public on August 1, 2011. The bill, which is backed by the Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition, will go to a parliamentary vote after the summer recess. If passed, those who defy the ban would have to pay a fine of 150-300 euros and to render some kind of community service. Those forcing someone to wear the face-covering veil would have to face a penalty of 30,000 euros and up to 12 months in jail.

It is interesting to note that only a tiny minority of Muslim women in European countries wear the full-face veil or niqab. In France, for example, the number of women who wear the face-covering veil does not exceed 2,000. Nearly one-quarter of them are French women who have converted to Islam. The full-face burqa is a rare feature on the streets and boulevards of the country. In Belgium, where the population of Muslims is estimated to be around 8, 50,000, only a few dozen women wear the niqab.

The ban on face-covering veils has not gone unchallenged. On March 7, 2010, Thomsas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, said that banning the burqa and the niqab would be “an ill-advised invasion of individual privacy”. He added that the prohibition of the burqa would not liberate oppressed women but might instead lead to their further alienation. He also said that a ban might also breach the European Convention on Human Rights. On June 24, 2010 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which advises the council on issues of human rights, passed a resolution urging European Union member states not to issue a ban on burqas and to focus instead on protecting women’s “free choice to wear religious or special clothing”. The Parliamentary Assembly emphasised the priority of “working towards ensuring freedom of thought, conscience and religion while combating religious intolerance and discrimination”. Amnesty International has strongly criticised the ban, saying it is violative of international law, human rights conventions and rights of freedom of expression and religion guaranteed by the constitutions of European countries. The Conseil d’Etat, France’s highest administrative court, has questioned the legal basis for the ban. The ban could be challenged before the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights. Catholic churches in France and Belgium have also criticised the ban. The ban is likely to further stigmatise and alienate Muslim minorities and add to their isolation from mainstream society.

Two Muslim women in France defied the ban on face-covering veils and held a protest against the law in Meaux, east of Paris on May 5, 2011. One of them was banned from entering the courthouse because she was wearing the veil and refused to remove it when a police officer asked her to do so. They were charged to pay a fine of €150. They have filed a petition against the law in a local court, which will give its judgement on September 22. In Belgium, two Muslim women have challenged the law on the ban on wearing the face-covering veil on grounds of discrimination. “We consider the law a disproportionate intrusion into fundamental rights such as the freedom of religion and expression,” Ines Wouters, the lawyer representing the two women, told the media. She has taken the case to Belgium’s constitutional court for the suspension of the law.

Rising Suicides among Turkish-German Women

About 20% of people in Germany have an immigrant background. These people are faced with a number of problems, including a high unemployment rate, ghettoization, discrimination on religious and racial grounds and alienation. Unemployment among people of immigrant background is twice as high as in the ethnic German population.

A recent report suggests that the number of attempted suicides is five times higher among Turkish-German women than in the ethnic German population. And they are twice as likely to succeed. Attempted suicides are particularly higher among women between 18 and 35 years of age. Most of them hang themselves, while the others jump from tall buildings or take an overdose of sleeping or anti-depressant pills.

The reasons for this disturbing trend are multiple and complex, including forced marriages, the culture of honour killing prevalent among Turkish people, threats from the family, cultural and generational conflicts, unemployment, problems relating to adaptation and depression.

Meryam Schouler-Ocak, a physician at the psychiatric clinic of Berlin’s highly respected Charite Hospital, has taken up a project on the issue, supported by the Ministry of Education and Research, and started a poster campaign aimed at dissuading young people from resorting to such desperate acts. Huge posters have been displayed in subway stations and on billboards, with a hotline telephone number and a message “End your silence, not your life!”, written in both German and Turkish languages.

A Positive Picture of American Muslims

A Gallup poll, conducted by Abu Dhabi Gallup Centre based in the United Arab Emirates and released on August 2, 2011, revealed that the vast majority of Muslims in the US say they are loyal to the country and optimistic about the future, even though they say that they often experience discrimination on grounds of religion. The poll revealed that nine out of ten American Muslims said they had no sympathies with al-Qaeda. Significantly, a majority of people from other religious communities shared the perception that Muslims in the US did not sympathize with the terrorist organization.

The results of the poll, which included interviews with 2,482 people, 475 of whom were Muslims, are in contrast with the perception about Muslims prevalent in American society. The negative perception of Muslims in the country has been reinforced by the rhetoric of the war against terror and the role of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has placed Muslims in the US in the focus of intense scrutiny in counter-terrorism investigations. The poll showed that American Muslims were highly critical of the US foreign policy and thought that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a mistake.

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