Database Entry: Empty Uyghur Mosques During Ramadan in China
Religious Persecution Surveillance Civilian Informants Use of technology

Empty Uyghur Mosques During Ramadan in China

May 18, 2019
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In 2014 Uyghur college students secretly fasted during Ramadan. Many of them would wake up early in the morning to eat the cold pilaf and nan that they had hidden away on the bookshelves on their bunk beds before they went to sleep. They ate in the dark by the light of battery-powered reading lights, listening for the sound of footsteps outside of their dorm rooms. The authorities in their Chinese university had told them that anyone caught eating before the sun came up would be expelled. They told them in some cases that their parents would be called and the police would be notified. They were told that fasting during Ramadan was a sign of religious “extremism.”

Despite these tight controls, many young Turkic Muslims continued to fast across the Uyghur Autonomous Region in Northwest China. At night restaurants were packed with students waiting with slices of watermelon and pieces of bread that had been distributed throughout the restaurant for those who were breaking the fast. The students waited for a silent signal from restaurant workers that it was time for iftar and that they could begin to eat and drink. Few people talked openly about the fast. Those who fasted were the silent majority.

Since 2016 and the arrival of a massive, purpose-built, “reeducation” camp system, this practice too has stopped. Now any adult of military age who is caught fasting can be detained. In the universities and high schools the students are now forced to eat and drink in front of school authorities. There is no way to dodge these forced violations of Islamic piety. All restaurants must serve food throughout the day. Everyone must act as though Ramadan is not happening. They know that the police and their informants are everywhere.

The Uyghur mosques that have not yet been destroyed or closed are empty aside from a few elderly men. At the entrance to each mosque, face-scan checkpoints match state-issued IDs to faces and, in some cases, capture identifying information from their electronic devices. Since they know that they can be detained if they enter a mosque, most Uyghurs no longer attend mosques to pray and study the Quran during Ramadan or any other time of the year.

Uyghurs from across the region have told me that they have been asked to burn prayer rugs and religious texts, including Qurans, in public displays of loyalty to the state.

Uyghurs have been informed that any mention of the name God, including the common phrase “God willing,” any sign of prayer after a meal, even using the common Arabic greeting asalam alaykum can result in detention and interrogation.

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