China launches ill-advised crackdown on Ramadan

Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting and prayer, is just beginning. But for many Muslims in the Chinese Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, it may not even start.

During Ramadan, pious Muslims are expected to fast from dawn until dusk. However, according to Agence France-Presse, numerous official Web sites in Xinjiang are posting notices that are discouraging Muslims from fasting during Ramadan. The statements appear to indicate that government officials, teachers and children are all being restricted from the traditional Islamic practice.

One local Web site features Uighur Muslims in traditional dress eating a large meal, for example. "Although the meal coincided with the Muslim festival of Ramadan, the cadres who took part expressed a positive attitude and will lead the non-fasting," the accompanying article reads, according to AFP's translation.


An image from the Web site of the state office which manages the Tarim River basin which shows Uighur Muslims eating during Ramadan.

China is officially an atheist country, and many religious or spiritual groups face some sort of persecution, whether it is the Christian "house churches," where worshiping is prohibited, or the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which is banned outright.

Islam, and in particular the Uighur Muslims, represent a special problem, however. For years, members of the Uighur minority, ethnically Turkic and distinct from China's dominant Han ethnic group, have complained of repression. Over the past few years, terrorist attacks apparently perpetrated by ethnic Uighur extremists have become more frequent and often gruesomely spectacular. In May, for example, attackers killed at least 31 people in a bomb attack in the market area of Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital city. Even Beijing, far from the western areas where Uighurs mostly live, isn't safe: In October of last year, three men said to be Uighurs drove a car through the crowds at Tiananmen Square, killing five people including those in the car.

Ramadan is one of the most important periods on the Muslim calender, and there have been reports that the Xinjiang government has placed restrictions on Ramadan for the past few years, though officials usually deny these accusations. In 2012, Hou Hanmin, a spokeswoman for the Xinjiang government, told the state newspaper Global Times that "authorities do encourage residents to eat properly for study and work purposes, but do not force people to eat during Ramadan."

That may be true, but the practice is still problematic. Discouraging fasting may seem like relatively minor repression, but it's just one thing on a long list of cultural slights: razing the historic Old Town of Kashgar or downgrading the status of the Uighur language, for example. And that's ignoring the heavy police response to protests and militancy --  Human Rights Watch is just one group that has drawn attention to mass arrests and disappearances of Uighur people.

As my colleague Ishaan Tharoor pointed out recently, China's terrorism problem seems to be getting worse, and two of the biggest reasons are the repression and marginalization of the Uighur people. It seems unlikely that clamping down on Ramadan -- again -- will make that any better.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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