China pushes ‘Sinicization of Islam’ in Xinjiang as Ramadan arrives

China pushes ‘Sinicization of Islam’ in Xinjiang as Ramadan arrives

Xinjiang’s Communist Party secretary says it is an ‘inevitable trend.’

While global leaders from U.S. President Joe Biden to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan issued well wishes to the more than 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide at the start of Ramadan this week, China’s president remained silent.

Xi Jinping failed to acknowledge Ramadan, one of the most sacred times for Muslims, despite the 11 million-strong mostly Muslim Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples who live in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, as well as the roughly 7 million other Muslims in China.

Chinese authorities have cracked down on Uyghurs in Xinjiang for decades, claiming they are prone to religious extremism and separatism. The Chinese government says it wants to make Islam “compatible” with Chinese culture by ensuring it aligns with traditional Chinese values defined by Beijing.

Ramandan began less than a week after Ma Xingrui, China’s Communist Party secretary in Xinjiang, discussed the “inevitability” of the Sinicization of Islam, with Uyghur rights organizations expressing concern about possible crackdowns on Muslims during Ramadan, which runs from the evening of March 10 to April 9.

“Everyone knows the need for Sinicization of Islam in Xinjiang,” he said at the National People’s Congress in Beijing on March 7, according to a VOA report. “This is an inevitable trend.”

Xinjiang Communist Party Secretary Ma Xingrui attends the Xinjiang delegation meeting on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, March 7, 2024. (Florence Lo/Reuters)

Since 2017, China has restricted or banned religious rituals among the Uyghurs in an effort to eliminate “religious extremism” amid a larger crackdown on Muslims that resulted in the mass detention of nearly 2 million of them. Authorities have also demolished mosques and committed severe rights violations in Xinjiang, amounting to genocide and crimes against humanity, according to the U.S. government and others.

In 2023, authorities banned Uyghurs in many parts of the region from praying in mosques and their homes during Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan. Only senior citizens were allowed to pray in mosques under heavy police surveillance.

The previous Ramadan, authorities in Kashgar paid Muslim Uyghur men to dance outside Xinjiang’s most famous mosque to celebrate the end of the holy month. The performance was filmed and released by state media ahead of an anticipated visit by the U.N. human rights chief.

“To the Uyghurs enduring the ongoing genocide, Ramadan is synonymous with extreme suffering, pervasive surveillance and unyielding oppression,” Rushan Abbas, executive director of Campaign for Uyghurs, told Radio Free Asia.

“This year, the situation is further inflamed by Ma Xingrui’s audacious remarks about the inevitability of the Sinicization of Islam in East Turkistan,” she said, using the Uyghurs’ preferred name for Xinjiang.

Religions must adapt

The concept of the Sinicization of Islam was first introduced by Xi Jinping during the National Religious Work Conference in April 2016, when he emphasized the need for religions to adapt to a socialist society and advocated for the integration of religious beliefs with Chinese culture, Xinhua News agency reported.

In 2017, the Chinese government began detaining Uyghurs and other Muslim en masse in large “re-education” camps and prisons, in part to eradicate “religious extremism.”

During the National Religious Work Conference in 2021, Xi made “adhering to the Sinicization of religions” a main objective. He emphasized the need for training more personnel with Marxist views on religion and collecting believers around the Chinese Communist Party, according to Xinhua News Agency.

People walk past a disused mosque in Kashgar in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region, July 13, 2023. (Pedro Pardo/AFP)

American political analyst Anders Corr said Ma Xingrui’s comments indicate little change in Beijing’s goal of bringing Islam and other religions under the control of the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP.

During an August 2023 visit to Xinjiang, Xi Jinping urged government officials to enhance the Sinicization of Islam in Xinjiang and to suppress illegal religious activities. He also emphasized the importance of maintaining stability through efforts directed against terrorism and separatism, according to media reports.

Turghunjan Alawidin, a member of the East Turkistan Scholars Union, said the Sinicization of Islam will completely transform the religion in China.

“The statement that the Sinicization of Islam is an unavoidable trend essentially implies the eradication of Islam,” he told RFA.

“China has a history of hostility towards Islam and has targeted the religious beliefs of Uyghurs,” he said. “Chinese authorities seem to acknowledge that erasing Uyghur religious beliefs is necessary to gain compliance; thus, they are actively suppressing Islam.”

Hu Ping, a U.S.-based China analyst and former chief editor of the pro-democracy journal “Beijing Spring,” said that the Sinicization of Islam implies the CCP’s systematic alteration and control of the religion.

Historical precedent

Ma Ju, an ethnic Hui scholar based in the U.S. said China’s efforts to Sinicize Islam has historical precedent, noting a failed attempt during the transition from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Now, Xi Jinping is treating the issue as one of Chinese nationalism, he said.

“The primary objective of Sinicizing Islam is the complete eradication of the Muslims in China,” he said. “Ma Xingrui’s recent visit to Beijing and his public declaration that the Sinicization of Islam is inevitable sends signals to the world that China intends to persist in ethnic and cultural genocide in the Uyghur region.”

A child sits near the entrance to a mosque with a banner reading ‘Love the party, Love the country’ in the old city district of Kashgar in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region, Nov. 4, 2017. (Ng Han Guan/AP)

Ma Xingrui’s concern about the “three forces” — a political phrase referring to ethnic separatism, religious extremism and violent terrorism in Xinjiang — is “self-defeating and undermines the effectiveness of past anti-terrorism efforts,” Ma Ju said.

But Anders Corr said that the Chinese government uses the phrase as justification for its oppression of the Uyghurs.

“Beijing is still using the excuse of terrorism to bring Islam under its control and commit genocide against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims,” he said. “There is little to no recent evidence of extremism in Xinjiang.”

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