Religious Freedom Is Freedom for Everyone

by Pam Zuber

Synagogue. Source: aKatus, Creative Commons

“My holy place has been defiled…. My words are not intended as political fodder, I address all equally. Stop the words of hate,” said Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers. While it may sound as if Rabbi Myers spoke these words in Germany in the 1930s, he actually said them in the United States in 2018. That year, a gunman stormed into a Pittsburgh synagogue and killed eleven people who were worshipping there. Rabbi Myers leads one of the congregations who gathered at the synagogue. Just months later, in April 2019, another gunman entered a synagogue in Poway, California and killed one person and wounded three others on the final day of Passover. Authorities issued 109 hate crime charges against the shooter, including allegations that he also set fire to a nearby mosque. Other mosques are under attack even before they’re built. There have been protests surrounding plans to build mosques in various parts of the United States. In 2018, a Muslim group sued the city of Troy, Michigan, saying that the city has thwarted numerous attempts to open a mosque in the area.

Crimes and protests against religion aren’t confined to the United States, of course. In March 2019, yet another person shot and killed fifty-one people in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The gunman posted an Islamophobic and white supremacist manifesto online before streaming the attacks on social media. The next month, on Easter Sunday, a series of bombings at churches and hotels in different cities in Sri Lanka killed more than 290 people and wounded more than 500 other people. Referring to the bombings in Sri Lanka, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence tweeted, “This atrocity is an attack on Christianity & religious freedom everywhere. No one should ever be in fear in a house of worship.” This attack occurred on Easter Sunday and the Poway shooting occurred during Passover, two holy times for their respective religions. Sri Lanka canceled all Catholic masses the following week except for one: a mass by Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital. Sri Lanka’s president, Maithripala Sirisena, and its prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, attended the mass, which was also broadcast on television.

In the United States, the attacks on the synagogues violated the First Amendment of the country’s Constitution, which grants people the right to peaceably assemble and practice their religions. While the events in Sri Lanka, Pittsburgh, Poway, and Christchurch are indeed attacks on religion and religious freedom, they’re also attacks on so much more. Since they were attacks on religion, they were attacks on what people believed. They were attacks on what people thought.

What are some other types of attacks?

Sadly, these attacks on religion and thoughts seem to occur every day in various ways. While sometimes the attacks take the form of shootings and bombings, they also occur in quieter but still harmful ways. Protests about mosques in several areas of the United States are evidence of such attacks. The Muslim groups who have sued the city of Troy, Michigan, state that the city interfered with plans to open mosques in the city. Their lawsuit alleges that the city violated the U.S. federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. According to the FindLaw website, this act “protects the ability of religious institutions to exercise their purpose without restriction and to let their members apply their religious beliefs through the construction and use of property for religious purposes.”

Anti-mosque protests aren’t confined to Michigan, although the state has experienced a number of them. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) features a map of the United States on its website that illustrates anti-mosque incidents reported in the country. Only a handful of states – Alaska, Delaware, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Utah – did not experience any recorded incidents against mosques. The ACLU says, “While mosque opponents frequently claim their objections are based on practical considerations such as traffic, parking, and noise levels, those asserted concerns are often pretexts masking anti-Muslim sentiment.”

Id Kah Mosque. Source: Lukas Bergstrom, Creative Commons

Denying people the physical space to practice their religion creates physical and ideological barriers to practicing religion. It marginalizes people by saying that they aren’t worthy to use the land to worship they way they want to worship, even though they are legal, tax-paying members of society, people who work, attend school, parent children, and buy groceries alongside other members of society. They are people who should have Constitutional protection to practice their religions but whose religious rights are sometimes considered less valid. Marginalizing people makes them feel less welcome as if they’re lesser people. It may even impact their health, as the stress of discrimination and feelings of being outsiders may make them anxious or depressed.

How do we stop such attacks?

