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Surrealism Abounds in China’s Uyghur Crackdown

Mounting Islamophobia in the West has emboldened Beijing’s repression of Uyghur human rights.
Two ethnic Uyghur women pass Chinese paramilitary policemen.

Two ethnic Uyghur women pass Chinese paramilitary policemen.

China’s crackdown on its ethnic Uyghurs has targeted the predominantly Muslim minority’s beards, headscarfs, and even kebabs; now Chinese officials are banning some Uyghur baby names.

That Beijing often aims to repress these symbols of Uyghur culture and faith has been interpreted as invasive, surreal, and draconian by members of the international press and rights groups alike. And it’s getting worse, analysts say, because rising Islamophobic policy in the West has only emboldened Beijing’s repression of Uyghur civil liberties.

Authorities in Xinjiang, the far-Western Chinese region abutting Central Asia from which the Uyghurs originate, have banned 29 Muslim and culturally Uyghur names, the media reported last month. Much of the reporting incorrectlycharacterized the bans as focusing on Muslim names, but several secular Uyghur-language names were also included in a measure called “Naming Rules for Ethnic Minorities,” according to Henryk Szadziewski, senior researcher at the Washington, D.C., advocacy group Uyghur Human Rights Project.

“Those with banned names would not be able to register for a hukou [Editor’s Note: Hukou refers to China’s household registration system that determines where Chinese nationals — including Uyghurs — are allowed to live, work, and attend school], nor send their children to school, or be permitted to use the health-care system. Imams, who are traditionally present at naming ceremonies, have been ordered to obey the new name blacklist,” Szadziewski says.

Individual regions of Xinjiang have banned Uyghur names in the past. But this latest measure, much broader in scope, is part of a new regulation imposed last month called the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Regulation on De-extremification, explains Peter Irwin, project manager with the World Uyghur Congress, a group that aims to represent the interest of Uyghurs internationally. Irwin points out article 9(8) of the regulation, which prohibits “spreading religious fanaticism through irregular beards or name selection.”

“Although we are not surprised by the news, it does show clearly how far the Chinese government continues to push in terms of suppressing Uyghur identity through cultural and religious expression,” Irwin says.

China’s measure has certainly piqued the interest of America’s far-right. Last week, Breitbart published an article entitled “China Bans Dozens of Islamic Names in Muslim Xinjiang: ‘Jihad,’ ‘Saddam,’ ‘Muhammad.’” (Despite what the Breitbart headline claims, Xinjiang is, as a part of the People’s Republic of China, not Muslim, insofar as China is a constitutionally secular country.) Among the banned names are not just “Jihad” and “Saddam,” but also those that aren’t typically used to fuel fears—names, for example, like Aisha, a female name simply meaning “life” in Arabic and also Turkic languages like Uyghur.

The prohibition on names is one of a series of measures seemingly unconcerned with maintaining Chinese constitutional protections against discriminatory policy.-

Chinese officials’ attempts to undermine Ramadan fasting—teachers have reported being instructed to make sure that their students ate and drank state-sponsored snacks during the holy month of Ramadan, when practicing Muslims fast—is widely documented, as are measures forbidding youth from entering mosques. “The policies target the young because the Chinese manufacture of Uyghur identity will appear more natural to them as they grow up,” Szadziewski says.

WUC’s Irwin explains that regulations are often applied disproportionately among different age groups. “There has been a different approach to the Uyghur population depending on the age group,” he says. “For example, those under the age of 18 are not able to go to the mosque or practice religion full stop. On the other side of the age spectrum, older Uyghur men wearing long beards have often been ignored by authorities there.”

In September of 2013, prominent Uyghur rights advocate Ilham Tohti — who is now serving a controversial life sentence in prison on charges of inciting separatism— told Al Jazeera that local Chinese authorities had placed a Chinese flag at the head of a mosque, meaning thatpraying Muslims were essentially forced to bow before the state.

In April of 2014, Chinese state media reported that, in one area of Xinjiang, rewards were being offered to civilians who informed the authorities of neighbors maintaining beards — well-maintained facial hair is recommended but not required by Islam. Reports also arose of men with beards and women wearing hijab — the traditional headscarf worn by some Muslim women — being barred from public venues like libraries and parks.

Also in April of 2014, amid a heightened number of reports of extrajudicial killings of Uyghurs suspected of terrorism, Chinese state media announced a crackdown on barbecues in Beijing, where many Uyghur migrant laborers eke out a living selling kebabs on the streets of Beijing. Analysts said the measure amounted to a thinly veiled bid to rid the nation’s capital of Uyghurs.

And there’s not much hope that Washington or the West more broadly has the moral standing to take Beijing to task on these issues, especially now. In an environment in the West where candidates for high office have expressed hostility toward Muslims, there has been less Western opposition to discriminatory — and often surreal — Chinese policy toward Uyghurs.

“The atmosphere across North America, Australia, and Europe is becoming more hostile toward Muslims, and China’s draconian measures fit in with this scaling back of rights,” Szadziewski says. “There was a time when there was pushback against China’s repression of Muslims in the West; however, we are seeing less and less of this.”

Although Islamophobia in the West has not exactly reflected its iterations in the East, Irwin says, Beijing has often aimed to capitalize on a post-9/11 backlash against international Muslims to legitimize its treatment of Uyghurs.

“China has been clever in framing stability problems in the region in terms of a terrorist threat to gain tacit support from the West,” he says. “Those who know very little of the situation there have accepted this framing with no critical eye, unfortunately.”