The tomb of the Muslim saint Imam Asim lies in China’s Taklamakan Desert, at the end of a long walkway lined with poplar trees. An elevated mud structure, the shrine would easily be camouflaged by the sand if not for the flags, rams’ skulls and strips of cloth decorating it. It is located near the town of Hotan, in the autonomous region of Xinjiang, in the country’s north-west—the homeland of the Turkic-speaking Uyghur Muslim community. For centuries, Uyghur Sufis would journey through the desert between shrines such as this one, stopping at each to recite poems celebrating religious heroes.
“Chinese people don’t come here,” said Tudi Mohammad, a 50-year-old sheikh who is the shrine’s guardian. “It’s not a tourist site.” Mohammad has lived near the shrine for most of his life; his father was also its guardian. He remembered how thousands of people would visit the shrine in May, when locals commemorated the anniversary of the saint’s death. But now, he said, the government has prohibited that ceremony, and Uyghurs come to the tomb in tens, at most. Before he could elaborate, a police car arrived at the shrine. Several personnel entered the building with large batons in hand, demanding that we leave. Mohammad turned around and returned to his room near the shrine’s entrance, glancing pointedly at a security camera hanging above his door.
Xinjiang is one of China’s most politically tense regions, and the government maintains a heavy security presence here in the name of countering extremism and separatism. In June, China’s State Council Information Office released a white paper praising what it claimed were unprecedented levels of religious freedom for Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Its claims ring true at some level: select religious and cultural sites—including some state-constructed ones—are open and functioning. Others, however, such as the shrine of Imam Asim, are heavily policed. Some are even closed completely; the Orda Padishahim shrine, about 60 kilometres from the city of Kashgar, which used to attract hundreds of thousands of pilgrims annually, has been shut for a decade. When I told locals I hoped to visit the shrine, they said that doing so was illegal, and warned that I would be stopped by the police.
The crackdown on Uyghur places of worship is part of a larger programme of persecution of the minority group by the Chinese state. Uyghurs in schools or government offices are forbidden from wearing headscarves or fasting during Ramadan. Those under 18 years of age cannot enter mosques, young men cannot grow beards, and no one can wear clothing marked with a crescent moon. While these restrictions have existed for decades, their enforcement has intensified since 2009, after Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, was wracked by violent ethnic riots. In the wake of such repression, fear, militancy and ethnic strife have grown in Xinjiang.
When I visited the region in June, Ramadan celebrations were muted. Even in the mostly Uyghur city of Yarkand, the streets were nearly empty in the evenings and only one restaurant was open for iftar. Uyghur families filled the tables to share meals of carrot, raisin and lamb pilaf, pulled noodles in beef stew, yogurt pitchers and plates of fruit. “It’s too quiet,” one Uyghur, a driver in his mid twenties, told me. He added that “the last few years have been bad,” and that before then, people would have been spilling out into the streets to break their fasts, but now they weren’t even leaving their houses. “The economy is down, but also, people are afraid.”
During Ramadan in 2014, ethnic riots broke out in Yarkand. According to Chinese state sources, at least 96 people were killed and 215 arrested when separatists attacked a police station. Local authorities’ discovery of suspicious explosives had prompted an extremist rampage, the state narrative went, as knife-wielding gangs terrorised the streets, burning cars, killing civilians and targeting government offices. In contrast, the US-sponsored Radio Free Asia reported that Chinese security forces massacred at least 2,000 Uyghurs after a violent riot over the extrajudicial killing of a Uyghur family that had disputed the headscarf restrictions.
Even after two years, the Uyghurs I met in Yarkand refused to tell me what had happened. But one Kashgar resident—a woman of the nationally dominant Han ethnicity—said that many more Uyghurs had been killed than the state sources acknowledged. “So many Han people left Yarkand after that,” she said. “They’re afraid of southern Xinjiang.” Even in Kashgar, she continued, clashes between Uyghurs and security forces are regular but usually go unreported. “The government wants people to settle here, so they want Xinjiang to seem safe. But you never know what will happen.”