We don’t have to believe what other people believe. We don’t have to agree with them. However, we do have to empathize with them. Education may help us develop this empathy. Schools already have classes in subjects such as geography, history, sociology, and world cultures. Some schools, especially parochial schools, have courses about religion. How about using such classes to teach students about different religions and how they impact cultures? Introducing religion to young people may make religions and the people who practice them more familiar to people while they’re still forming opinions on the world around them.

Outside of school, maybe we can try asking our family members, friends, coworkers, and classmates about their religions. Maybe we could use these conversations to learn how people practice their religion on a daily basis. Or, we could try going to the local library to check out some books or DVDs about different religions and cultures. More and more movie theaters are also showing films from other countries, which give us glimpses into the products of other cultures as well as the cultures themselves.

Of course, the web also provides a wealth of information about religion and so much else. Do you want to find general information about religion? Updates about how people treat members of different religions around the world? Suggestions on how to dress when you visit religious houses of worship? You can find all of that and more on the web. You may even join online discussion groups to talk about religion, ask people questions, and receive real, firsthand accounts about religious topics from real people.

If we know something, it’s harder to hate it. Talking with real people about their real religious beliefs puts a human face on religion. Yes, religion is a collection of beliefs about ethereal, intangible concepts. But religions are also collections of actual people who gather together for common purposes. They are collections of people who deserve rights and respect. We can grant and protect them by meeting and learning about people. If we don’t learn, are we just promoting ignorance and hate?

 

Pamela Zuber is a writer and an editor who has written about human rights, health and wellness, gender, and business.

A Humanitarian Crisis in Xinjiang

by Dianna Bai

Uyghur children in old town Kashgar, China.
Child’s play – Uyghur children in old town Kashgar, China. Source: Sherpas 428, Creative Commons

Among the corpses frozen in exodus over the icy mountain pass, will you recognize me? Our brothers 

we begged for shelter took our clothes. Pass by there even now and you will see our naked 

corpses. When they force me to accept the massacre as love 

Do you know that I am with you. Perhat Tursun, translated by Joshua L. Freeman

In the arid and ashen deserts of Xinjiang, the northwestern province of China, as many as 1 million Uyghurs have been detained in internment camps by the Chinese government for mandatory “re-education.” Scores of the compounds can be seen vividly from satellite images. Enclosed by concrete walls, barbed wire, and guard stations, they have the imposing sterility of prisons. Inside, the detainees, Uyghurs, and members of a few other ethnic groups who practice the Muslim faith, are forced to participate in a program of indoctrination, listening to lectures, singing songs that praise the Communist Party of China, and writing essays of “self-criticism.” They are also coerced into abandoning traditional practices tied to Islam: praying, growing a beard, wearing a headscarf, and abstaining from pork and alcohol.

The stated aim of the campaign is to eliminate extremism in a region that has been marked by unrest and separatist violence, to produce “transformation by education.” One revealing official document reviewed by Agence-France Press states that to produce this change, the centers must “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins.” It’s clear that in Xinjiang, China has gone far beyond fighting separatism and works actively to erase a great cultural tradition for the purposes of political stability. The mass detention underway is a reflection of the Xi Jinping government, a nationalistic, hardline regime that often glorifies the practices of the Mao years. During the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976, millions of youth from Chinese cities were sent to the countryside for “re-education.” The recent spate of mass detentions should come as no surprise.

Who are the Uyghurs in Xinjiang?

Xinjiang is a province in China that borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia. China is dominated by the Han majority, which comprises over 90 percent of the population, but is also home to 55 ethnic minorities. About 10 million Muslim Uyghurs (and other Muslim minorities) live in the Xinjiang province. The Uyghurs, who feel a stronger kinship with the peoples of Central Asia than with the Han Chinese, speak a distinct Turkic language similar to Uzbek and practice a form of Sunni Islam. They have left a distinct mark on the history of Inner Asia, having ruled their own kingdom that stretched from Manchuria to the Caspian Sea in the eighth and ninth centuries but is now concentrated in Xinjiang. Since the Communist Party took over China in 1949, Xinjiang has been ruled by China as an “autonomous” region that is not truly autonomous. Freedoms and liberties for the Uyghurs have been curtailed heavily – the recent mass detentions are only a piece of the larger picture of repression that Uyghurs face.

