On an official tour, I went to Xinjiang, the northwestern region of China, in June this year. From June 19 to 26 this year, I visited many religious, historic, and cultural places and basked in the stunning natural beauty of the region. I came across people from all walks of life over there. I would like to let the world know what I saw and observed in Xinjiang. As my visit covered many aspects of the region, I thought to come up with several installments of writing for the sake of telling the truth about Xinjiang. This is the sixth installment.
As I have long been familiar with numerous media stories of Muslim oppression in Xinjiang, during the tour, I was extra careful and inquisitive to know the real conditions of Muslims in the region. I tried to quench my thirst of examining the validity of the stories. Along with other members of our journalist delegation from Beijing, I talked to the vice president of the Islamic Association of Xinjiang Unit, Muktaram Sharif, interviewed the Imam of Dongguanxi Mosque, Muhammad Ismail, and the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the China Color Cotton Corporation, Liu Haifeng, at their workplaces in Xinjiang.
The delegation was composed of 24 foreign and Chinese journalists from different departments of the China Media Group (CMG) in Beijing. Foreign journalists were Shakir Ullah of Urdu, Faiza Muhammad Mustapha of Hausa, Chie Kobayashi of Japanese, Rawan Naqibullah of Pashtu, Pandrinathan Myilsamy of Tamil, Mojgan Behmanesh of Persian, Tiangrojrat Siwattra of Thai, Chet Nath Acharya of Nepalese, Pili Mwinyi Khamis of Swahili, and this writer (Md Enamul Hassan) of Bengali departments. The Chinese journalists were Han Mei, and Chen Bin of Swahili department, Zhu Mei Lalita of Nepalese, Yan Zi of Thai, Linsi Miao of Persian, Zhang Jie of Tamil, and Chen Zhong of Pashtu, Zhang Qiang of Japanese, Gao Shan of Hausa, Qin Sheng Rui of Urdu, Li Wanlu Shishir of Bengali, Cui Shan and Li Wenyuan of reporting, and Gao Yu of photography departments.
Read more: Uyghurs are not only Muslims in Xinjiang
Talking to the journalists at the mosque of the Islamic Institute in Urumqi, the vice president of the Islamic Association of Xinjiang Unit said the Uyghur and other Muslims enjoy complete religious freedom, and nobody faces discrimination for their beliefs in Xinjiang. The constitution of the People's Republic of China (PRC) has entitled every citizen of China the total freedom of religion. According to the constitution and laws of China, no individual, institution, and agency can bar any citizen from practicing their religions, let alone oppression against the believers.
Muktaram Sharif, who is also a teacher of the institute, mentioned that Muslims in Xinjiang freely practice their customs and habits such as food, festivals, weddings, funerals and so on. Muslim etiquette is fully respected, and legal religious activities are carried out completely by an individual’s wishes in Xinjiang. The state and religion are separated in China and that there is no interference in the practice of religions in the country. Chinese Muslims dislike extremists and that Islamic extremism has failed to gain ground in Xinjiang.
Over the Islamic institute, the vice president, who studied Islam in Egypt, Libya, UAE, and Pakistan, said that it was founded in 1983 to confer bachelor and junior college degrees on students and provides non-degree training for serving religious personnel. The institute offers courses in Mandarin, Uygur, and Arabic languages. In the institute, students take courses in religious knowledge, national law, culture, and history. In September 2017, a new campus, 5.7 times the size of the old one in downtown Urumqi, was put to use in the suburban part of the capital. The new campus cost 279 million Yuan (41 million U.S. dollars). The institute has a spacious worship hall, a stadium, and a football court. It can accommodate 1,200 students.
On the other hand, we interviewed Liu Haifeng, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of China Color Cotton Corporation, at the headquarters of the corporation. He briefed us on modern, green and low-carbon production, operation of his industry, employees working environment, labor security and freedom of religious beliefs. He said that there is no forced labor in the cotton industry of Xinjiang and such propaganda is aimed to cripple the economy of the region. There is no question of forced labor in the cotton industry as 70 to 90 percent of work in the industry has already been mechanized. As a result, from seed breeding to harvesting of cotton are done with machines. Manual labor is used in only small cotton gardens and factories where machines can't enter due to narrow alleys and entrances. But every worker earns 300 Yuan a day from the cotton industry, which is higher than from any other sector in Xinjiang. That's why people compete for getting a job in the cotton industry and they need to be forced in no way.
