This year’s Ramadan is just a few days away. Muslims around the world are preparing for their most sacred month of year with great anticipation. Even Muslims in war-torn countries welcome it with tremendous joy and make do with their conditions to spend it in the most spiritual and meaningful way possible. The month gives them an opportunity to renew their faith through various activities like fasting, prayers, Qur’an recitations, alms-giving and feeding and helping those in need. This spiritual renewal heals their pain and sorrow and gives them hope about their future.
Most unfortunately, that is not going to happen to the Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims of East Turkestan, the Uyghur and Turkic homeland named Xinjiang by China. Full Ramadan ban is approaching its third consecutive year in the region amid a massive internment of its Muslims and ferocious ethnic and religious cleansing drive being perpetrated with impunity by the Chinese regime before the eyes of the world.
Up to two million Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples have been arbitrarily detained since April 2017 in a vast network of concentration camps with miserable conditions where they are forced to denounce their religious and ethnic identities, indoctrinated with the Chinese Communist Party slogans, forced to eat pork and drink alcohol, and tortured if detainees are deemed to have shown slight signs of dissatisfaction or if unable to abide by the camps’ inhumane rules and regulations.
Even though there had been long established Ramadan restrictions for state employees and students at all levels of education, at least self-employed business people, handicraftsmen and farmers could fast with certain bearable prohibitions, such as not being allowed to play Qur’an recitations out loud, to gather for religious discussions or to let children under 18 years old join the fasting and other religious activities. The restaurants run by Uyghurs and other Muslims would be ordered by the authorities to stay open throughout Ramadans.
I remember groping in the dark mornings of Ramadan for my ready-made Sahur (meal eaten before fasting starts at dawn) in my dormitory when I was a student of Xinjiang University in the early 2000s. We couldn’t turn on the light for fear of being spotted by the University Protection Group (护校队), a campus patrol unit formed of fellow students and directed by the police station of the university. If we are caught eating Sahur for fasting or praying at any time of day on campus, that would effectively spell the end of our university life. We would only rely on the moon light coming through the window during Sahur and morning prayers.
Those restrictions were largely unknown to the outside world then. Only since 2014 has international media started to cover the Ramadan and other religious restrictions more widely as deliberate serving of lunch to state employees in their workplaces and students in their schools to make sure they don’t fast had been intensified as a result of China’s ‘People’s War on Terror’ declared in the same year.
However, a full-scale ban of religious practices has been mercilessly imposed on the Muslims of East Turkestan and a systematic forced assimilation campaign has been waged since Chen Quanguo was transferred from Tibet to the Uyghur homeland as party secretary in August 2016 in parallel with the carpet detention primarily of Uyghurs and Kazakhs for their religion and ethnicity aimed at concentrated brainwashing and punishment. Since then, all religious rituals, including the basic tenets of Islam such as praying (Salah), fasting during Ramadan, reading the Qur’an, Islamic marriage ceremony of Nikah, funeral prayer of Janazah and Muslim headscarves of Hijab have been completely banned and enforced by Han Chinese cadres staying in Uyghur homes as government-designated 'relatives’ and local officials paying door-to-door surprise visits to Uyghur homes.
Apart from living in a totalitarian security state aided by high-tech mass surveillance and grid-style police checkpoints, those outside of the camps have also been deprived of their basic freedom of inter-city and even inter-neighbourhood movement. They are frequently warned with being sent to the camps not to engage in any religious activities and not to even use such daily words and phrases as “Assalamu Alaykum,” “Insha’Allah,” “Alhamduli’Allah,” “Masha’Allah” in endless neighbourhood propaganda sessions.
Moreover, thousands of mosques have been systematically demolished or closed for prayers with their minarets removed or turned into bars and other facilities. They include major mosques of long historical significance such as Kèriye’s Hèytgah Mosque and Qarghiliq’s Jame Mosque in Hotan and Kashgar prefectures respectively which had hundreds of years of history and even managed to survive Cultural Revolution.
In a phone conversation in late 2016 with my father, I was asking him about the accurate season of white mulberry (üjme in Uyghur) in Kashgar to refresh my weakened memory of one of my favourite fruits ripened in early summer. He said it would fall on the coming Ramadan next year and that they would have chance to eat üjme during Iftar dinners insha’Allah in an anticipating tone. Sadly enough, it didn’t happen for him and his fellow Uyghurs ever since. Instead, my 65-year-old father, who had already gone through the atrocities of Cultural Revolution as a young man being sent to villages for hard labour, was taken away for ‘study’ several months later just as the Ramadan of 2017 was around the corner. The most obvious reason was probably his history of traveling overseas for both business and visiting purposes. I was told about his detention in my last communication with my mother in late May 2017, which is also when she had to be hospitalized for hypertension caused by sudden distress and told me not to call her or anyone else anymore.
In early 2019, an acquaintance of mine in Kashgar who knows my father told me via a retracted WeChat message that he had seen my father once in our neighborhood. That is how I knew he was released sometime earlier, but how long he had been in the camps has remained a mystery to me until today.
My father may have been released, but I know he can’t pray, fast or read the Qur’an as he used to do, and East Turkestan may be the only place on earth where Ramadan, the whole religion of Islam for that matter, is banned in its entirety.
Australia-based media activist for Uyghur Bulletin