Tunsahan Umer sits quietly in her dark apartment, staring at the clock.
Her small home, from the outside, looks like any in small-town China — a non-descript square block of freshly-painted red apartment buildings. Its insides, however, are anything but ordinary.
Persian carpets stretch from wall to wall, while a dazzling spread of freshly cut water melons, dried nuts and stacks of naan bread lie neatly arranged, but untouched, on the floor. As the hands of the clock move to eight, Ms. Umer (76) beckons her husband to tuck in.
Across China’s west, more than 20 million Muslims this week marked the holy month of Ramadan. More than half of them are here in Xinjiang, a vast land of deserts and old Silk Road towns that stretches up to China's western borders.
Kashgar, an ancient town in southern Xinjiang’s heartland, came to a standstill this week as thousands of native Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic group that is the region’s biggest, observed Ramadan along with Kirgiz, Kazakh and Hui Muslims, other minortiy groups among China’s 55.
“For every Uighur, Ramadan is the most important time of the year,” said Ms. Umer (76). “I have been fasting since I was very young, because my parents told me if we do this every day during the holy month, we will go to heaven.”
This year, however, festivities have been muted in Kashgar, a town reeling from violence that left at least 20 people killed in two separate attacks in recent weeks.
On the evening of July 30, two explosions were set off in minivans in a crowded street of food-stalls at the heart of the city. At the same time, two attackers hijacked a van and rammed it into a crowd of pedestrians, leaving at least eight people dead.
Then, the following afternoon, attackers targeted a restaurant in a commercial food street in downtown Kashgar that is popular with Han Chinese tourists, killing its owner and at least four others. Four attackers were reportedly shot dead by the police.
Heavy security presence
Authorities have responded to the attacks by deploying a heavy security presence across the city, which, residents said in interviews, had cast a shadow over this week’s festivities.
On a recent afternoon, more than two dozen soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), armed with rifles and baton shields, kept watch over the Id Kah mosque at the city centre, which is Xinjiang’s most important religious centre.
The square in front of the more than 500 year-old mosque, usually crowded with worshippers, was thinly populated on a recent evening, while local police conducted identity checks on the few that had gathered.
The Id Kah hosts an estimated 10,000 worshippers every day. Most are elderly. Older worshippers said religious practice was on the wane among young Uighurs. In Ms. Umer’s household too, her middle-aged children do not fast during Ramadan.
There are largely no religious restrictions in today’s Xinjiang for ordinary Uighurs, contrasting with the 1960s and 1970s, when mosques here were targeted during the Communist Party’s Cultural Revolution.
However, those who work for the government or State-owned companies are discouraged from fasting, wearing traditional caps or growing beards, locals said in interviews.
Pan Zhiping, a scholar at the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences in Urumqi, said the government needed to show more sensitivity to address persisting mistrust. “Maybe some government officials misunderstand Islam, because some extremists stir up incidents under the banner of Islam,” he said. “Islam [in Xinjiang] is a very important religious force. We should respect its followers, and the government cannot interfere with that. That is an important lesson that many government officials maybe should learn.”
In Kashgar’s old town at the heart of the city, which is currently being redeveloped, fruit sellers and bakers wheeled their carts through the city’s muddy by-lanes looking for last-minute sales, as the sun set over half torn-down homes.
The local government here said recently it would rethink plans to replace traditional Uighur homes with modern high-rise apartments, amid public opposition and disputes over compensation.
Inside the Id Kah, an older worshipper who has been coming to the mosque for more than 20 years, said his city was becoming unrecognisable, but his prayers would remain unaffected. “There have been many changes, but for us, life goes on as usual,” he said.
Another elderly worshipper, overhearing the conversation, joined in to complain of the influx of foreign and Chinese tourists. “They don’t respect clothing rules,” he said, pointing to men dressed in shorts, his arms raised skyward in resignation.