Meantime, we also visited the Dongguanxi Mosque and interviewed its Imam Muhammad Ismail. Muslim male and female journalists have also offered prayers at the mosque. In the interview, the imam said that almost 30 Muslims attend the congregations of five prayers every day. In the Jumma prayers, 150 to 170 Muslims attend every week, and more than 350 join Eid prayers at the mosque. He has been serving the mosque as its Imam for the last 30 years. The majority of the community is Uyghur Muslims. Apart from everyday prayers, Muslims also hold marriage ceremonies and Janazah prayers at the mosque. After the interview, the imam treated journalists with delicious locally-grown watermelons.
The mosque is located at Yangbulake village in Huiyuan town of Yili of Xinjiang. First built in 1902, it has a long history of 119 years. The mosque covers an area of 2585 square meters, and its main prayer hall covers an area of 221 square meters. Equipped with water, electricity, road, network, and other infrastructure facilities, the mosque has a cultural library rich with Islamic books, including Chinese translation and explanation of the Holy Quran, ablution room, flush toilets, air conditioning, and other services facilities.
The week-long trip helped me get the right insight into the real condition of Muslims on the ground in Xinjiang. However, it is also noteworthy that several months before the trip, I heard the same testimonies from an Uyghur Islamic scholar in Beijing. I happened to attend a Press Conference arranged by Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region on the Xinjiang-related Issues at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China in late December, 2020. At the conference, I drew the attention of an Islamic scholar about the reports claiming that Muslims are being barred from learning and practicing the Quran, Hadiths, and teachings of the Islamic religion by the communist government in Xinjiang. I then directly listened to the Uyghur Islamic scholar about their conditions.
In reply to my query, Hatip Obulhasan Tursunniyaz, an imam of the Jama Mosque in Hotan City of Xinjiang branded the reports as nothing but utterly rumors. The imam said rumors have it that Muslims are being barred from learning and practicing Quran, Hadiths, and teachings of the Islamic religion by the communist government in Xinjiang. The imam categorically ruled out all rumors and said that every Muslim traditionally learns Quran, Hadiths, and religious teachings from four sources— local mosques, Islamic seminaries, scholars, and religious classics and journals. They face no bar from any quarters, irrespective of government and non-government, to acquiring religious knowledge and practicing Islam.
A man from the Uygur community, the imam explained that Uygur Muslims can learn religious knowledge, firstly, from religious personnel in Mosques. For instance, he teaches Muslim prayers, Quran, Hadith and other religious manners, as well as the traditions in Islam of loving the country and the religion. Secondly, they could learn at religious institutes. They have a Xinjiang Islamic Institute in Urumqi and it has eight branches in Ili, Changji, Urumqi, Turpan, Aksu, Kizilsu, Kashgar and Hotan prefectures. Any eligible and qualified Muslim may apply for the institute for higher Islamic study. Thirdly, they learn through reading religious classics. Xinjiang Islamic Religious Affairs Steering Committee (XIRASC) has translated and published religious classics like the Quran, Sahih al-Bukhari in Chinese, Uyghur, Kazakh, and Kirgiz. The XIRASC has also published scholars’ speeches, Xinjiang Islamic Steering Guidelines for religious personnel and believers to study. Fourthly, they learn through media like professional magazines and websites. Religious knowledge is also available on the website of the Chinese Islamic Association and Chinese Muslim magazines.
The imam mentioned that respecting and protecting freedom of religious belief is a fundamental policy of the Chinese government. China's Constitution stipulates that citizens are entitled to freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization, or individual may compel citizens to believe in or not to believe in any religion, nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The State protects normal religious activities. In Xinjiang, normal religious activities, such as recitation, praying, Quran teaching, fasting, and celebrating Islamic festivals, conducted by Muslims at home or mosques are all believers' voluntary activities and protected by law allowing no interference.
“The well-equipped Jama Mosque where I serve in Hotian City is in nice condition and has good surroundings. Though Xinjiang was struck by Covid-19 last year, normal religious activities were not affected much by the epidemic and nearby Muslims came to the mosque to pray largely as usual, thanks to our effective prevention and control work,” he added.
In response to another query, Hatip Obulhasan Tursunniyaz said that installing cameras in the mosques in Xinjiang is aimed to protect the safety of clerics and believers, and to prevent and fight terrorist activities. In 2014, Senior Mullah Juma Tayir, vice president of Xinjiang Islamic Association and Imam of the Id Kah Mosque, was brutally killed by terrorists on his way home after morning Fajr prayer.
“I am sure you are aware of the incident, which was also featured in the documentary 'Fighting Terrorism in Xinjiang' broadcast by CGTN. Without the footage recorded by cameras, cracking the crime would have become more difficult, not to mention make the brutality of terrorists known to the world,” he further added.