Uyghurs are divided in opinion over their political autonomy. Some support remaining a distinct culture within the Xinjiang Autonomous Region or integrating into the Chinese system, while others call for becoming a separate state called “East Turkestan.”  For China, Xinjiang is an important province, the biggest domestic producer of oil and gas that is also a critical logistics hub for the “Belt and Road Initiative,” an ambitious trillion dollar infrastructure plan meant to strengthen China’s global influence. China is also concerned that unrest in Xinjiang will spark unrest in other provinces such as Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Taiwan.

The brutal measures toward the Muslims in Xinjiang are only one aspect of the broader repression levied against religious groups in China under Xi Jinping. The U.S. State Department has long designated China as a “particular country of concern” with regards to religious freedom. An authoritarian state that fears the rise of civil society, China has placed restrictions on all religious groups—from the Tibetan Buddhists to Christians to Falun Gong practitioners. Throughout the history of the PRC, the state has been monitoring the activities of major religious organizations and even banning groups such as the popular spiritual movement Falun Gong, which had gained approximately 70 million followers in China before it was declared illegal. On the Tibetan plateau, where there are six million adherents of Tibetan Buddhism and its exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, we see some of the most extreme measures. Paramilitary police patrol the streets to monitor the movements ethnic Tibetans, reinforced by a fleet of video cameras recording all events for review. The “grid management” system that Xinjiang now employs was tried and tested first in Tibet, where an army of community workers oversee sections of the city divided into “grids” to provide security officials with real-time data that could uncover the first signs of potential unrest.

Since Xi Jinping has consolidated power, the crackdown on religion has intensified. The uptick in repression has been especially visible for Protestant churches and quasi-Christian groups since 2016. Reports from Christians in China tell of an alarming increase in Bibles burned, churches demolished, and pastors detained. As Heritage Foundation fellow Olivia Enos explains, “I think that the Chinese government, like so many authoritarian governments around the world, recognizes that religion gives an alternative authority to the government and it requires the allegiance of the people to an authority that is, frankly, far higher than the government.”

a Uyghur man
Uyghur man. Source: Todenhoff, Creative Commons

A Police State Emerges in Xinjiang

Maintaining political stability in Xinjiang has been paramount for China, especially as discontent has flared up in recent years. As Xinjiang has developed economically since 1949, the government has encouraged the migration of Han Chinese into the region. Tensions have arisen as many Uyghurs resent discrimination by the government and the Han Chinese. Uyghurs have watched the higher paying jobs go to the ethnically Han Chinese while the Uyghur “minorities” have been given the labor-intensive jobs for lesser pay.  Long-simmering tensions exploded in 2008 and 2009 when thousands of Uyghurs took to the streets to riot in Xinjiang over the unfair treatment by the government and the Han Chinese.

Blaming the 2008 and 2009 riots on Uyghur separatists, China has since implemented increasingly repressive policies to control the Uyghurs in Xinjiang under the guise of combating terrorism and extremism.  Several Uyghur-led rebellions against the Chinese government have punctuated the history of Xinjiang, dating back to the early 1900s. During the Qing Dynasty, the imperial government’s attempt to assimilate the Uyghur people into China created antagonism between Uyghurs and the Chinese government that became a foundation of the newly formed Uyghur identity. Today, there also exist extreme separatist groups in Xinjiang with ties to global jihad, including the Turkestan Islamic Party, which took credit for a series of attacks in 2008. In one sense, it is easy to see why the current government of China would be vigilant about violence and ensuring that the Uyghurs never rise up again as they have in history. They fear that China will splinter if regional separatist movements gain traction and inspire each other. Yet China has gone far beyond fighting the perceived threat, now detaining innocent people and infringing on so many aspects of their daily lives.

