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Crackdown, Misunderstanding of Uyghur Faith

Greg Fay

At a holy site in the Central Asian desert, the indigenous Uyghur people tie rice and corn to grave-markers to "feed" spirits and protect the souls of their dead. At another shrine, women leave scarves after praying for marriage and fertility. Photographer Lisa Ross captures these sacred rituals in a new photography book called Living Shrines of Uyghur China also on display at an exhibit at the Rubin Museum in New York, which concludes on Monday, July 8.

Nowhere is the rich religious history of the Uyghur people more apparent than the mazar. Some shrines are located on Buddhist sites, marking the importance of Buddhist history to the Uyghurs. Others reflect earlier shamanist beliefs, with names and rituals indicative of practices that pre-date Buddhism's journey along the Silk Road, even before Uyghurs converted to Islam in the tenth to fifteenth centuries. Still others are named for Muslim saints and Uyghur historical figures. Worship at the mazar is a mystical practice of Sufi Islam, coexisting alongside Uyghurs' Sunni beliefs.

This religious history is often lost on outside observers. Following a recent violent incident in Lukchun near Turpan, which Chinese state media first blamed on mobsters, then terrorists, Andrew Jacobs and Chris Buckley noted in the New York Times that "government restrictions on religion have become a growing source of tensions with Uighurs, who have embraced more conservative currents of Sunni Islam." While the analysis of Uyghurs rifling under oppressive religious restrictions is true, the characterization of Uyghurs as conservative Sunnis ignores the plurality of Uyghur faith on display in Ross's exhibit at the Rubin Museum.

In fact, I attended a conference on mazar in August 2008, about ten kilometers from the incident in Lukchun, at the Tuyuq mazar (my photograph of the site is above). Tuyuq, an important site of worship, is located near caves containing ancient Buddhist murals, a history which imbues the location with deep spiritual significance. Ross does not identify the specific locations of her photos, which zoom instead to magnify tiny details of the sacred spaces, but this major site is likely to be included.

Although overseas observers may have difficulty accurately interpreting Uyghurs' Islamic beliefs, there is no confusion over whether they experience religious control from China's government. On the same day that Ross's show closes at the Rubin, the Holy Month of Ramadan commences, another cornerstone of Uyghur faith. It is the most restrictive period of the year for Uyghur religious practice, and reveals China's brutal repression of the Uyghur faith. Already Radio Free Asia reports that Chinese authorities are commencing "political study classes" and preparing for the annual crackdown.

The Uyghur Human Rights Project documents the extent of the religious persecution facing Uyghurs in a major new report called "Sacred Right Defiled: China's Iron-Fisted Repression of Uyghur Religious Freedom." Based on interviews and official sources, the report documents the annual Ramadan crackdown. For example, last year regulations forbidding Ramadan fasting were listed in at least 16 county government websites collected for the report. A Uyghur religious leader, or imam, told UHRP that during Ramadan, people were forced to eat. The government monitored whose lights turned on before dawn to prepare for the fast; their salaries would be cut.

The effects of the Ramadan crackdown extend beyond the spiritual to tangible, economic ones. In a blog post translated for the report, a Uyghur restaurant owner explains that the sacred month is an opportunity for Muslims to handle repairs and redecoration in their businesses. Not only is this opportunity lost, but any restaurant that needs to make a repair during the month will be fined for closing during Ramadan. His post illustrates the extent to which China's religious crackdown dictates the rhythm of Uyghur economic and social life.

Nor are the mazar safe. In an essay in Ross's book, historian Alexandre Papas describes the "museification" of the sites, as China's state endows the sites with the status of "cultural patrimony sites," enabling tourist companies to charge entrance fees that the majority of citizens cannot afford. This phenomenon was recorded in 2009 at the Tuyuq mazar by a Uyghur documentary filmmaker from the Beijng Film Academy. In addition, visitors must fill in a registration book with full name, ethnicity, address and occupation.

Even worse, the government has sustained a crackdown on mazar festivals. Like the mazar themselves, these festivals exhibit both spiritual and secular elements of Uyghur culture. In her book, Ross describes the festivities: "There were magicians, a crowded arena for an ancient form of wrestling, tightrope walking, food stalls, storytellers, musicians, hats for sale, religious beggars, and the smell of lamb cooking, while all day long buses, donkey carts and taxis arrived carrying more people."

Not surprisingly, a crackdown on the festivals has not only religious implications but social and economic ones as well. For example, the festival at the Ordam mazar was the largest shrine festival until it was banned in 1997. As a result, the local economy was damaged "immeasurably" and today the prayer houses and wells at the mazar's mosque are threatened by encroaching desert sands, according to Uyghur scholar Rahile Dawut.

Ross herself described engaging in certain tactics to avoid government attention. During increased security in 2008, Ross said she would knock over her tripod whenever someone would pass by so they would not know she was videotaping the site.

Meanwhile, China uses incidents like the recent violence in Lukchun to undermine Uyghur religious freedom. In a June 28 article in China Daily, Chinese academic Shi Lan wrote that overseas groups "love to call usurpations acts of 'independence and religious freedom,'" painting the struggle for the right to worship freely as somehow tied up with violent incidents about which scant information is known to anyone but the Chinese government. In fact, they are very separate issues. There is nothing extremist about Uyghur people freely fasting during Ramadan and worshipping at the mazar and other holy sites.