China's Muslims Say Ramadan a Time of Repression

September 29, 2008

Author: William Foreman

Source: The Associated Press,0,4434753.story

All that was left on the chin of the Muslim man praying at the huge brownstone mosque was a small patch of stubble. He said officials had forced young men in China's far western Xinjiang region to cut off their beards at the start of the holy month of Ramadan.

"If I didn't shave, they would do this to me," said the man, who put his wrists together as if handcuffed, his eyes bulging with anger. "If I say more, I could be arrested."

He gave only part of his name, Arem, and stomped away.

For Muslims, Ramadan is a time of fasting and prayer. But for China's Muslim ethnic Uighurs, the holy month is also full of fear and seething resentment about increasingly tight restrictions on how they practice their moderate form of Islam, influenced by the Sunni and Sufi sects.

Managing the restive Turkic people is developing into one of China's biggest challenges. Like the Tibetans, the Uighurs have been unwilling to buy into the government's plan: greater economic prosperity instead of greater religious freedom or autonomy.

This year has been especially jittery in Xinjiang, a sprawling territory three times the size of France that is home to 9 million Uighurs (pronounced WEE-GURS). Despite ramped-up security in the region before the Beijing Olympics, a string of bombings and deadly attacks — the worst wave of violence in a decade — deeply embarrassed China under the global spotlight.

China blamed terrorists, but has yet to release evidence that links terror groups to attacks that killed 33 people in Kuqa and Kashgar in western Xinjiang.

With the Olympics over and the world's focus elsewhere, it seems to be payback time for Xinjiang. Overseas Uighur rights groups have accused the government of mass arrests, which police deny. Uighurs interviewed by The Associated Press in Kuqa and Kashgar complained of sweeping detentions but would not say more. In Kuqa, security officials followed an AP journalist for most of his visit.

The most obvious signs of tension are the tight restrictions on Ramadan, which ends this week.