Regarding Uyghur

May 12, 2019
11 July 2021

My visit to Xinjiang, China

Assalamu 'alaykum,

I visited Xinjiang. Likely you are well-aware of the details: padlocked-houses that are empty after families taken away; security checkpoints every few hundred metres; airport like security when entering a mall; cameras every few metres; facial recognition; people picked up at night and taken away; orphanages surrounded by barbed wires and tight security; millions put in concentration camps or sent in other parts of China for slave labour work; and list goes on.

But I can tell you few additional details, from perspective of a Muslim visitor to Xinjiang. And other corroborative evidence.

First, the look in the eyes of Uyghurs showed that they wished they were in my place--free and independent. Some of them, including those from security forces, could not contain their visible happiness to see me visit their land. I think it was because they recognized me as a fellow Muslim and were just happy that one of their brothers is visiting. On the other hand, Han Chinese security was generally indifferent, angry, or suspicious to see me.

Second, the people were afraid to say salams to me. If I would say salams to a food seller, they would motion their hand to their heart, or in some other way, lest an undercover person sees them. Unfortunately, even saying salam is forbidden.

Thirdly, most of the time I spent was in Kashgar, an ancient city on the Silk Road. It is supposed to have many Uyghurs. On my first day, I was excited to visit the famous Id Kah Masjid (which is the famous masjid of Kashgar that you see in media). But my hotel receptionists could not tell me what the prayer time is at the masjid. I think they were afraid if one of their own colleagues report them to the authorities. Later, when I went to Id Kah Masjid myself, I was not allowed to enter to pray. The masjid was only open to tourism, which had fixed hours.

The next day, when I entered the Id Kah Masjid for a "tour", I was greeted by a warm ticket seller, who knew good English, and looked like a nice man. But he told me he cannot talk about why I cannot pray in the masjid because "the cameras are watching." I paid the entrance fee, and saw inside that towards the Qibla-direction the picture of Xi Jinping was hanging. In other words, Xi Jingping's picture is hanging towards the direction Muslims make sajdah! The masjid also did not look in good condition. The walls required maintenance that was overdue. I also tried to see other masajid. Unfortunately, Id Kah Masjid was the only one open for tourism. All other masajid in Xinjiang that I visited were no longer open to the public for any reason whatsoever. They were padlocked or closed. Every masjid in China can be easily identified: a Chinese flag flying on top of it and a large banner in red and yellow at the entrance of the masjid, talking about the Party. In contrast, not even all the government buildings have a Chinese flag, yet they made sure Muslims always remember that Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is in change by putting a flag and party banner at every masjid. This is in sharp contrast to the fact that Chinese government regularly talks about religious freedoms, data points on the Uyghur population, and so on. In conclusion, the official talk is all red-herring.

Fifthly, local travel agents are hesitant to receive calls from anyone except from a local phone number. They are worried that even a Beijing-based Chinese number would flag them in the system. Upon asking, one of them told me that "he cannot talk about it" (i.e. the reason, which I found out through the media, being that they are severely monitored for any communications. Normally in the media we hear that they are not allowed to receive or make calls internationally, but it seems that even country-wide calls are deemed suspicious and could lead to imprisonment.)

Sixth, which is of no surprise, I had to hide myself to pray. Usually, it was in my hotel. I also only ate Uyghur speciality naans, fruits, and bakery items to survive during the week. This is because I had to assume that the food is no longer halal since the government has banned even saying salams, so it would be a huge assumption to make that tasmiyah (i.e., “Bismillah”) will be allowed at the time of slaughter also. I did not want to risk that.

Seventh, cameras on roads were taking pictures of cars vigorously (with flash!) every few hundred metres. In Xinjiang, they are monitoring your every move.

Eighth, Uyghurs were happy and from a distant would smile at me wide, or give me thumbs up, if they would see me trying their traditional hats at a store. But I did not want to talk to them to avoid putting them in trouble. They could probably tell I am a Muslim. I was happy their hearts were alive.

In Kashgar, people were living on edge. I do not recall any man having a beard, except for one old man, and no woman was wearing a hijaab anymore. The Uyghurs are one of the most beautiful, resilient, and oppressed people today. My heart is broken writing this.

