Sunday, January 25, 2015

China’s Ban On Islamic Veils Sends Uighurs Westward To Pray

Veils Banned
A veiled Muslim Uyghur woman walks passed a statue of Mao Zedong in Kashgar, Xinjiang Province, China. Last month the Urumqi legislature banned the wearing of veils in public areas. Photographer: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

The Imam at one of Almaty’s biggest mosques gets busy around Ramadan when his Uighur “brothers and sisters” from China flock to the Kazakh city to pray, finding it increasingly difficult to practice Islam at home.
As the western Chinese region of Xinjiang grapples with ethnic tensions between Uighurs and Han Chinese, and President Xi Jinping vows to crush separatist activity, more Uighurs are finding a warmer reception about 235 miles (380 kilometers) away. In some parts of Xinjiang, Uighurs risk fines or detention for wearing veils or growing beards and some are warned against observing Ramadan -- Islam’s holiest month.
“Uighur Muslims want their religion and want to practice their religion freely,” Imam Knanat Ali said outside the blue-domed Prophet Muhammad Mosque in the industrial north of Almaty. “In China this is strictly controlled, so we see many Uighurs come here during Ramadan to pray, to fast, to learn more knowledge about Islam,” said Ali, who has presided over the mosque for three years.
The flow of worshippers to Kazakhstan, which has the biggest Uighur population outside Xinjiang, persists even as China is boosting ties with its neighbor, a gateway to the west in Xi’s plan to rebuild the ancient Silk Road route. China has displaced Russia as Kazakhstan’s biggest trading partner -- the two-way relationship accounts for around 70 percent of China’s trade with central Asia, and China is the biggest foreign investor in the country’s oil and gas sector.
China’s crackdown on violence in Xinjiang, which authorities have linked to Islamic extremism and terrorism, is driving Uighurs to come across the long, shared border with Kazakhstan. Uighurs have “quite a balanced position” with other ethnic groups in Kazakhstan, said Konstantin Syroezhkin, chief research fellow of the state-sponsored Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies.

‘Fully Assimilated’

“They’re not restricted here,” Syroezhkin said. “There are around 260,000 Uighurs living in the country and they’re fully assimilated in the Kazakh society. Kazakhstan doesn’t support a policy of ethnic separatism.”
Many Uighurs have family in Xinjiang, the Imam said. There are around 10 million Uighurs in China’s western province, according to the Xinjiang Statistics Bureau. About 1.5 percent of Kazakhstan’s population are Uighurs, a Turkic language-speaking group, and many live in the Almaty area, says London-based Minority Rights Group International.
“We Uighurs are brothers and sisters; we care a lot about what’s happening in Xinjiang,” Ali said. “The Uighur rebellion” in Xinjiang has sprouted because “the Chinese government punishes them for their religion.”

Han Chinese

Uighur communities in Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan, live in compact, closely-knit neighborhoods where they have their own cafes, restaurants and mosques. That kinship prompted hundreds to rally in Almaty after riots in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi in July 2009. The most violent clashes between Uighurs and Han Chinese in decades left nearly 200 dead, most of them Chinese.
Even though about 92 percent of China’s 1.3 billion population is Han, more than 45 percent of Xinjiang’s 22 million people are Uighurs.
Violence picked up in Xinjiang in 2014 and spilled to other Chinese cities such as Kunming and Guangzhou. In November, 15 people, including 11 assailants, were killed after a group hurled explosives at a food court in Kashgar in south Xinjiang. In September, 50 people, including 40 that police identified as rioters, were killed in what authorities called a terrorist attack in Luntai county, while in July, 96 people died in an assault on government offices in Shache county.

‘All Uighurs’

“During the 2009 riots, Uighur prayers here were crying because we all had relatives in Xinjiang,” said a 65-year-old mosque worker known as “Auntie Sonya” who moved to Almaty from Xinjiang in the late 1960s. “We didn’t know who was responsible for this conflict and who was guilty, but we felt for them because all Uighurs are family.”
Last month the Urumqi legislature banned the wearing of veils in public areas. Communist Party members, civil servants, teachers and students are “encouraged” to eat during the day over Ramadan “for the sake of their health, work and study,” state media reports say. Some officials must sign a document pledging not to observe Ramadan, according to the website Uighur Online, whose founder Ilham Tohti is serving life in jail for promoting separatism.
Source: Business Week

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