Muslim children in China’s Xinjiang region must drop names deemed to be “overly religious” under a new policy in the atheist Communist country.
The order, announced during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, applies to children younger than 16, according to Radio Free Asia. Officials said the measure is part of an effort “to curb religious fervor” in the region.
The region’s officials in April announced a list of banned baby names, including Islam, Quran, Mecca, Jihad, Imam, Saddam, Hajj, and Medina. Authorities later extended the ban to all children under 16, the age at which citizens typically apply for a national identity card in China. Parents had until June 1 to make the necessary legal changes.
Names “with a strong religious flavor, such as Jihad” or those with “connotations of holy war or of splittism [Xinjiang independence]” are no longer allowed, a local police station employee told Radio Free Asia.
“Just stick to the party line, and you’ll be fine,” he said.
Muslims in Xinjiang largely belong to the Uyghur population, a Turkic ethnic group that has experienced years of tension with the Chinese government. In the early 20th century, Uyghur groups led several successful uprisings and gained independence for a short period before being brought under control of the Communist government in 1949.
Omer Kanat, director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, condemned the naming restrictions. “The measures curbing the use of certain names among Uyghurs is an assault on the Uyghur culture,” he said in a statement. “The names restricted by the state are not ‘foreign’ to the Uyghur culture, they are names that have been used by Uyghur parents for generations.”
China is home to some 23 million Muslims, less than 2 percent of the overall population. Many Chinese Muslims face daily Islamophobia in the officially atheist country.
“In the beginning, people didn’t understand me. They made me go for psychological counseling,” said Ye Qingfang, a Chinese Muslim woman interviewed by BBC, of her experience converting to Islam. “They asked if I was manipulated by evil groups or had any connection with them.”
According to a report from the Jamestown Foundation, Islamophobia has risen in China in recent years, often targeting the Uyghurs, who are seen as representing forces of separatism and extremism.
Several recent attacks ― including a 2014 terrorist attack in a Kunming train station by a knife-wielding group that killed 31 people and injured 141― resulted in a surge of anti-Muslim sentiment. The government has blamed the Uyghur population for extremist attacks.
Xinjiang has witnessed sporadic bouts of violence, but activists argue most incidents are a result of local grievances and not international terrorist activity, as Chinese officials have claimed. Uyghur-rights groups also say the government has cracked down on the ethnic community’s religious and cultural activities.
In May, authorities in the Xinjiang region began confiscating all Qurans published before 2012 due to perceived “extremist content.” Officials have also banned “abnormal” beards and face veils as part of ongoing “anti-extremism” measures.
Human Rights Watch China director Sophie Richardson called the government’s ban on certain baby names “farcically repressive.”
“If the government is serious about bringing stability and harmony to the region as it claims, it should roll back – not double down on – repressive policies,” Richardson said in a statement.