The imam continued saying that some people falsely accuse that installing cameras in mosques is aimed to make them under surveillance and to punish Muslims. It is totally a malicious smear, with a sinister intention to sow discord in the relations between China and Islamic world, to create contradictions between Muslims and Non-Muslims, and to disrupt the religious harmony and happy life in Xinjiang. The region was exposed to severe threats of extremism and violent terrorist attacks before 2016. The terrorists attacked mosques and Islamic believers as well, regardless of ethnicity and religion.
The imam further mentioned that they were always on tenterhooks while walking on the street since they didn't know when and where they would be caught by terror attacks. But there has been no violent, terrorist attack in Xinjiang over recent four years thanks to cracking down the terrorism crimes with tough measures. Social order has been restored and stabilized; Muslims are feeling safer and more convenient now. They all support the measures taken by governments from the bottom of their hearts.
Not only the aforesaid Islamic leaders and scholars categorically denied the allegations of Muslim oppression in Xinjiang, but also many more Uyghur Islamic clerics and Muslim community leaders also came up with the same views. They even slammed the Western media for running propaganda over Xinjiang against China. On May 13, 2021, Muslim leaders from Xinjiang rejected Western allegations that China is suppressing religious freedom.
Speaking to foreign diplomats and media at a reception at the end of the holy month of Ramadan, Abdureqip Tomurniyaz, the president of the Xinjiang Islamic Association and head of the school for Islamic studies in Xinjiang, said China had eradicated the breeding ground for extremism by improving livelihoods, teaching people about the law and setting up vocational training and education centers. He accused anti-China forces in the US and other Western nations of spreading rumors and lies, adding that “They want to sabotage Xinjiang’s harmony and stability, contain China’s rise and alienate relations between China and Islamic countries.”
Abdureqip Tomurniyaz mentioned that the US is turning a blind eye to its own human rights violations, citing the US involvement in conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and other Muslim countries and anti-Muslim discrimination at home. Five more religious leaders from five mosques of Xinjiang also spoke at the event. They all described prayers and feasting for Eid al-Fitr and rejected criticism of China's religious policies. Mamat Juma, the imam of the historic Id Kah mosque in the city of Kashgar, said all ethnic groups in Xinjiang support the steps taken to combat terrorism. People are grateful to the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) for restoring stability and promoting economic growth.
Given what they said and the reality I witnessed on the ground, I can easily confer that there is no such thing as Muslim oppression in Xinjiang. I am not the first and only one foreigner who holds this view. Many Islamic scholars, clerics, leaders, journalists, lawmakers, officials, and jurists but to name a few from around the world visited Xinjiang and brushed aside the allegations of the media. In 2019, domestic and foreign travelers made over 200 million trips to Xinjiang. The region has so far received over 1,200 diplomats, journalists and representatives of religious groups from more than 100 countries, who witnessed unity, amity and happiness among various ethnic groups of Xinjiang.
Among them, most notably diplomatic envoys posted in China from 20 Arab states and the Arab League toured Xinjiang in October, 2020. They visited local companies, schools, poverty alleviation projects and grassroots communities, and talked to villagers face-to-face to get an in-depth understanding of social stability, ethnic equality and unity, as well as improvements in people's livelihoods and economic development. They also visited Islamic institutes and mosques to learn about the protection of the freedom of religious belief in Xinjiang.
The 46th session of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) adopted a resolution on Xinjiang in 2019. The resolution commends China's efforts for the well-being of the Muslims within its territory. It justified China's position on Xinjiang, rejecting the negative propaganda of some Western countries to this effect. The OIC has also expressed its willingness to strengthen cooperation with China. Prior to adopting the resolution, a delegation of the General Secretariat of the OIC visited Xinjiang to see the conditions on the ground for themselves. The Council welcomed the outcomes of the visit and commended the efforts of China in providing care to its Muslim citizens, including the Uygur in Xinjiang.
Since 2001, Xinjiang has sent more than 70 religious school students and clerical personnel to Egypt's Al-Azhar University and Pakistan International Islamic University and other overseas institutions for further study, with a view to improving their religious knowledge and teaching level. Xinjiang has organized the China Xinjiang Cultural Exchange Group for exchanges with countries in the Middle East, Oceania and Europe. Xinjiang's religious delegations have participated in the Chinese Islamic Culture Expo and Art Show hosted by the Islamic Association of China in Indonesia, Turkey and other countries, introducing the patriotism of Islam in China and its experiences in resisting the infiltration of religious extremism.
