With mosques in the region being periodically demolished and fasting mostly banned, minorities in East Turkistan are bearing the brunt of institutionalised xenophobia.
While millions around the world go about fasting as they usually do every year, around 10 million Uighurs and other Muslim groups in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which is also known as East Turkistan, are facing a brutal crackdown that is making fasting almost impossible.
China has been long criticised for its crackdown on the Turkic Muslims, who make up almost half of the population of East Turkistan, but its aggressive policies have intensified in recent years and cultural, religious and economic discrimination has become widespread in the area.
When you’re banned from (not) eating
The observance of Ramadan has reportedly been banned this year in East Turkistan, as was the case in previous years.
The 2015 ban included civil servants, students and teachers.
The Chinese ambassador to Pakistan alleged that Muslims were free to fast in East Turkistan when Ramadan commenced this year, but later confirmed via Twitter that the ban was still, in fact, in place.
“The restrictions (only apply to) Communist party members, who are atheist, government officials and students (in compulsory education),” he wrote. Needless to say, his tweet was condemned by activists and journalists.
“Thank you to the Chinese embassy in Islamabad for stating directly that this large swathe of the Muslim population in Xinjiang, including those undergoing ‘compulsory education’ and ‘hard learning’, is not permitted to fast during Ramadan,” tweeted Megha Rajagopalan, a journalist.
Uighurs say the ban is more widespread than officials claim, with some saying they have been asked to keep an eye out for anyone fasting or face collective punishment, according to World Uighur Congress spokesperson, Dilxat Raxid.
Raxid also says Uighurs, as well as local and pro-Beijing officials, are closely monitored and pressured into pledging full loyalty to the Communist party.
When you can’t show any sign of being Muslim
In China, the ruling communist party considers religious displays a sign of “extremism”, even when practiced in the private sphere.
That not only includes obvious practices, such as growing a beard, wearing a headcover or praying, but also extends to things people may not do out of religious conviction, such as abstaining from eating during Ramadan or refraining from drinking alcohol.
In Ramadan, all Uighur students are monitored by the school management and asked to prove that they’re not fasting. If they dare to fast, they are sent to detention centres that Chinese officials call “re-education camps” for “assimilation”, or “hard learning”.
In fact, an estimated 1 million to 2 million Muslims, mainly Uighurs, are being held in mass concentration camps in China today.
Almost every Uighur family will have at least one of its members taken into the camps at one point. Former detainees have described being tortured and forced into falsely confessing that they are extremists.
While China brands the camps “vocational centres'' in which Muslims are “taught” a profession, reports say detainees live in crowded cells and are subjected to a daily regimen of party indoctrination, which led to some suicides. Former detainees also say they were forced to eat port and drink alcohol.
Watched and violated at every turn
What Chinese officials call a “health check” is actually one of the strongest tools of surveillance. All Muslims in East Turkistan are asked to provide blood samples and biometric data, including DNA, fingerprints, voice recordings and face scans.
It is very common for Uighurs to be taken into the detention camps after these health checks.
The surveillance also extends to relatives, activists say. Rushan Abbas, a human rights activist for the Uighurs, told NPR that her sister and aunt disappeared the same day in which she spoke about conditions at the camps at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC last year. She says they were likely sent to the camps.
Uighurs are requested to relinquish their smartphones at checkpoints around the East Turkistan region and many have been arrested for supposedly committing offences on their phones.
More mosques being razed by the day
New research suggests that China has systematically destroyed Islamic sites in the region between 2016 and 2018.
The reports, published on www.bellingcat.com and The Guardian, reported that 31 mosques and two major shrines were either completely or partially destroyed after activists brought the destruction to their attention.
The Imam Asim shrine, one of the largest in the region, for instance, has only its tomb left. It is impossible for journalists or researchers to conduct a full-scale investigation within the country, but researchers and activists believe that the number of bulldozed religious sites could be thousands more than recorded.
While mosques are rapidly being destroyed in the region, many Muslims say they fear going to the ones that are left for fear of persecution.