With feasts and patrols, China tries to keep Uyghurs from fasting

For years, Beijing has banned or restricted Ramadan in the name of fighting religious extremism.
By Shohret Hoshur for RFA Uyghur
2024.04.05
With feasts and patrols, China tries to keep Uyghurs from fasting Uyghurs and other members of the faithful pray during services at the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar in northwestern China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, as seen during a government organized visit for foreign journalists, April 19, 2021.
Mark Schiefelbein/AP

During Ramadan, Chinese authorities have been using a mix of festivals and surveillance to keep the mostly Muslim Uyghurs in the far western region of Xinjiang from fasting, praying and observing the Muslim holy month that ends next week.

In the city of Atush, officials told Radio Free Asia that they organized arts events and outdoor feasts and distributed free food during the month. They also held communal meetings in the early evenings to coincide with sundown, when Muslim families typically gather to eat after the daylong fast in a practice called iftar.

Police in the northwestern city of Ghulja conducted street patrols and home inspections to see if residents were fasting. They also banned residents from gathering on the streets to prevent them from meeting for dinner together.

“It is prohibited to do iftar together and prayer together,” a police officer in Ghulja told RFA. “We tell them fasting is not allowed, We also pay attention [to see] if they are visiting their relatives during iftar.”

In the regional capital Urumqi, a traffic police officer said designated officers had been tasked with monitoring taxi drivers to ensure they were not fasting or praying during the month.

A flurry of social media videos coming out of Xinjiang this month showed Uyghurs singing Chinese songs and gathered around outdoor tables with beer bottles on top. RFA could not independently verify when the videos had been taken or who had shot them, but their intent seemed to be to promote eating, dancing and entertaining – not prayer and fasting.

Squelching Islam

Due to Chinese censorship and severe restrictions placed on Xinjiang residents talking with journalists, it is nearly impossible to obtain candid comments from Uyghurs on the ground about these events.

But Uyghur advocates and experts outside China say that for years Beijing has been trying to restrict and discourage Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in the region from observing Ramadan and practicing Islam in general – all in the name of fighting religious extremism and terrorism.

Chinese authorities began banning Muslims in Xinjiang from fasting during Ramadan in 2017, when they began arbitrarily detaining an estimated 1.7 million Uyghurs in “re-education” camps amid larger efforts to diminish their culture, language and religion.

The restriction was partially relaxed in 2021 and 2022, allowing people over 65 to fast, and police reduced the number of home searches and street patrol activities. But in 2023, authorities ordered all Muslims in Xinjiang to not fast and even used spies to report on those who did.  

An unidentified man attempts to prevent the photographer from taking pictures outside the site of the Jiaman Mosque in Qira in northwestern China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, April 28, 2021. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)
An unidentified man attempts to prevent the photographer from taking pictures outside the site of the Jiaman Mosque in Qira in northwestern China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, April 28, 2021. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

“The Chinese Communist Party has been aggressively carrying out its campaign of eliminating the religious beliefs of the Uyghur people during the holy month of Ramadan,” said Ablikim Idris, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Uyghur Studies.

“During this month of prayer and fasting, Chinese authorities have been organizing political indoctrination sessions, singing and dancing, as well as other entertainment for Uyghurs in order to eradicate their faith in Islam from their hearts,” he said. 

“Their goal is to trample on the millennial-long faith of Uyghurs and turn them into a people without God and religion.”

Evening gatherings about social order

A police officer in Atush contacted by RFA Uyghur said authorities have been tasked with coordinating various activities and events – some overseeing security, while others perform surveillance or organize art shows.

We “have been working tirelessly, without any breaks, operating 24 hours a day,” she said.

The security director of a village in Upper Atush told Radio Free Asia that since the beginning of Ramadan, residents have had to gather at the village meeting hall in the early evenings.

“We have been advertising legal rules and holding weekly study events for the community,” he said. 

During events attended by city and political officials, there were no explicit speeches banning Ramadan or fasting. Instead, lectures were delivered on maintaining social order and stability and eating meals regularly to maintain one’s health, some officials said.

Officials also gave farmers agricultural training until about 7 p.m., as well as offered health advice and explained the importance of loyalty to China and how stability contributes to its prosperity, he said.

When RFA asked officials and police about whether distributing free food during Ramadan had prompted discontent among Uyghurs, they said that community “awareness” had increased, thereby negating any dissatisfaction. 

They attributed this “progress” to the significant role played by the Chinese Communist Party and the government in shaping public sentiment.

“I didn't observe any disagreement over the food distribution,” said a village security chief.

“I believe there are no longer people with outdated ideologies,” she said. “Everyone has embraced progressive ideals, thanks to the efforts of our party and nation. People accept modernity and embrace advanced ideologies.”

Translated by RFA Uyghur. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Malcolm Foster.

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