Present-Day Ethnic Problems in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region: Overview and Recommendations (3) – Religion

By Ilham Tohti, translated by Cindy Carter, published: April 26, 2015


Continued from I. Unemployment and II. Bilingual Education

III. Religion


Since the July 2009 ethnic unrest in Xinjiang, religious fervor within China’s Uighur community has been rising steadily. Whether in traditional villages in southern Xinjiang, among urban officials and intellectuals, or even on college campuses in Beijing, there has been a quiet upsurge in religious conservatism—and the percentage of youthful conservative adherents is at an all-time high. Some observers have noted that, during religious services at mosques, it is not uncommon to see young people praying silently, with tears streaming down their faces. This is a social signal worthy of our close attention.

As an overt symbol of a people’s cultural and ethnic identity, religion comes second only to language; in the most extreme circumstances, religion can become the final spiritual refuge for a people.

The two most serious aspects of the religious problem in Xinjiang are as follows:

1. First is the enormous backlash generated by strict government controls on religion. Xinjiang’s south is home to approximately 24,000 mosques, and each mosque has a designated religious leader supported by the government: one cadre per mosque, responsible for denying admittance to outsiders, youths, or regular worshippers beyond the allotted quota. Such stringent controls display utter disregard for the feelings of believers, consume vast amounts of manpower and resources, and arouse great discontent among the citizenry.

 2. Second is the proliferation of underground religious activities, in marked contrast to the government’s failed religious policies of recent years. Ultra-conservative and xenophobic strains of religious thought imported from Afghanistan, Pakistan and other places are spreading rapidly in Xinjiang, and being disseminated via the religious underground. Increasing numbers of extremely conservatively dressed citizens attest to the popularity of this religious trend. In private, some Uighur intellectuals decry the new conservatism, complaining that Uighurs no longer dress like Uighurs, but like Arabs.

Although Xinjiang has no shortage of Kazakh- and Chinese-language versions of the Koran, Uighur-language versions of the Koran are not available for sale on the open market. This distinction could easily incline people to suspect that restrictive government religious policies are being targeted at a specific ethnic group. Some years ago, the Saudi king sent one million free copies of the Koran to Xinjiang, where they circulated freely among the local populace. After incidents of ethnic unrest in 1996 and 1997, these copies of the Koran were recalled; these days, a pirated copy of the Koran sells for between 50 and 80 Chinese yuan on the underground market.

Most Uighur intellectuals are wary of and opposed to extremist religious ideology. They recognize the contributions of Communist Party atheism and secular education in abolishing superstition, fanaticism and ignorance within the Uighur community. And yet the government’s current draconian religious policies in Xinjiang are repugnant to Uighur intellectuals, even to those most repelled by religious fanaticism.


Although the Chinese government is now much more tolerant of religious enthusiasm than it has been in the past, its long-standing adherence to atheism and lack of systematic research on religious issues means that, when confronted with issues involving religion, the government tends to find itself on the defensive.

Specifically, when it comes to dealing with religious issues in Xinjiang, official disdain for the special status of religion in ethnic minority communities makes it hard to see where government promotion of secularization ends, and the suppression of ethnic minority culture begins. Particularly with regard to Islam, the government tends to oscillate wildly between confidence and fear—confidence inspired by the machinery of the one-party state, and fear fueled by a basic lack of religious knowledge.

Since 1997, opposing “the three forces” [of terrorism, religious extremism and separatism] has been the paramount task of local government. Along the way, however, the policy of opposing religious extremism has morphed into a policy of opposing religious tradition and suppressing normal expressions of religious belief.

Recently, Xinjiang’s government has launched a vigorous propaganda push on the dangers of religious extremism, and it is on high alert against religious extremism and its effects. Extremist religious ideology is certainly unacceptable: even from an Islamic perspective, it is a distortion of traditional religious thought. But government policy in practice all too often veers toward rigid uniformity: indiscriminately lumping the wearing of headscarves, veils or beards into the same category as religious extremism, for example, or banning men with beards and women with veils or headscarves from entering buildings or public places. These and other persistent infringements on Uighur human rights are, to a large extent, responsible for creating antagonism between Uighurs and the government, thus amplifying Han-Uighur tensions.