The brutal repression of the Uyghurs expanded dramatically in 2016 with the installation of a new Party chief, Chen Quanguo, who has brought his experience quelling unrest as the former Party chief of Tibet. In 2017, Xinjiang’s security spending increased by more than 90 percent to $8.52 billion. Xinjiang is now a police state where the government intrudes into many aspects of people’s lives. According to one detailed report that summarizes the findings of numerous accounts in the media:

  • “Uyghurs have been banned from fasting during Ramadan, refusing to eat pork, refusing to wear shorts, refusing to watch state TV or listen to state radio, wearing burqas, having “abnormal” beards, performing traditional funeral rites, speaking to family members overseas, travelling overseas, and giving their children Islamic names such as Mohammad and Fatima.”
  • Chinese flags and Communist slogans have been installed in mosques.
  • “Convenience police stations” have been set up every 500 meters in the capital city of Urumqi
  • Local officials have been required to “live, eat, and study” with local families.
  • Volunteers are assigned households to monitor. They are charged with finding out what organizations people belong and “the sort of lives they lead” including their political opinions.
  • 40,000 face-recognition cameras have been installed to track Uyghurs
  • All drivers in Xinjiang have been required to install GPS trackers in their cars that will monitor their movements
  • Police have taken voice samples, DNA samples, fingerprints, and iris scans.
  • Uyghurs are regularly required to have their ID cards checked doing typical activities in a day such as traveling and filling up gas.

Perhaps the most drastic measures have been the mass detentions. Uyghurs who have committed no crime other than practicing their religion – activities such as reading an Islamic verse at a funeral or making a pilgrimage to Mecca – have been arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang. As former detainees tell their stories, the world has gotten a sense of what takes place inside of the camps. It’s not the sunny “vocational education” that Chinese officials and state television have propagated. Part of the detention involves education: former detainees have described being taught daily lessons in Pinyin, the Romanized system of Chinese. Other lessons are less innocuous—songs praising Xi Jinping, curriculum about the hero Lei Feng to inspire devotion to communism. Detainees have reported being forced to recite “126 lies” about religion. “Religion is opium, religion is bad, you must believe in no religion, you must believe in the Communist Party,” one former detainee remembers.

The use of force is not uncommon in the camps. Official documents obtained about the camps include a procurement order for 2,768 police batons, 550 electric cattle prods, 1,367 pairs of handcuffs, and 2,792 cans of pepper spray. Another detainee has told the BBC that they were forced to wake before sunrise every morning for mandatory runs. Those who didn’t run fast enough were beaten and kicked by guards. More beatings were in store for detainees who couldn’t recite correctly the laws they were forced to memorize. In one case, an ethnically Kazakh man who had been detained revealed to NPR that he had been tortured for resisting the orders of a guard to make his bed and throwing the mattress at the guard—though he was the only one at his camp to actually be tortured rather than just threatened. He’d been forced to wear a suit made of metal weighing over 50 lbs that stretched out his limbs and caused him immense pain in his back. “They made people wear this thing to break their spirits,” he told NPR. “After 12 hours, I became so soft, quiet and lawful.”

The humanitarian crisis against Muslims in Xinjiang can hold lessons for the United States as well, especially with regards to the recent travel ban against five Muslim majority countries. In the name of national security, China has swept a broad swath of society into one vilified category and carried out massive human rights violations against their own citizens on the basis of faith. China doesn’t honor religious freedom or the rights of minorities. To the Chinese government, there is no sense that these rights should be protected when larger objectives are at stake. These protections, however, are a defining characteristic of the United States as a democracy. In the words of the Declaration of Independence, all men are created equal. Honoring the fundamental rights of one group means honoring the rights of all. It ensures that there will be no “tyranny of the majority.” While the travel ban does not compare to the vast violation of civil liberties in China, it undermines the spirit of democracy and contributes to the widespread prejudice and discrimination against people of religious faith in America.

 

Dianna Bai is a Birmingham-based writer who currently writes for AL.com. Her writing has been featured on Forbes, TechCrunch, and Medium. You can find her portfolio here.