I didn’t grow up in the most free of countries. There was always a looming knowledge that saying the wrong thing could land you in jail. But I was not really scared of this knowledge – in fact, I joked about it often. I knew my conversations would never be interesting enough for all the powers that be.
But in your land, Uyghur, I have seen true fear. The memory of the 2009 riots still fresh in your memory, yet an unspoken taboo. I have seen, firsthand, people afraid of practicing their own faith. They are afraid to welcome dinner guests into their home. They learn about their faith in secret, or go to government sanctioned religious schools. Your culture and your very identity is threatened every day.
During our few short days together, I, too, experienced that fear. The nervousness of your people suffused its way into my day-to-day thoughts and feelings. Your imams refused to talk to me without a government permission. And every question I asked seemed to bring a visceral tension along with it. Of course, I was deeply disappointed, but I understood. I decided to focus instead on your beautiful homelands and fascinating culture. But along my journey, I was pleasantly surprised to meet a few brave men, who answered my questions, and who helped me to find The Eye of Islam in Uyghur.
“It is about the culture,” he said cautiously. “We are culturally different people. Uyghurs don’t look nor act Chinese. Historically, the Uyghers have been cheated by the Huis and don’t really trust them.”
He said that for him, being Uyghur and Muslim are the same thing. Islam is important to him as he feels it is more than faith: it is part of his identity. It teaches him to be fair, honest, and treat people equally. His culture teaches him to be friendly with others and to respect his parents.
I prodded him for more information, but he wouldn’t say. He had already said enough.
After wandering the Grand Bazaar in Kashgar, I met Adil. I found him at the store opposite to Abdul’s, where he has been for 5 years, selling fabric. He told me he loves the food in Kashgar, and his relatives. Otherwise, he would’ve tried to leave a long time ago.
Khoja sells dried food and spices and has been in the business since his early childhood. It is his family’s business. When he learned I am Muslim, his face lit up and he got to talking. Being Muslim, for him, is a blessing because the Muslim food is clean and does not make people sick. For him, it is about being traditional, being able to pray and feel clean.
When he knew I was writing this online, he started talking even more!
I asked about how he learns Islam.
“There are secret teachers that come home. They are secret because the government does not allow that,” he told me
He said that Chinese are afraid of the Uyghurs because he feels Uyghurs made a bad reputation for themselves and are not good Muslims. To give me an example, he referred to the Chinese government cracking down on polygamy. “These people are being punished by Allah because they are not fair to their wives, which is a requirement when you have multiple wives,” he said. When I asked him if he has multiple wives, he ignored the question.
As we talked, I learned that he is getting married soon. It will be a traditional marriage with someone from the extended family.
When I asked him where he learns about Islam, he said he can’t tell me because the government does not like who prays.
He told me that the government must approve every imam appointment. But despite the strict government regulation, the mosques maintenance and imams‘ salaries fall upon the shoulders of the community. He said that the pipeline of new imams and teachers is stifled due to government restrictions on Islamic schools.*
“Back in the day, this area was regional destination for Islamic education. People came from all over to study in our medresses,” he said. “Nowadays, the medresses are not only closed down, but the government does not even allow the people of Uyghur to study Islam anywhere outside of the Xinjiang region. They are allowed, though, to go study at the Islamic University the government opened in Urumqi,” he explained. “I think the separation is good. It is important to maintain the peace.”
I talked to imam Ahmad for about an hour. He lamented the decline in Uyghur culture and the number of people who practice. “Those who have a government job can’t practice. And, those who can practice have no hope of getting a government job,” he told me.
Toward the end of our conversation, he drew a comparison between Hui and Uyghur Muslims to explain that trouble within the Xinjiang region is political.
“Hui Muslims have the same Islam as Uyghur. Though, it is a different culture. They don’t have the same challenges we have. It is about the culture and history. It is about politics,” he explained.
As we wrapped up and move into a little more casual conversation, he asked me “are there Arabs that are non-Muslims?” The irony of his question left me scratching my head. “Does he really think all Arabs are muslims?” I asked myself. It was getting close to iftar time though and I was leaving to Xi’an the next morning. I only had one night to enjoy the night market’s Uyghur food.
* I personally noticed the high age of imams. Moreover, I was told that historically, families sent their least bright kids or even children with disabilities to islamic schools.
Ammar is on a journey to explore Islam in different countries around the world. He wants to show that Islam is a faith not exclusive to a single ethnicity. He hopes that these stories become part of the conversation about tolerance and acceptance in America.
For more information, visit our page about this journey.