In what is being called a ‘clampdown targeting Muslims’, China is accused of razing dozens of mosques in the Xinjiang province, which is home to Muslim minorities like the Uighurs. A new investigation by UK newspaper, the Guardian, and open-source journalism platform Bellingcat, analysed satellite imagery of 91 religious sites in the northwestern province through Google Earth and Planet Labs. They found that at least 31 mosques and two major shrines had suffered significant structural damage between what their images were in 2016 and what they show in 2018.
While 15 of these structures are speculated to be completely or almost completely destroyed, other distinct features like domes and minarets were removed, and nine other buildings that stood in for mosques but had no defining characteristics were also demolished.
These reportedly include the Imam Asim shrine (a pilgrimage destination for Uighurs), the Kargilik Mosque (one of the largest mosques in the area) and the Yutian Aitika mosque near Hotan (which dates back thousands of years and was an important site for locals to gather during religious holidays).
“Nothing could say more clearly to the Uighurs that the Chinese state wants to uproot their culture and break their connection to the land than the desecration of their ancestors’ graves, the sacred shrines that are the landmarks of Uighur history,” said Rian Thum, a historian of Islam at the University of Nottingham, in an interview with the Guardian.
This study surfaces at a time when China is being accused of engaging in ‘cultural genocide’ after the United Nations human rights panel said that it has credible reports that China is holding more than one million ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims in "mass internment camps". The Chinese government has denied these allegations, instead saying that they have been sending these Muslims to “vocational training” schools that will help them “counter Islamic extremism”. But according to a Foreign Policy report, even things like owning a tent, knowing someone who has travelled abroad or abstaining from alcohol can get you thrown into these camps indefinitely for “suspicious” behaviour. Many even claim that these ‘re-education centres’ are as bad as concentration camps, complete with barbed wire walls. A Human Rights Watch report even recently revealed that the government is using a mobile app to illegally keep tabs on its 13 million Turkic Muslim citizens.
In fact, China recently passed a law to ‘Sinicize Islam’ within the next five years, which basically means it wants to co-opt the religion to fit Chinese characteristics. This comes even as activists have spoken up about how practising Islam is forbidden in some parts of China, where fasting, praying and even wearing a hijab can get you arrested. Experts have concluded that China is imposing such repressive restrictions to wipe out Islamic religious identity in the country.
“If the current generation, you take away their parents and on the other hand you destroy the cultural heritage that reminds them of their origin… when they grow up, this will be foreign to them,” said a former resident of Hotan, to the Guardian. “Mosques being torn down is one of the few things we can see physically. What other things are happening that are hidden, that we don’t know about? That is what is scary.”
Follow Shamani Joshi on Instagram.