Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Edge of an Empire: Officially, China Gets on Well with Its Muslims. Alice Albinia Uncovers an Altogether Different Story

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Edge of an Empire: Officially, China Gets on Well with Its Muslims. Alice Albinia Uncovers an Altogether Different Story

Article excerpt

The Id Kah Mosque in the city of Kashgar, in farwestern China, is a peaceful and homely place, constructed from wood and with its prayer hall supported by tree--trunk pillars. Poplars dapple the courtyard with shadow; rose bushes line the pathways. It was built in 1442, and for the past five and a half centuries Muslims have been coming here to pray.


In 1949, China annexed Xinjiang, of which Kashgar is the cultural and religious capital, preempting a push for independence by the Uighurs, the region's Turkic-speaking Sunni Muslim majority. Like neighbouring Tibet, Xinjiang was ruled by China at various points in its history. For Beijing, there was imperial and defensive logic in owning this vast tract of land where mountains alternate with desert. It acted as a buffer between China and the west, and it had oil. And the sparsely populated deserts would later prove useful for conducting nuclear tests.

During the Cultural Revolution, China cracked down on Islam in Xinjiang, just as it had clamped down harshly on Buddhism in Tibet. By the late 1970s, however, this policy was deemed a failure and the emphasis shifted to merging China's various religions and cultures in one large melting pot. Today, if you visit the Id Kah, you will find state policy displayed in broken English on a signboard: "All ethnic groups live friendly together here. They co-operate to build a beautiful homeland ... and oppose ethnic separation and illegal religious activities."

Unsurprisingly, given the level of interference by the state, many Uighurs see the Chinese as invaders who threaten their culture and religion. While Beijing remains intent on importing Han people and commerce to Xinjiang, in the streets north of the mosque there is still quiet resistance. Here, where old men play chess in ornately painted teahouses and stallholders sell a teeth-cracking sweet made from crushed walnuts, it is common to meet old women who speak no Mandarin, artisans who consider China a foreign land, and traders who refuse to follow Beijing time (enforced throughout China, so that offices open at 9am, which is 7am to local people).

But Kashgar is in quiet turmoil over Beijing's attempts to change it. In 2003, the crowded bazaar south of the mosque was cleared, a huge open square was built, and a gigantic television screen was placed in the centre, blasting out soap operas and football matches to the Uighurs who come here for prayers.

"Even the tiles were changed to confuse us Muslims," a shopkeeper told me. (The old tiles pointed towards Mecca; the new ones are of an abstract, wavy design.) "The Han settlers should return to China," he said, and added in a brutal whisper: "We are being overtaken by money-grubbers with slitty eyes and yellow skin."

Later, in the privacy of his house, the shopkeeper was even more explicit. "Who are these so-called terrorists?" he said. "Isn't the battle in Chechnya a freedom fight? Isn't it so in Kashmir? In Kashgar?" He continued, wearily: "I fear for my children's future. What opportunities do they have? Very few Uighurs are given passports. We have no politicians in Beijing. The schools teach nothing of our local culture. Uighur children are ignorant about traditional music, desert animals, our historic writers. Religious education is entirely lacking."

In Xinjiang it is extraordinary to hear such views expressed, especially in public. Since 1949, according to Amnesty International, thousands of Uighurs seen to be sympathetic to the cause of independence have been arrested and jailed. With the Bush administration's war on terror and the security paranoia of the Beijing Olympics, repression has taken on an unusually international flavour: "separatists" are now called "terrorists", and links are drawn to al-Qaeda. …

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