Last week a joint report by the Guardian and Bellingcat revealed that since 2016 more than two dozen Islamic religious sites have been partially or totally demolished in Xinjiang, a western region in China whose largest ethnic group, the Uyghurs, are predominantly Muslim. Analysis of satellite imagery, corroborated by reports from local residents, shows that many mosques have had domes, minarets and gatehouses removed, while others have been razed completely. Several religious shrines, such as the one devoted to Imam Asim, which for centuries has attracted thousands of pilgrims, have also been demolished. It’s likely that many more religious sites have already met the same fate – this is a widespread state-directed campaign against any visible manifestation of Islamic belief in Xinjiang.
This isn’t the first time the Chinese Communist Party has targeted Islam. During the 80-year history of the People’s Republic of China the country’s Islamic heritage has repeatedly come under threat, most notably during the Cultural Revolution, when mosques were closed and often vandalised (some were used to house pigs). Yet there have also been periods, primarily in the 1980s, when the Chinese state promoted mosque construction and facilitated the spread of religious publications and Islamic cultural events. When I first visited Xinjiang in 2000, in some cities there seemed to be a mosque in every neighbourhood. Though there were many restrictions on religious practice, most Uyghurs were able to worship and observe religious festivals to some degree. The year I spent living in the region gave me an appreciation for the subtle yet profound presence of Islam in the daily lives of the Uyghurs I knew, even those who weren’t especially devout: diet, music, and literature, not to mention the Uyghur language itself, all manifest the central role that Islam (both Sunni and Shia) has played in the formation of Uyghur culture and identity.
But at a time when approximately one million Uyghurs are being held in concentration camps in Xinjiang, the destruction of religious sites can’t have surprised many. Over the last two years every aspect of Uyghur identity has come under attack by a state that has explicitly identified the language, culture and beliefs of Uyghurs as a ‘problem’ that needs to be solved. In the eyes of the state, Uyghurs are a ‘backward’ minority whose customs and beliefs make them vulnerable to ‘religious extremism’. Both in the camps and in their homes, Uyghurs are being forced to renounce their connection to their religion, heritage and culture. In addition to digital surveillance of people’s phones and computers for prohibited content, many mosques have been closed, while those that are open are subject to tight scrutiny and are mostly empty even on Fridays.
This level of religious persecution isn’t limited to Uyghurs in Xinjiang – Hui Muslims in Ningxia province have also begun to experience tighter controls, while Christians in other parts of China have also been subjected to measures like churches being closed or having their crosses removed. However the scope and intensity of the measures taken against Uyghurs in Xinjiang have been both broader and more determined. In addition to restrictions on prayer, religious instruction, and the wearing of veils, Uyghurs have been prevented from fasting during Ramadan or going on the hadj (for many a visit to shrines like that of Imam Asim was the closest equivalent). The arrests of hundreds of Uyghur musicians, poets and academics, such as the ethnographer Rahile Dawut, have signalled the state’s desire to eradicate far more than religion.
Given the Chinese state’s lack of respect for the traditions that mosques and shrines, many of which also have pre-Islamic origins, embody in Xinjiang, it’s unsurprising that it has now destroyed their present physical manifestations. It’s very hard, and possibly naïve, to find any grounds for optimism in the present situation in Xinjiang – official policy isn’t likely to change. Yet there are many historical precedents of authoritarian regimes seeking to eradicate the visible forms of religious or folk belief without any lasting success. The Islamic and pre-Islamic roots of Uyghur religious and cultural practices in present-day Xinjiang go far deeper than the foundations of the structures that have been destroyed. They may, perhaps, endure.
Nick Holdstock is the author of China’s Forgotten People: Xinjiang, Terror and the Chinese State (I.B. Tauris).