Video of dancer in mosque inflames Uyghur anxieties about China’s attacks on religion

Travel promotional video comes amid domestic tourism campaign to visit Xinjiang

In these screenshots from the promotional video, a woman walks up the steps to the Kuchar Grand Mosque [left] in China’s Xinjiang region and then performs a costumed dance inside. Credit: Chinese state media

A Chinese tourism advertisement portraying a medieval Buddhist fantasy, shot in the prayer hall of Xinjiang’s second-largest mosque, has alarmed diaspora Uyghurs, who call it a desecration. 

They say it is particularly incensing during Ramadan, a time when mosques should host prayer and evening fast-breaking. 

The promotional video, put out by a local propaganda office, features a bare-armed Uyghur woman as a dancer from “Women’s Kingdom,” a fictional polity whose queen sought to marry the Chinese protagonist of the classic Ming Dynasty novel Journey to the West

She twirls in the otherwise empty Kuchar Grand Mosque.

The video, which circulated on Douyin, the Chinese version of Tiktok, emerged amid a tourism campaign to draw Han Chinese to the far-western region of Xinjiang, home to the mostly Muslim Uyghur and other Turkic peoples now that COVID-19 travel restrictions have been lifted.

There were 35.2 million individual visits to Xinjiang between January and March of this year, resulting in 2.5 billion yuan in tourism revenue, an increase of 36% on the same period last year, according to state media.

But Uyghurs say such videos are both offensive and part of a wider attempt to diminish or erase their religion and culture.

The video was shared to Facebook by Uyghur activist and reeducation camp survivor Zumret Dawut. It has since been taken down from Douyin. Radio Free Asia could not identify or contact its creators. 

“The message [of the video] to the Uyghurs is that we can suppress and even destroy you by assaulting and breaking your dignity through humiliation – we can do anything we want to do,” said Ilshat Hassan, Deputy Executive Chairman of the World Uyghur Congress.

Spurious claim

The video begins with a Chinese narrator walking up the steps to the mosque.

“[When you] open the heavy door of Kuchar Grand Mosque, a beautiful Qiuci woman, concealed by a veil, steps forward, and shares memories of the Woman’s Kingdom with you,” the video’s narrator relates as the woman dances. 

Qiuci is the Chinese name for the medieval Buddhist kingdom of Kusen, near the present site of Kuchar.

The Chinese words used in the video for Grand Mosque, Da Si, are also used to refer to large Buddhist temples. Nowhere does the film indicate that the setting is a gathering place for Muslims. The mosque, first built in the 16th century and reconstructed after a fire in the 1930s, has never been a site of Buddhist worship.

The Chinese Communist Party ties the legitimacy of its rule in the Uyghur region to the spurious claim that Xinjiang has always been a part of China. 

To bolster this claim, it has etched episodes from Chinese fiction and historical annals onto Xinjiang’s landscape by altering the presentation of Uyghur sacred spaces. 

The Uyghur region’s most prominent shrine is the mausoleum of Afaq Khoja, a 17th century religious and political leader in Kashgar. It has long been marketed to Chinese tourists as the tomb of the “Fragrant Concubine,” who, according to Chinese legend, was Afaq Khoja’s granddaughter, sent as tribute to the Qianlong Emperor.

The transformation of the Uyghur region’s most prominent religious sites into tourist attractions, demolition of other mosques and shrines, criminalization of public expressions of Islamic piety, and pervasive surveillance have left Uyghurs with nowhere to observe Ramadan but home. 

Non-event

A Chinese travel agent in Urumchi contacted by RFA and asked about visiting Xinjiang mosques during Ramadan depicted Islam’s most sacred month as a non-event. There are no religious events bringing Muslims together to break the daytime fast, for instance.

“Normally there won’t be these kinds of collective activities at mosques,” she said. 

“Many people in Xinjiang are Sinicized, so there aren’t situations like in the Arab world where lots of people gather in one place and make religious observances together. I’ve lived in Xinjiang for many years, and I’ve never seen minority nationalities engaging in those kinds of collective activities,” she said.

Meanwhile, tourists wishing to visit mosques like Kashgar’s Id Kah and Kuchar’s Grand Mosque during Ramadan could freely do so, outside of the calls to prayer, the travel agent said.

“People who want to fast must do it at home,” the travel agent said. 

Asked whether it was possible to visit mosques in Urumchi, the travel agent had a firm response. 

“It isn’t possible to visit those places. Because they’re locked. The mosques near the Grand Bazaar are locked too,” she said. “There’s no requirement to pray at mosques, right? People can pray at home, right? Ask questions like this to the relevant government official.”

Translated by Nadir. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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