While there is no denying that Xinjiang does indeed have a problem with religious extremism, it needs to be emphasized that extremist religious ideology has never dominated the mainstream in Uighur society, and its actual influence within the Uighur community is quite limited. More importantly, traditional Uighur culture has always displayed a marked resistance to extremist religious ideology. At present, the threat posed by religious extremism appears to be greatly exaggerated, both in government propaganda and in the public imagination. Enacting inappropriate control measures based on this flawed understanding will, objectively speaking, only drive people to embrace more extremist religious views. Moreover, when it comes to voicing criticism of extremist religious ideology, this criticism should come primarily from esteemed and learned leaders within the religious community, rather than from secular intellectuals speaking on matters outside their purview. And the minute details of citizens’ sartorial habits – clothes, beards, scarves and the like – should never be singled out for criticism.

In order to understand the problem of religious extremism in the Uighur community, we must recognize the following key points: (1) It is of great importance to clearly define what is extremist religious ideology and extremist religious behavior; (2) The goal of opposing extremist religious ideology should be to protect and safeguard normal, everyday religious activity; (3) Within Uighur society, religion was originally closely tied to cultural customs and traditions, but now religion has been stripped of its status and deprived of its traditional authority figures; (4) Uighur society has lost its mechanisms  for moral grounding and cultural adjustment; (5) There are no normal channels for positive voices to make themselves heard; and (6) In order to protect their posts and perks of office, some officials are more than willing to burn the wheat with the chaff.

Currently, Xinjiang’s coercive stability maintenance policies, particularly in the area of religion, are having a grave impact on the lives, jobs and mobility of Xinjiang’s Uighur population. If the government does not change its thinking and tactics with respect to religious issues, I fear that religion will become the single biggest cause of ethnic strife and social discord in Xinjiang.

Thoughts and Recommendations

The entire Islamic world, in fact, is being confronted with religious problems along the path to modernity. Turkey, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and other countries have found different and successful ways to balance religion and modernity. There is no shame in learning from their successes or adopting their methods of dealing with religion, in much the same way that China, in the early days of economic reform and opening, looked to the West for experience and guidance.

  1. Establish institutional arrangements for the management of religious sites and places of worship. Places of worship offer a natural way for communities to bond, and the government can draw on foreign experience to develop standards governing the physical size, congregation size, social organization, etc. of places of worship. To facilitate the ability of citizens to practice their faith, the government should allow one place of worship to be built within each defined area or range. Each place of worship should also be equipped with clergy who have been officially recognized and certified by the government, in accordance with clear-cut rules and regulations. This will help to avert the proliferation of home-based and underground places of worship that have sprung up in response to draconian restrictions on the ordinary religious needs of citizens. In establishing such a system, it would not hurt to publicize the fact that some elements of the system were adopted from abroad (from a secular country such as Turkey, for example) in order to defuse opposition.
  1. Establish a system of religious training and certification for clergy members. There are some religious professionals who, despite their lack of certification or authority, still manage to attract adherents who believe them to possess religious wisdom. Professional clergy must complete systematic training and earn some official certification (for example, from the Islamic Association of China). In addition to systematic training in religious knowledge and scholarship, clergy should also possess some knowledge of the modern social sciences, to nurture a mindset that is open, progressive, and attuned to the needs of modern society. In particular, studying how religion and modern society interact and adapt in other countries and learning from their experiences will help provide clergy with a broader and more open-minded perspective.

Regarding the vocational and educational training of clergy, a long-range, well-organized system of religious training should be established in collaboration with top-tier institutions of religious learning in Xinjiang, nationwide and even overseas, in order to gradually train a core group of erudite and broad-minded clergy. In addition, allowing local institutions of religious learning such as the Xinjiang Islamic Institute to strengthen communication and ties with other institutions of religious learning at home and abroad will bolster the quality of local religious scholarship.