Since the Urumqi riots, some Uyghurs have escalated their resistance tactics to the point of militancy. In 2013, a radical Uyghur Islamist group claimed responsibility for a car attack in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square that killed five people. In 2014, hundreds of civilians were killed or injured over the course of several attacks, including a mass stabbing in Kunming and a bombing at a street market in Urumqi. In September 2015, knife-wielding attackers killed at least 50 civilians—mostly Han—at a coal mine in Aksu. Some radicals have pointed to state violence as a reason for their militancy. The May 2016 issue of the magazine of the Turkestan Islamic Party, which fights for the establishment of a fundamentalist Islamic state in Xinjiang, carried headlines that included “Crimes of the Chinese Communist Regime,” and “China has adopted controversial laws on the fight against terrorism.”
The state has adopted heavy-handed measures to stem such militancy. In November 2014, the prominent Uyghur intellectual Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of separatism, after he criticised Chinese policies in Xinjiang. In November 2015, Chinese security forces killed 28 Uyghurs who they claimed were criminals responsible for the Aksu attack. But Radio Free Asia again disputed this, saying that those killed included innocent women and children.
In everyday life, this crackdown can take the form of excessive police scrutiny. At a night market in Hotan, I saw Uyghurs and Han Chinese socialising, mostly speaking in Mandarin and eating each other’s versions of kebabs, dumplings and glutinous rice desserts. Yet police standing at the market entrance routinely searched passing Uyghurs, checking their IDs and mobile phones, all the while waving Han individuals through. One Uyghur policeman apologised to a Uyghur man as he was searched. “This is just policy,” he said. “We have to fill a quota of people that we’ve checked every day.” At least ten checkpoints exist on the 500-kilometre road between Hotan and Kashgar, where Uyghur travellers are thoroughly searched, and some forced to turn back.
This strict policing may not even be in the interest of the Chinese state. Rian Thum, a scholar who recently published a book on Uyghur pilgrimages in southern Xinjiang, noted that the forms of Islam practised in many of the community’s shrines have long been peaceful alternatives to more extremist ideologies. “Many people involved in nationalist movements were very anti-shrine,” Thum told me over the phone. “The reformist or even fundamentalist approaches to Islam saw shrine veneration as a type of shirk—associating other deities with God.” Ironically, suppressing such types of Islam may only make Uyghurs more susceptible to calls for violent resistance.
In Yarkand’s old-town area, I visited a state-designated tourist site: the mausoleum of Ammanishahan, a sixteenth-century queen famous for composing muqam—a type of traditional Uyghur opera. At the entrance, a sign read: “Great Mistress ad Poetress of Mukam Music: Ammanishahan’s Mausoleum,” in English, with adjacent translations in Mandarin and Uyghur. The mausoleum sat beside a garden filled with engraved white tombs. The Chinese government had spent 420,000 renminbi in 1993 to restore this site, an informational sign read. Ammanishahan’s muqams are “a jewel in the brilliant treasure chest of Chinese ethnic culture,” another added. One pair of Han tourists walked around the otherwise empty site, their 20-renminbi entrance tickets in hand.
But Uyghur visitors to Yarkand flock instead to the public Muslim cemetery, several minutes’ walk away from the mausoleum. There, I saw a stream of Uyghurs trickling in and out of the Chiltenmalik shrine, a towering brick structure housing the tombs of seven holy men. A sheikh sat cross-legged at the entrance, his eyes closed. When I asked my Uyghur guide whether Han tourists ever visited this site, he laughed. “No. This cemetery is a home for the homeless,” he said, pointing to a beggar sleeping inside an abandoned structure, and elderly Uyghurs panhandling amid rows of mud graves. He brought me to another tomb, several feet away from the shrine, its façade adorned with fading, centuries-old blue tiles. Its gate was padlocked, letting in only a sliver of light to reveal Arabic inscriptions on the walls. “The authorities closed this for security reasons, saying the building was too old and might injure visitors,” the guide said. “But no one has come to fix or open it for years.”
Alice Su is a journalist based in Beijing whose work focuses on migration, religion, China and the Middle East. Her reporting for this piece was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.