One may well ask what’s in a name. Parents of a new born child will search all over for a new name that is auspicious and in keeping with their traditions and customs. It appears that the People’s Republic of China intend to turn this age old tradition on its head. Recently, they announced that in the province of Xinjiang, parents were forbidden to keep the name ‘Muhammad’ for their child.
In Xinjiang, parents have been forbidden from naming their newborn children with Muslim names such as “Mohammed” and “Jihad.” Parents living in Xinjiang have been forbidden from selecting baby names from a list of 29 provided by the regional government there in an effort to “curb religious fervor.” The new measures come following a more limited ban that was imposed in September 2016 in one county in Hotan prefecture.
This is the latest in the series of crackdowns by the Chinese government in its efforts to stop the spread of Uighur separatism. The latest restrictions imposed in Xinjiang clearly target the Uyghur community which make up nearly half the region’s population and practice Islam. The Uighur have been a target of China’s assimilationist policies for years.
According to media reports, Public Security officials in Urumqi have received orders to watch out for newborns with these names and people have been told that “all those born in Xinjiang cannot have overly religious or splittist names.” The punishment for non-compliance with this order is that the accused will not get a hukou, or household registration, an essential identification document needed for access to education, welfare benefits and employment.
Earlier, in 2015, Hotan prefecture had barred newborns from being name as “Fatima” or “Saddam.” China even banned Muslims in the province from sporting beards or fasting for religious purposes. Xinjiang’s 11 million Uighur population is the main target of China’s new regulations. In November 2015, all Xinjiang residents were ordered to hand in their passports to the local police, requiring them to apply to get these back.
The Uighur community in particular has experienced an increasing number of restrictions on dress, religious practice and travel after a series of deadly riots in 2009 in Urumqi. The Chinese approach to Uighur demands for autonomy and freedom have been to restrict their religious rights including forbidding the use of certain symbols of Islam, such as beards and the veil. At the same time, civil servants in Xinjiang are prohibited from taking part in religious activities.
Beijing blames the Uighurs for religious extremism and separatist activities. The worry for the Chinese is that groups like the Turkestan Islamic Party and others obtain training in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and create trouble inside China. Further in March 2017, a propaganda video of the ISIS surfaced that depicted Uighur fighters in Iraq denouncing “evil Chinese communist infidel lackeys”.
In February 2017, paramilitary police shot and killed three “terrorists” who stabbed to death five and wounded three in an impoverished Xinjiang county. Only a month before, police shot dead three other residents in the same county who were suspected of participating in an April 15 attack that went unreported in Chinese media.
The latest development is another indicator of Beijing’s strategy of using state power to socially restrict the Uighurs in Xinjiang. The effort to assimilate the Uighurs has been ongoing since 1949 and the string of measures adopted to keep the ethnic minorities areas under check have continued apace with Hanization. The Uighur also face strict controls ranging from a significant narrowing of religious freedom to curbs on their freedom of cultural expression to significant restrictions on movement.
In April 2017, China introduced a legislation in Xinjiang named the ‘XUAR Regulation on De-extremification’, adopted at the 28th Meeting of the Standing Committee of the 12th People’s Congress for the XUAR on 29 March 2017, which sets out much broader proscriptions that will have lasting effects on the Uyghur community. The new law sets out broad and often vague definitions for key concepts like “extremism.” According to Article 3 of the Regulation, extremism is defined as “propositions and conduct using distortion of religious teachings or other means to incite hatred or discrimination and advocate violence.”
Article 9 specifies a long list of “words and actions” that may be considered as acts of extremism, including possessing, accessing or distributing materials with extremist content, bearing symbols of extremification, interfering with weddings or funerals and “Other speech and acts of extremification”. This phrase appears to be a catch all term that can be interpreted according to one’s needs. The same article also includes, “[S]preading religious fanaticism through irregular beards or name selection,” providing the regional government legal cover for their proposed new rules this week.
The Regulations in effect go beyond the issue of just beards and baby names and seek to impose a blanket ban with a view to curbing religion in Xinjiang. The Chinese have effectively drawn a line linking Islam with extremism and have declared that the Uighur community is in fact ‘extremist’. Certainly, a blowback will follow. In a sense, what China has sought to do by taking incremental steps to assert control over the Western territories is to chip away at the cultural and temporal roots of the local population and this will have some reactions.
This is China’s de-radicalisation policy that aims to rid Xinjiang of extremist elements. The world knows who these extremists are; but the Chinese seem to know it better, for they are targeting an entire community for the security of China. The international community should ask Beijing as to why they are implementing measures against ethnic minorities? Further, if China’s concerns on extremism and terrorism are so crystal clear, then why are they opposing the listing of Maulana Masood Azhar in the UN Sanctions list. Certainly, these double standards will not do good for the Middle Kingdom!!