  1. To satisfy public demand for religious texts, allow the legal importation and publication of overseas editions of contemporary religious texts. Uighur-language versions of religious texts are nearly impossible to find in Xinjiang today; the copies that do circulate underground are generally smuggled in from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. But in fact, Turkey, Malaysia and other successful secular Islamic nations have long been compiling and codifying contemporary editions of religious texts that have not only met the religious needs of their citizens, but also helped to usher in more open and modern societal values. If the government were to organize the translation and publication of these religious texts from abroad, it would satisfy the religious needs of the local community, impede the underground market for extremist religious publications, and promote the spread of moderate, open and inclusive religious values.
  1. Improve research and investment in religion. China is a country with a vast Muslim population, but Chinese religious scholarship that meets modern academic standards of quality, particularly scholarship pertaining to Islam, is virtually nonexistent. China should have prestigious Islamic Institutes, as well as other respected institutions dedicated to the study of Islam. The government should also encourage non-Muslim scholars to participate in religious research and scholarship that satisfies the needs of religious believers and religious scholarship, and meets the demands of social development and transformation. Lastly, increasing research and investment in religion will serve to amplify China’s voice in the Islamic world and allow it to play a more active role.
  1. Leverage the influence of religion in traditional society to positive effect. For communities steeped in religious tradition, the clergy are an irreplaceable and profoundly influential component of society. Particularly in the comparatively insular, economically underdeveloped, and culturally conservative rural communities of southern Xinjiang, the best ways to disseminate modern ideas and information are via the market and via religion.

Indeed, religious leaders have also been thinking about how to address the issue of social transformation. The government has nothing to lose by creating the conditions and opportunities for the clergy to join in this effort, allowing them to contribute their experience, intelligence, wisdom, and considerable social influence. Religious leaders and ordinary citizens alike do not want to see a society plagued by unrest, chaos or hatred. Religion is the pursuit of virtue, after all, and religious leaders are cautious and conservative by nature. Instead of their voices being suppressed, they should be allowed to take their rightful place in the public discourse, so that they may use their own language to offer comfort and consolation to their community.

  1. Make policy regarding the Hajj [the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca] more transparent and open. It would be fair to call the Hajj policy one of the greatest failures of religious policy in Xinjiang. Simply put, the Hajj is something that all devout Muslims aspire to; completing the pilgrimage to Mecca imbues a person with a certain amount of social prestige upon their return, but it does not cause them to become extremist or fanatical. At present, there are stringent bureaucratic criteria for being allowed to go on the Hajj, but this bureaucratic process need not be so opaque. Every year, Saudi Arabia issues quotas for the number of pilgrims allowed from each country. In Xinjiang, only a lucky few meet the qualifications. The quota process could certainly be carried out in a much more open and transparent manner: for example, by publicizing China’s quota and explaining how this quota is allocated. As it stands, the quota system has bred serious bureaucratic corruption and has aroused intense feelings in ethnic minority communities.


I. Unemployment and II. Bilingual Education




Chinese original: 《伊力哈木:当前新疆民族问题的现状及建议》



6 responses to “Present-Day Ethnic Problems in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region: Overview and Recommendations (3) – Religion”

  1. tarasherab says:

    Reblogged this on tarasherab and commented:
    The Chinese are continuing to speak out of both sides of their mouth. While stating they will “tolerate” quiet religious practice and expression, in reality they still see small religious expression, such as wearing headscarves, as “extremist” and use that toward total suppression of any religion.

  2. […] from I. Unemployment, II. Bilingual Education, III. Religion, IV. Ethnic Alienation and Segregation, and V.  Distrust of Ethnic Minority Officials and […]

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  4. […] from I. Unemployment, II. Bilingual Education, III. Religion, IV. Ethnic Alienation and Segregation, V.  Distrust of Ethnic Minority Officials and […]

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