By Rosie Dawson
“Ramadan is supposed to be a very spiritual peaceful month, but now it is the saddest month for Uyghurs,” says Rahima Mahmut.
Ms Mahmut, a Uyghur singer and director of the World Uyghur Congress, has been living in London for the past 20 years. It is four years since she heard from family living in China’s Xinjiang province — or East Turkestan as she prefers to call it.
“Suddenly my phone calls went unanswered,” she says. “At New Year 2017, I called my brother repeatedly. In the end he answered and said, ‘Leave us in God’s hands, and we will leave you in God’s hands.’ His voice was trembling and I put the phone down.”
Another Uyghur exile living in London, who wishes to be known only as Nisa, had a similar experience. “I have not had contact with my family in Kashgar since 2016. My sister said, ‘Please don’t call me for a while.’ I don’t know if she is alive or not. Kashgar is in my heart every single minute. We are disappearing. Genocide is happening in my country.”
Last week the House of Commons declared that the Chinese government was carrying out a genocide in Xinjiang. More than a million Uyghurs are thought to be in internment camps which the authorities say are necessary to contain the activities of extremists.
There are reports of mass sterilisations and the separation of Uyghur children from their parents. Religious activities have been restricted, especially during Ramadan. This year Radio Free Asia is reporting that Muslims are deciding not to fast for fear of being labelled extremists and sent to the camps.
“The Uyghurs have their own unique Turkic identity and culture,” Ms Mahmut explains. “Our language is Turkic, the influence of Sufism is very strong, so we are much closer to Istanbul than Beijing.”
The region now known as Xinjiang sits in the northwest corner of China in Central Asia. It was controlled by the Qing dynasty from the 1760s. Before becoming part of the Chinese Republic in 1949 it enjoyed two brief periods of independence in 1933 and 1944.
“Xinjiang means ‘new frontier’. It’s a colonial name,” Ms Mahmut says, “that proves that the land was not historically part of China.” Mass immigration of Han Chinese people into Xinjiang began in the 1950s as part of the Chinese government’s programme to assimilate the Uyghur people into mainstream Chinese culture.
Ms Mahmut says the government was placing restrictions on Ramadan observance even before she left the country. Civil servants, teachers and students were banned from fasting. “When I was teaching, I was told to watch out for those fasting in class.”
“At school, the teachers forced us to drink water and offered us candy, and my dad said they were checking if we were fasting or not,” Nisa says. She recalls how her family used to observe Ramadan secretly, eating by candlelight as they broke the fast every night and keeping their doors locked.
The Chinese government denies that Muslims are persecuted in Xinjiang. The state-owned news agency Ecns.cn — the official English-language website of China News Service — calls reports that Muslims are prohibited from fasting a “rumour”.
“This is sheer slander and smear … fabricated out of thin air to confound the right and wrong,” it writes. It says that fasting is protected by law and that the government is helping Muslims to mark Ramadan appropriately during the Covid pandemic. Propaganda videos extolling Xinjiang as a “land of thriving vitality” can be viewed on YouTube.
“We don’t know what propaganda games they will play this Ramadan,” Ms Mahmut says. She feels sorry for those dancing and singing on the videos and following party lines. “I don’t blame them. No one has the right to refuse when party officials approach them and tell them what to say.”
She will be keeping Ramadan with her son in London. Her happiest times are when he is around, she says. “If my loved ones are safe the rest is easy for me. Not knowing what is happening to them – that is the hardest bit.”
“A Uyghur Ramadan” can be heard on the Things Unseen podcast