On the way to the Karakoram Highway towards Pakistan, at a security checkpoint station, I also saw a large command-and-control kind of room at one of the security checkpoints, where officers were sitting in front of many TVs. As Uyghurs used their ID cards to pass the security checkpoint (which by the way is like airport security, or worse), I saw profiles of individuals show up on the screens with scores and other information. I think these scores may be related to the social credit system that we have seen discussed in the media.

The Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Tajiks really are one of us. Except for Urumqi (capital of Xinjiang), the other cities of Xinjiang make it very easy to forget that one is in China. The Uyghurs really are one of us. The only thing that reminds a person that they are still in China is the constant propaganda bombardment promoting "Xi Jinping Thought", the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Mao's statue, the red and yellow decorations or something similar. Otherwise, Xinjiang is not China at all. And I say this as a Muslim. In one of the smaller cities, I even remember that in dawn there were announcements continuously being broadcasted through loud speaker (likely being played from radio or tape). I could not recognize what it was about, but later on, I realized it likely was the classical communist method to spread government propaganda that China has imposed in rural areas. This is also already published in the media.

The Uyghur security stationed at my Kashgar hotel would REGULARLY get up for me when I would be coming or exiting the hotel, in a sign of respect, and they would also smile at me with a humbling facial expression. It did not feel like an ordinary smile. They would also slightly bow. And I do not remember them doing this to their Han Chinese visitors at my hotel--so the security may be specifically paying respects to me, since they know I am a Muslim. I wanted to tell them to not bow (because we should only bow to Allah) but was hesitant to strike a conversation with them lest they get into trouble.

After my visit to China, my perspective of that country has changed forever. In particular, I know now that CCP is a real threat to non-Chinese and extremely repressive to Chinese, especially minorities. I pray for the Uyghurs almost every day now, multiple times a day. Kashgar, which is supposed to be a large city, was so deserted, even though I was in central Kashgar! So many houses were just empty. One area I visited was like a ghost town: complete darkness and no lights coming out from any house. Likely, the families including children are all sent to camps and orphanages. SubhanAllah!

And on the streets, it just looked empty. People were very afraid to be seen even close to the Id Kah Masjid. There could have been many more people all around. Further, not all shops were opened, many stalls were deserted, and people were just invisible.

I also travelled towards Pakistan along the Karakoram Highway, until I reached a city called Tashkorgan. It was beautiful ride! As I left Kashgar, I saw various installations and structures, which looked similar to the pictures of concentration camps that we are seeing in the media. The similarities were there, I just cannot confirm 100% because I did not ask my taxi driver, and neither did I want to, in order to avoid putting him at unease.

Anyone who drives along the Karakoram Highway will see the beautiful mountains and lush countryside with fresh rivers. One can also witness many animals native to that region. At some areas, yurts can be seen, and I only wonder what kind of a life it must be to live in such magnificent land!

But, the regular security checkpoints along the Karakorum Highway are reminders of the reality on the ground in Xinjiang. From the half a dozen or so checkpoints along the Highway, I remember that at one, there was a young Han Chinese security personnel who was visibly angry to see me. I could not help but put a calm face towards him, or almost a smile which I think made him more agitated. In fact, even thinking about him right now makes me laugh. I do not know why he was so angry whereas the other security personnel who were of Uyghur or Tajik descent were generally calm and collected! At another checkpoint, there was a Han Chinese military officer who intently inspected my face when I was going towards Tashkorgan, but pretty much ignored me when I was returning back to Kashgar. I think he was tasked to monitor all people going towards Pakistan, because Chinese government is paranoid about locals escaping their country, but on my return trip to Kashgar, he ignored me because it did not matter to him if I am going the opposite direction to the border.

As I came closer to Tashkorgan, I felt the facial features of security personnel were slightly changing. I think they were more Tajik than Uyghur, and I noticed that I was in the Tajik Autonomous region from the signboards. Like the rest of Xinjiang, men and women were still very beautiful, but in Tashkorgan region, women were wearing the traditional Turkic clothes.

When I reached my hotel in Tashkorgan and put my stuff in the room, I knew I had to pray. To determine the Qibla, I used Google Maps to orient my current location first and then determine direction, so I went outside to figure that out. Around this time, I saw a young, skinny SWAT team member just walking around. And this would not be the only time I would see him. I am unsure why a SWAT team member would be lurking inside or around a plain, 2-star hotel unless if they had a purpose. Or maybe, I was the lone foreigner in the city that he was tasked to “check out”. Allah knows best, but I honestly did not care. Also, his body looked like that of a weakling, and any normal man could beat him to a pulp.

