Students at Fudan University in Shanghai break their fast
(Photo: Meng Yihua/The Muslim News)
A few weeks before Ramadan, the Chinese Government prohibited the presence of religion in nursery schools in the northwestern province of Gansu, after a video posted online showed a young girl reciting Qur’anic verses in her classroom. The Government claims that such education laws are in place to protect children, and Gansu’s Education Department condemned activities which “harm the mental health of youth”.
Approximately 1.6million Muslims live in Gansu, home to the third largest population of Muslims within China, following Xinjiang and Ningxia. The video, reportedly filmed in Linxia, Gansu, was found to have been uploaded to YouTube as early as 2014, however it went viral on social media only recently. The Education Authorities state that many people have been “infuriated” by the video, and reiterated Government policy of the absence of religion in all public schools. In the video, the young girl is wearing a black hijab and is sitting in a classroom with other students also dressed in Islamic attire. Although the Chinese Government is officially atheist, authorised religions are permitted; however, religious activities are banned in schools. The Education Department of Gansu province made a statement strictly banning religions from campuses.
In some parts of China, such as Xinjiang, where Islam is widespread and dominates the local Uyghur culture, the Government has also enforced religious restrictions on young people even outside of school. Wearing burqas in public was banned in Xinjiang last year, and for the past few years, Xinjiang Muslims working in the public sphere were ordered not to fast during Ramadan.
The Chinese Government claims it faces a threat from “Islamic” militants in Xinjiang, which borders Central Asian countries and Pakistan, and has seen numerous violent upsurges in recent years. However, defendants argue that the unrest in the region stems from discontented local Uyghurs who are frustrated by the Government’s erosion of their culture and religious freedoms. The Governmental restrictions on religious practices are only seen in regions such as Xinjiang and Tibet, where the Government has concerns that religion could be used to promote a non-Chinese cultural identity or independence.
Much of the rest of China faces little or no resistance to practicing religion freely.
Kawsu Barrow, 27, a Muslim student from Gambia who spent Ramadan in Shanghai, says “This is my first time witnessing Ramadan outside of my country and I was so surprised that Ramadan was so amazing here because of the impression we normally hear about religion in China”.
At Fudan University in Shanghai, one of the multiple halal canteens on campus opened its doors before sunrise every morning and at sunset to provide free suhoor and iftaar for the Muslim students. Barrow says, “For the 30 days, I have eaten different foods provided for free for both iftaar and suhoor”, and he admits that this has been one of his finest Ramadans. Some local Muslim restaurants would also provide free suhoor and refuse to accept payment.
An undergraduate student from Xinjiang studying in Shanghai, who wished to remain anonymous, says it is communal gathering for religious purposes that is forbidden, citing the iftaar we are currently eating together as an example. “Children under 18 are forbidden from going to mosque” he continues, which is in line with the prohibitions issued in Gansu in attempts to remove religion from the lives of youth.
Authorities have been increasing controls on religious practices in Xinjiang in recent years, particularly during Ramadan, but before the start of the blessed month this year, the Government announced that there would be no interference in the region. A Government report on religious freedoms in Xinjiang said, “Whether to close or open halaal restaurants is completely determined by the owners themselves without interference,” however this totally contradicted local policies, before Ramadan even started. For example, officials in the city of Khorgos, near Kazakhstan’s border, ordered ethnic restaurant operators to guarantee regular business hours during Ramadan; and as usual, students, civil servants and party members in many cities were banned from fasting and taking part in religious activities.