A village in China’s western Xinjiang province is facing a dilemma.
With a majority Muslim population in Xinjiang, Chinese authorities have reportedly ordered Muslim shopkeepers and restaurant owners in one of the villages to promote alcohol and cigarettes.
The “eye-catching displays,” are a method of undermining Islam amongst the community of residents Radio Free Asia reported on Monday. Any venues that did not follow the local government’s orders were given ultimatums of closure or prosecution.
China has grappled with the issue of the general unrest in Xinjiang, one of China’s western most provinces.
Over the past two years and in the face growing violence, China has gone on the offensive with a campaign of “strike hard” as it tries to wrest control of the local people away from Islam, Radio Free Asia reported.
Muslim government employees are not allowed to visit mosques or fast during the holy month of Ramadan. Women of the Muslim community are banned from wearing a niqab, a face-covering veil, and men are advised to not grow their beards long.
In southern Xinjiang, the village of Aktash whose resident Adil Sulayman, a Communist Party official told RFA that many of the village’s shopkeepers had sold alcohol and cigarettes up until 2012 when they stopped “because they fear public scorn,” as many locals, devout Muslims, had spurned drinking and smoking.
The Quran points to the use of such “intoxicants” as sinful and many Muslim religious leaders forbid smoking as it harms one’s body.
Apart from China’s fear of the “Islamification” of Xinjiang, there is underlying ethnic tension between the local Uighurs and the Chinese Han. Authorities in Xinjiang deemed ethnic Uighurs who did not smoke as followers of “a form of religious extremism.”
Another reason triggering a campaign to counter the growth of Islamic religious sentiment.
The circulated notice calling on shopkeepers and restaurant owners to sell different brands of alcohol and cigarettes was spread around Xinjiang was obtained by RFA and later posted on Twitter, it said that “Anybody who neglects this notice and fails to act will see their shops sealed off, their businesses suspended, and legal action pursued against them,”
Due to Xinjiang provinces’ tense nature, little information is leaked through the Chinese government’s strict control.
However, Radio Free Asia which is one of the few media outlets to provide coverage of events in Xinjiang said that the prefecture in which Aktash is located, Hotan, is “a hotbed of violent stabbing and shooting incidents between ethnic Uighurs and Chinese security forces.”
Beijing makes claims that it’s tight control over this unstable region rests on the fact that Uighur militant groups abroad are using the Internet to whip jihad amongst the local Muslims.
While detractors of China claim that it was China’s longtime repression of the Uighur minority which had alienated and motivated them to embrace Islam as a form of community identity in the face of suppressed nationalism. Critics argue that China’s latest attempt to turn people away from their Islamic faith via alcohol and cigarettes is counterproductive.
An expert on China’s ethnic politics at Melbourne’s La Trobe University, James Leibold, told the Washington Post that Chinese officials are fumbling when it comes to dealing with any form of religious extremism.
He blamed this on a severe lack of understanding and not the underlying reasons for the radicalism if any.
Leibold added that it is “crude forms of ethno-cultural profiling,”
Leibold asserted that such policies are counterintuitive and only fan ethno-national tension and do nothing to stem the root cause of religious extremism. It also punishes the Uighur community as a whole making them vulnerable in a majority Han Chinese society.
According to the Post, around 60 shops and restaurants in Aktash and surrounding areas that followed government orders and were implementing its directives.
No unrest or protests were reported. However, in Qinghai province not far from Xinjiang, Muslim community members had protested violently after a halal store was found to have pork sausages and ham in its delivery van. The crowd smashed windows and vented anger at the revelation.