HOTAN, CHINA -- Mullah Masude, 63, removes his shoes and gingerly navigates an expanse of cheap carpeting in the Jaman mosque’s main worship area before climbing a set of rickety steps to the roof.
Powered by a good set of lungs and lots of practice, the cleric belts out the afternoon call to prayer. Despite his best efforts, the chant is all but drowned out by the din of a single-stroke tractor engine and a passing bus.
Beijing bars mullahs from using loudspeakers, one of dozens of rules critics say are designed to mute Islam’s voice in China, particularly among the Uighur minority here in the far-western region of Xinjiang, which the government considers a separatist threat.
Signs and banners at mosque entrances in Hotan, Kashgar and other western cities make it clear who is boss.
“Completely abide by the Communist Party’s religious policy,” reads an oversized banner straddling the gate of Hotan’s Imam Asim tomb, half a mile over desert dunes from the nearest road. “Actively lead religion toward a just socialist society.”
More than 2,000 miles to the east, Beijing seems a world away, which partly explains officials’ deep-seated fear that the region’s more than 8 million Uighurs will unite to form an independent state.
Mutton and flat bread trump pork and rice as the cuisine of choice, blue eyes and light skin are common, and many people speak only a few words of Mandarin.
Although most Uighurs are proud of their history, distinct language and centuries-old culture, they tend to see a Uighur homeland as a distant dream, given Beijing’s tight grip and economic clout.
“I’m not in favor of it, nor do I think it’s possible,” said Elham Adl, 22, a Uighur tour guide in Dushanzi, a town in northern Xinjiang. “I don’t want to see Xinjiang become a second Iraq. And if Xinjiang became independent, we’d lose access to China’s big market.”
But Beijing isn’t taking any chances, critics say, and it continues to intimidate the clergy, weaken Uighur culture through assimilation policies and otherwise stifle dissent.
The strategy has been successful, largely putting an end to the bombings, protests and unrest of the 1990s, though some say China has only driven resentment underground.
“They put out the fire,” said Dru C. Gladney, an anthropologist and president of Pomona College’s Pacific Basin Institute. “But the embers are smoldering. And unless they address hearts and minds, it will flare again.”
The government’s iron grip underscores Xinjiang’s strategic importance. The region has huge reserves of oil, gas, gold and uranium. It is home to the nation’s Lop Nor nuclear testing facility.
With 17% of Chinese territory but just 1.5% of its people, Xinjiang is an important release valve for population pressures. It’s a buffer against rival Russia. And any loosening would set a precedent for pro-independence movements in Taiwan and Tibet.
“Xinjiang is very important to China’s security,” said Raphael Israeli, a fellow at the Truman Research Institute at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “They will have to do what it takes when a rebellion becomes evident.”
In the meantime, Beijing is working to soften local hearts and minds to its position, albeit in a sometimes heavy-handed manner.
‘Love the motherland’
Ayinoor, a Uighur civil servant in her early 20s, is required to attend ideology classes for two hours a day aimed at hammering home the glories of the Communist Party, the danger of separatism and the benefits of national unity. Like others interviewed, she declined to give her family name for fear of losing her job.
If lecturing doesn’t win her over, there’s music, including a version of the party’s recent “Eight Virtues and Eight Shames” campaign that she’s required to sing, with such lines as “It’s most glorious to love the motherland, a great sin to harm her.” There’s economic incentive: If she doesn’t do well on a weekly political thought quiz, her pay is docked.
“I’m only telling you this,” she said in the shadow of the historic Id Kah mosque in Kashgar, near two police cars and an army truck and a sign that read, “All ethnic groups warmly welcome the party’s religious policies.”
“At work I have to say, ‘I love everything Han Chinese’ or I get into trouble,” she said, referring to the majority ethnic group.
Uighur clerics had ignored the ban on government employees entering mosques. But religious authorities started threatening their jobs as well. Now they report on attendees, who risk losing their jobs or worse. More than 300 Uighur civil servants have been jailed in recent years for their beliefs, locals say, and some were beaten to death.
