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Why China is forcing Muslims in one village to sell alcohol

Will this effort to 'weaken religion' aid in counterterrorism efforts or exacerbate the problem?

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    Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
    Andy Wong/AP
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In an effort to curb what they see as religious extremism in China's northwest Xinjiang region, Chinese authorities in one village have ordered Muslim business owners in the area to sell cigarettes and alcohol in “eye-catching displays,” according to a report by Radio Free Asia (RFA).

Noncompliance may result in store closure and prosecution, RFA reports.

Alcohol, among other intoxicants, is widely considered “haram,” or sinful, in Muslim culture, a prohibition that many Muslims also extend to tobacco. Ethnic Uighurs, China's Muslim minority affected by this order, have long faced discrimination and oppression.

RFA, a US-government-backed broadcaster, reported on the order early this week, which was announced by authorities in Xinjang's Laskuy township on April 29. Shop and restaurant owners had until May 1 to stock their stores with at least five different brands of alcohol and cigarettes. The items must be visually promoted, and “anybody who neglects this notice and fails to act will see their shops sealed off, their business suspended, and legal action pursued against them,” RFA reports.

Islam frowns on consuming intoxicants, but businesses themselves are not prohibited from selling them. But as abstention from smoking and drinking among Uighurs has become more common, many Uighur-owned businesses have stopped selling the taboo items. Aktash village party committee secretary Adil Sulayman told RFA that the order was established to curb this abstinence.

“We have a campaign to weaken religion here and this is part of that campaign,” Mr. Sulayman told RFA. “Since 2012, people have stopped selling alcohol and cigarettes through their businesses. Even those who benefitted financially from the practice have given it up because they fear public scorn. That is why [the order was issued].”

Sulayman went on to say that China has launched a series of “strike hard” campaigns in an effort to weaken religious strongholds, especially in the heavily Uighur-populated Xinjiang region. Many authorities view abstinence from smoking as a form of “religious extremism” and want to curb terrorism and separatism.  

Many Uighurs say these efforts are emblematic of their persecution at the hands of the government. They view the orders as religious repression and cultural suppression. The 2013 Human Rights Watch highlighted what they describe as systemic discrimination:

Under the guise of counterterrorism and ‘anti-separatism’ efforts, the government maintains a pervasive system of ethnic discrimination against Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, and sharply curbs religious and cultural expression … A pervasive atmosphere of fear among the Uighur population contributes to growing ethnic polarization. Factors contributing to this bleak atmosphere include the omnipresence of the secret police, the recent history of disappearances, and an overtly politicized judiciary.

Tensions between the Chinese government and the Uighur community escalated following a series of high-profile attacks in the spring of 2014 that resulted in at least 60 deaths. Human Rights Watch's 2015 report says that that the government has a right to be concerned with acts of violence, but that their “discriminatory and repressive minority policies only exacerbate the problem.”

The Washington Post reported:

Government employees and children have been barred from attending mosques or observing the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. In many places, women have been barred from wearing face-covering veils, and men discouraged from growing long beards.

[Editor's note: This story was clarified to include the village where this order was issued.]

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