China says its laws provide equal religious freedom for Uyghurs and the country’s other main Muslim group, the Hui, but Uyghurs face stricter controls on religious education and worship and how they dress because of Islam’s links to their political identity, analysts say.
Islam flourishes in China’s Ningxia and Gansu provinces, home to many of the country’s 10 million Hui Muslims, where mosque-based schools offer religious teachings to adults and children.
Hui Muslims in other parts of China as well are also allowed to run religious schools.
But in the Xinjiang region in China’s far west, where the mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uyghurs form an ethnic group 9 million strong, government policies bar women and anyone under age 18 from attending mosques.
Uyghur parents are forbidden to teach religion to their children at home, and private religious education is subject to harsh crackdowns.
Many Uyghurs believe China is practicing a double standard in its religious policy toward Uyghur and Hui Muslims.
Although the laws on the books were the same, in practice, policies vary for both groups, said Dru Gladney, an anthropologist at Pomona College in California.
“Chinese laws about religious freedom are very clear. But like any other good Chinese law, there is uneven enforcement,” he said.
“Xinjiang has strict religious freedom because the political situation of the region is much different than other regions.”
But officials maintain Uyghurs are not getting the short end of the stick.
The head of the government-sanctioned Islamic Association of Urumqi, in the Xinjiang capital, said this month that China allows equal religious freedom for Uyghurs and Hui Muslims.
“There is no difference in religious policy,” Keram told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
“Uyghurs enjoy the same religious freedoms as Hui Muslims do,” he said.
But he refused to comment on crackdowns on Uyghurs’ religious freedom, including harsh sentences for unauthorized Islamic study and police raids on illegal schools in the region.
Crackdowns and police raids
Six teenaged Uyghur boys who were arrested for studying the Quran on their own after school are now serving sentences of 8 to 14 years in jail, a Uyghur farmer in the area who wished to remain anonymous told RFA this month.
The boys, who were between the ages of 14 and 17 at the time, had been arrested in April 2010 in Hotan's Keriye county, and are now being held in jails in Aksu and Yarkand far from their hometowns, he said.
In May this year, an 11-year-old Uyghur boy died under suspicious circumstances in police custody after being detained when police raided his teacher’s home in Korla prefecture where he had been studying the Koran with two other boys when police took him away.
In a separate incident weeks later, a dozen children in Hotan prefecture suffered burns after police using teargas and stormed a religious school where some 50 children were studying under “illegal preachers.”
Aside from restrictions on Islamic education and worship, Uyghurs are also subject to restrictions on traditional Islamic dress.
Chinese officials have denied there were such restrictions, which in theory are prohibited by laws protecting religious freedom.
Earlier this month, a Uyghur member of the Xinjiang delegation to the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s 18th congress in Beijing, Kurex Kanjir, said there is “absolutely no ban” on Uyghurs wearing traditional Islamic dress, according to the Hong-Kong based South China Morning Post.
Hui Muslims, on the other hand, are much freer to practice Islam, although Hui Muslims in Ningxia suffered persecution during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Hui Muslims do not suffer the same level of repression as faced by Uyghurs because they have been much more assimilated into Chinese culture, says Uyghur writer Ghulam Osman.
“Hui Muslims are Chinese Muslims, but Uyghurs are not. Uyghurs are of a different race than the Chinese.”
“Hui Muslims have never been a nation-state; they always lived together with the Chinese, because they belong to the same ethnic group as the Chinese,” he said.
The Hui, whose forefathers hundreds of years ago were traders from Central Asia or other places who practiced Islam, live throughout China and, unlike the Uyghurs, many of them speak Chinese as their mother tongue.
The Hui are counted as one of China’s 55 distinct ethnic minorities, but are unique in that they are the only group to be defined solely on the basis of their religion, rather than language or genealogical differences. By definition, China’s Hui minority includes all historically Muslim communities in the country who are not members of other ethnic groups.
“Uyghurs are different; they had their own land and were invaded by China,” Ghulam Osman said, referring to Xinjiang’s past before it came under Chinese control following two short-lived East Turkestan Republics in the 1930s and 1940s.
China, fearing a separatist movement in Xinjiang, represses Uyghurs’ religious freedom because Islam is significant in the survival of their identity, he said.
But if China is worried about an independence movement blossoming among Uyghurs, such a movement would be more likely to be spurred in reaction to repressive religious policies than religion on its own, Gladney said.
“All the Uyghur movements against the Chinese government were caused by frustration that resulted from the heavy-handed repression of the Chinese government in the region, not by radical religious forces,” Gladney said.
But the political role of Islam in allowing Uyghurs to maintain an identity separate from the rest of China should not be underestimated, Ghulam Osman said.
“It is true that all political movements of Uyghurs are caused by the heavy handed policy of China and not by radical religious forces.”
“However, this does not mean religion does not play a significant role in Uyghur survival and Uyghur political movements,” he said.
“Islam and the Uyghur language are deeply embedded in Uyghur identity. They strengthen our racial and historical differences with Han Chinese.”
Reported by Rukiye Turdush for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.