Muslims, Chinese tense neighbours in Kashgar

The muezzin’s call to prayer at Kashgar’s main Id Kah mosque is a loud reminder that millions of Muslims here in China’s far west answer to a higher authority than the Communist Party.

Muslim residents of this dust-coated 2 000-year-old Silk Road city in Xinjiang province express quiet anger when asked about recent clashes in a nearby city between Muslims and Chinese police, calling it just another example of oppression by Beijing.

“There is violence, here and there, sometimes. But you people will not hear about it, will you?” a carpet merchant, who gave his name as Musa, told a foreign journalist while flashing a wry, knowing smile.

About 1 000 people fought with police in the remote desert town of Khotan on March 23 and 24, according to exiles from the local Uighur minority, a central Asian people who are the dominant ethnic group in Xinjiang and have long chafed under Beijing’s strict control.

The clash was sparked by the death in police custody of a Uighur businessman and a local ban on wearing headscarves, the exiles said, although Chinese authorities in Khotan blamed it on “separatist” forces.

To the residents of Kashgar, 400 barren kilometres from Khotan and close to the borders with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, it is a familiar story.

“Those people will be punished harshly. We have seen it before,” said a taxi driver, named Habedi, who like many Uighurs here knew the details of the clashes despite it not being reported by official media.

The gulf between China and the roughly eight million Muslim residents of Xinjiang is on clear display here in Kashgar, 3 500km from Beijing and even farther in cultural and religious terms.

A modern, Chinese-built street lined with shops knifes through the town’s heart, but is flanked on either side by the Old Town, a sprawling, maze-like neighbourhood of mud-and-brick homes populated by Uighurs, who make up about 90% of Kashgar’s population.

Although Chinese-imported modernities are seeping in — there is even a dingy internet café now — many Uigurs live as they have for generations as blacksmiths, hatmakers and plying other crafts.

Many are unable — or unwilling — to speak Mandarin, despite being taught it at school, and the two sides cannot even agree on the time of day.

China has set one time zone for the entire country, which means that lunchtime by official reckoning is more like 9am in Kashgar.

In setting an appointment with an outsider, Uighurs will typically say the time of day, followed proudly by “Xinjiang time”.

Lilting Uighur pop can be heard almost everywhere and the city’s signage is dominated by the slashing Uighur script.

But local allegiances are most apparent at the city’s two largest gathering places. The Id Kah mosque’s plaza is alive all day with worshippers, hawkers and crowds of scraggly-bearded Muslim men under lofty black felt hats, sitting on benches and talking quietly.

By contrast, the Chinese-built city square, watched over by an 18m-statue of Mao Zedong, is usually lifeless save for a few playing children.

“Many Chinese don’t like Uighurs and many Uighurs don’t like Chinese. We don’t really mix,” said Aysha, a local English-speaking Uighur tour guide.

Although the Uighur brand of Islam is less strict than in some other Muslim countries — many Kashgar women wear tight jeans and other modern fashions — local residents complain openly of religious oppression by Beijing.

Some Uighurs acknowledge economic gains brought by China’s boom. But others reject it — and Beijing’s policy of officially encouraging migration to Xinjiang by Han Chinese — as unwelcome Chinese interference of the sort that they blame for sparking the Khotan unrest.

“Very few here like the Chinese government. But what can we do?” said Habedi, the cab driver. – AFP

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Dan Martin
Dan Martin
Award-winning storyteller, content marketer and nice guy in pursuit of a purposeful life.

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