Coincidentally, I also bumped into a few Pakistanis in Tashkorgan, who were of Tajik descent. Meeting them was a novel experience for me, because I had never met a Pakistani national from Hunza region before. One of them explained that some Tajik families live on both sides of the Pakistan-China border. I was amazed how man-made boundaries around the world have separated families such as theirs.

In this post, I have left many other details so that I give a high-level perspective for now, otherwise this post could become very long. However, I will mention one particular visit before I end my post: the visit to Afaq Khoja Mausoleum in Kashgar, which is spared from destruction likely because a Muslim woman is allegedly buried there who one of the past Chinese emperors fell in love with (amazing example how Allah plans and creates soft spot in people's hearts!)

Normally, I did not visit mausoleums prior to this one, but I made a point to visit the grave of the person and his family who made concerted effort to spread the message of Islam and the Quran in earlier times in this region. When I finally found a taxi driver willing to take me there, he dropped me at the drop-off point, made a sharp U-turn and sped away. I saw a contingent of security forces stationed at the drop-off point and, once again, a Han Chinese security officer simply yelled at me (probably asking me where I think I was going). Another officer, who I think was Uyghur calmed him down, and they motioned to me that I can ignore them and continue. I noticed that the mausouleum compound was cordoned off and any person on the main road will not be able to see the compound from outside. One had to traverse long the narrow Xiangfei Road that leads to the mausoleum compound’s entrance, which is out of sight of regular people just passing by. The eerie aspect of Xiangfei Rd was that it was nearly deserted. The road had a continuous stream of shops but they were all completely shut! Not only that, another unnamed street branching out of Xiangfei Road also looked like a semi-ghost town. I could tell that the area has residences, but I could not figure out if anyone even lived here anymore. I did see a few kids, but presence of security personnel patrolling a semi-ghost town was just strange! Once I reached the mausoleum’s entrance and paid the fee, it was clear I might be one of the few people who is actually coming for a visit. I saw one or two groups of Han Chinese tourists, but that was about it. One of the first things I noticed was that the compound appeared consist of not just the mausoleum, but other buildings as well, which I am going to guess were home to an Islamic seminary. I peeked through their glass windows to see what was inside, but I found emptiness or rubble. I do not understand how a government could hate an ethnic group so much that it removes anything that points to their identity. I went to the mausoleum building itself, and out of respect, I did not take any pictures inside (although you can find them on the internet easily). Instead, I only prayed for the deceased and asked Allah to forgive them and accept their effort to spread Islam in this region. I also asked Allah to relieve the pain of people of Xinjiang and to give them complete freedom and independence so they can worship Him without fear of anyone else. I also pray that Allah protects this mausoleum and the surrounding graveyard, and let it be not demolished like many other graveyards of the region that remind the locals of their Uyghur identity. My extended time inside the mausoleum was completely alone, because I did not want to get anyone’s attention (Alhamdulillah this was one unique building which did NOT have any cameras inside). Alas, I still probably caught the attention of a Han Chinese who was coming with a travel group. He went out of his way to follow me around and then make a small conversation with me. Although I treated him in a normal way, I realized later on that he might have been an undercover Public Security Bureau (PSB) agent.

That’s it for now, and I hope this post helps some people. May Allah Most High give the Ummah the himmah to free our Muslim brothers and sisters in China, and around the world, so they can worship Him without fear of anyone else!

Update: A few people suggested I share some pictures. But you have to remember that I went to a genocidal zone, where taking pictures of security personnel and installations was prohibited, and they are found everywhere. This limits to what a traveller can do. My account is about the experience as a Muslim, which might be first of its kind from a non-Uyghur in a written form, and it is not intended to be a description of a touristic trip. Images cannot capture people's fear, their expressions, or incidents like the one I described. Furthermore, I did not want to put the Uyghurs in an uncomfortable position, as they already have enough cameras watching over them. Hence, I wanted to get the authentic experience as much as possible. Nonetheless, here are a few curated pics with captioning.

[see images on reddit post]

Secondly, a few asked when I made the trip. I went prior to the lockdown restrictions, but due to safety concerns I cannot reveal more than this.


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