Government officials were not available for comment, and the figure could not be verified.
Beijing’s longer-term goal is to create a new generation of Mandarin-speaking Uighurs with fewer ties to Islam or traditional Uighur culture, critics say, including programs that send the brightest young Uighurs to Mandarin-only schools in other provinces.
“Chinese is very difficult, but it’s the language of the marketplace,” said Shiaili, 14, a student in Urumqi. “I’ve studied for two years. Sometimes I forget some of my Uighur.”
Government officials did not respond to written requests for an interview. But Chinese minority and ethnic affairs officials in the past have denied trying to dilute Uighur culture and say they’re raising living standards and spurring entrepreneurship, as seen, they say, by an economy that has grown forty-twofold since 1955.
But government officials also promise to remain vigilant. They blame separatist groups for more than 200 terrorist attacks since 1990, resulting in 162 deaths and more than 440 injuries.
“In Xinjiang, the separatists, religious extremists and violent terrorists are all around us,” Wang Lexiang, Xinjiang’s deputy chief of public security, said in August. “In China, endangering national security is the No. 1 crime. We have to crack down on it severely.”
The Sept. 11 attacks gave Beijing a new argument, allowing it to tar pro-independence Uighurs as radical Muslims with ties to Al Qaeda, claims that are viewed with skepticism.
“China saw 9/11 as the best opportunity since 1949 to crack down on Uighur people,” said Alim Seytoff, general secretary of the Washington-based Uighur American Assn., which advocates the creation of an independent state called East Turkistan through nonviolent means. “China makes allegations that can’t be proven, but after 9/11 it’s very hard to champion your cause if you’re Muslim.”
Wary of the link between religion and politics, China prohibits anyone younger than 18 from entering a mosque or receiving a Muslim education.
“I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, but it’s the law,” said Sulika, 43, a former soldier turned fruit seller, chomping down on a stew of sheep organs and intestine casings stuffed with rice.
Schools also require students to eat during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting and atonement. “If they don’t eat, they get disciplined by the teachers,” Sulika said.
Religious study for prospective clerics and others older than 18 must take place in heavily monitored government schools and after an extensive background check. At that age, many young Uighurs don’t bother, having been seduced by video games and modern distractions.
“By that time, most aren’t interested,” said Ma Xueliang, a Muslim cleric at the Qinghai mosque in Urumqi.
If persuasion and distraction don’t work, there’s brute force. Xinjiang is riddled with informants, human rights activists say, amid claims that 1,000 Uighurs were executed and more than 10,000 imprisoned during a 1996-97 crackdown. Detentions have fallen off more recently, they say, because intimidation tactics are working.
“Control over Xinjiang society is very minute,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a China researcher with Human Rights Watch. “It’s impressive and reminiscent of Soviet Union times.”
New generation of mullahs
After 1990, the authorities replaced many longtime mullahs with a new generation educated in Chinese patriotic programs, and began paying their salaries directly and requiring annual license renewals.
In many parts of Xinjiang, mullahs are required to clear their Friday sermons, limited to 30 minutes, with local religious affairs bureaus and are punished for deviating from the script. Those who resist Chinese policy, by arguing, for instance, against abortion or family planning policies on religious grounds, are fired or jailed.
“My neighbor, an imam, was arrested 12 years ago for saying something the government didn’t like,” said one Uighur government worker, who asked not to be identified. “He’s still in jail. Their message is clear: Keep your mouth shut.”
In addition to its internal campaigns over the last decade, Beijing has tried to cut off links with ethnic Uighurs in neighboring countries by pushing for extradition treaties with Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
“China has been very successful at portraying Uighurs as terrorists and themselves as victims of terrorism, while they manipulate Islam through their control over mosques,” Seytoff said. “It’s really not easy trying to stand up to such a powerful country and an emerging superpower.”
Begin text of infobox
17% - The Xinjiang region’s portion of Chinese territory.
1.5% - The region’s percentage of China’s population.