In July 2019, at the United Nations (UN), some 50 countries issued a counter-statement criticizing the practice of "politicizing human rights issues," stating "China has invited a number of diplomats, international organizations officials and journalist to Xinjiang" and that "what they saw and heard in Xinjiang completely contradicted what was reported in the media." The counter-statement also commended China's "remarkable achievements in the field of human rights", claiming that "safety and security has returned to Xinjiang and the fundamental human rights of people of all ethnic groups there are safeguarded. The counter-statement was issued against a statement in which several countries called for an end to mass detentions in China and expressed their concerns about widespread surveillance and repression.
In October 2019, some 54 countries at the UN issued another joint statement reiterating that the work of human rights in the United Nations should be conducted in a "non-politicized manner", and supporting China's Xinjiang policies. The statement spoke positively of the results of counter-terrorism and de-radicalization measures in Xinjiang and held that these measures have effectively safeguarded the basic human rights of people of all ethnic groups."
Muslim Arab countries like Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Pakistan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen endorsed both statements. They also praised China’s “response to threats of terrorism and extremism” and actions taken to “safeguard the human rights of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang.
As far as I know, China always welcomes all unbiased people from all countries to visit Xinjiang. The country has already invited the UN human rights chief to visit Xinjiang. Both sides are still working on the upcoming visit of the human rights boss. As part of the country’s sincere efforts to show the world the true Xinjiang, In June 2019, China invited UN counter-terrorism Chief Vladimir Voronkov to visit Xinjiang. After the visit, the UN counter-terrorism Chief testified that he found nothing incriminating at the camps. On November 11, 2019, the World Bank issued a statement saying that they conducted a thorough review and found nothing that substantiates the allegations regarding the vocational training and education centers.
Egypt signed both statements at the UN (in July and October 2019) that supported China's Xinjiang policies. More than a dozen of top Indonesian Islamic leaders visited Xinjiang. They dismissed the reports of widespread human rights violations in Xinjiang as US propaganda. In a December 2016 report, the research unit of the Iranian state-owned television's external services said that China is not opposed to Muslims. Iran also signed the UN statements that publicly expressed support for China's treatment of the Uyghur.
Pakistan signed both statements at the UN (in July and October 2019) that supported China's Xinjiang policies. In July 2020, while meeting with President Xi Jinping Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas voiced support for China's legitimate position on Xinjiang. In February 2019, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman defended China's position, saying "China has the right to carry out anti-terrorism and de-radicalization work for its national security. Saudi Arabia was among the countries that backed China's position at the UN Human Rights Council in July 2019, and again at the UN General Assembly in October 2020.
In December 2019, the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates defended China's actions in Xinjiang. It said that "Syria emphasizes the right of China to preserve its sovereignty, people, territorial integrity, and security and protect the security and property of the state and individuals." When visiting China in July 2019, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said, "It is a fact that the people of all ethnicities in Xinjiang are leading a happy life amid China's development and prosperity." President Erdoğan also said that some people were seeking to "abuse" the Xinjiang crisis to jeopardize the "Turkish–Chinese relationship".
From what has been discussed above, it is crystal clear that there is no such thing as Muslim oppression in Xinjiang. The allegations of oppression are nothing but parts of widespread propaganda. Even while talking to our delegation, referring to the propaganda and sanctions, Muktaram Sharif said that Muslims of Xinjiang are deadly against foreign interference in their affairs and they are aggrieved at the fabricated and fake news on so-called Muslim persecutions in the region. Liu Haifeng also echoed the voice of the vice president of the association. He said propaganda is aimed to cripple the economy of the region and no propaganda could be successful in the long run. The propagandists also know that there is no such thing as forced labor in Xinjiang, but they are running fake and fabricated stories about it only to cripple the economy of the region. They have targeted the industry as it offers 80 percent cotton of China and 70 percent of the world.
Given the facts and realities on the ground well, the world conscience, irrespective of Muslim and no-Muslim, has already stood up for China’s position and policies over Xinjiang. The people who visited and live in the region, including Islamic scholars and Muslim leaders, have long been testifying against the media stories branding them as propaganda. Uyghur people themselves are saying they are not oppressed at all but the victims of Western propaganda that eventually violates their human rights. But nothing could stop some Western media and politicians from concocting one after another cock and bull stories against China. For the sake of the truth, I have dug out the genuineness of the allegations. I have written an analysis of some major allegations that I may come up with next.
- Md Enamul Hassan is a news editor at the China Media Group (CMG) Beijing, China.