Ramazan in internment

May 08, 2019

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The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

THE month of Ramazan has begun and Muslims all over the world are fasting. From the far-flung near Arctic towns in Norway and Iceland, to the tropical locales of Indonesia and Malaysia, local customs, special foods and spiritual regeneration are all front and centre for fasting Muslims. So it is nearly everywhere except next door to Pakistan, in Xinjiang, China’s predominantly Muslim province.

One post on the website of the Food and Drug Administration of Xinjiang says “food service places will operate during normal hours in Ramadan”, and more importantly, “During Ramadan do not engage in fasting, vigils and other religious activities”.

According to the Save Uighur website, “China is the only place in the world where Muslims are not allowed to fast. Uighurs and Muslims have been forbidden from fasting for the last three years.” Other reports point out that Ramazan restrictions apply in particular to schools and government offices.

Religious freedom and Islamic solidarity have both been forgotten when it comes to standing up to China.

According to a report in the New York Times, China has imprisoned a million ethnic Uighurs in vast internment camps. In one, at the edge of a large desert in western China, hundreds of Uighur Muslims are forced to participate in a high-pressure indoctrination programme in which they must learn Chinese and job skills and essentially delink themselves from their religious identity.

This is only one of several internment camps currently operated by the state, all of them fenced in and guarded by armed guards. One man from the camp said that he had been rounded up for reciting holy verses at a funeral. After three months at a camp, he and others were asked to renounce links to their previous lives. Many of those who have been sequestered in these camps, all of which include some sort of brainwashing element, are expected to offer up similar renunciations.

The crackdown on Uighur Muslims is linked to a large surveillance programme that is being tested by the Chinese government. In Kashgar, the main city in Xinjiang and one with a vibrant Muslim history, cameras and surveillance are reportedly found everywhere.

The goal obviously is to replace human intelligence of spies and snitches with technology. Regular checkpoints force the Uighurs to show their national identity cards and undergo questioning by guards who are armed. Sometimes the police take Uighur phones in order to see if they have installed the compulsory software that allows the government to monitor their calls. At other times, what the police erase makes no sense (one man complained that a police officer had erased the picture of a camel), but in all cases they have the power to decide whether or not a person will be allowed to proceed through the checkpoint.

Nor is this the only means of controlling and monitoring the population. The government controls internet and telecommunication already, which means that anyone saying anything against it, or even someone seen to show excessive allegiance to one’s faith, is at risk. Neighbourhoods in Kashgar have ‘monitors’ that are assigned the task of monitoring several families to ensure that they are not violating rules such as secretly fasting despite its prohibition.

With China’s growing power in the world, not least in Muslim countries like Pakistan, few are interested in speaking out about the inhumane and unwarranted crackdown on Muslims. Many Muslim countries owe large sums to the Chinese and any kind of vocal opposition or taking up of the Uighur issue will likely hurt their chances of continuing to attract China’s money to their own shores.

The United States, in its most Islamophobic moment to date, is similarly uninterested. US trade talks with China concluded last week without even bringing up the issue of the Uighurs and the religious repression that makes up their lives.

Religious freedom and Islamic solidarity have both been forgotten when it comes to standing up to China. The few who are still trying are the minority. A Turkish activist recently tried to initiate a campaign to “fast from China” via which Muslims who are fasting would abstain from using and buying Chinese goods such as mobile phones, clothing and electronics. It is unknown how much attention his campaign, which follows the hashtag #FastFromChina, will attract in the future.

Others, such as groups of American Muslims have been trying to draw attention to the curbs on fasting in China by travelling to the country and observing Ramazan there. Because they are Americans, China cannot crack down on them for fasting and they hope that their public fasting in China will draw attention to the millions of Uighurs who cannot fast in their own country.

Pakistan itself gets more and more indebted to Chinese loans, Chinese-built infrastructure and technology by the day, the hour and the minute. It is perhaps because of this that none of these efforts to speak out for the Uighurs have gained any traction at all in a country that is so geographically close to where such egregious abuses of religious liberty and freedom are taking place.

This month, Pakistanis are freely fasting (even while forbidding non-Muslim minorities from public consumption of food and all restaurants shut) but few seem to have spared a moment to consider the fates of the people who, just like them, would like to observe the tenets of their religious faith.

Self-absorbed and turning away, none of Pakistan’s religious scholars, or television anchors or military brass or civilian ministers, seem to be interested in speaking up about what is happening next door. If they do not have the guts or the gumption to do the right thing, then what can one expect of ordinary Pakistanis who may be fasting but yet are not quite interested in doing the right thing so others may do the same?

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, May 8th, 2019