Eighty-one years ago this week, in what is also known as the “Night of Broken Glass,” hundreds of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in Nazi Germany were damaged or destroyed, along with thousands of Jewish-owned businesses. It was in a sense the starting gun for the genocide that culminated in the extermination camps of Auschwitz, Sobibor and Treblinka.
In western China, the demolition of mosques and bulldozing of cemeteries is a continuing, relentless process.
In a cultural genocide with few parallels since World War II, thousands of Muslim religious sites have been destroyed. At least 1 million Muslims have been confined to camps, where aging imams are shackled and young men are forced to renounce their faith. Muslims not locked away are forced to eat during the fasting month of Ramadan, forced to drink and smoke in violation of their faith, barred from praying or studying the Koran or making the pilgrimage to Mecca.
And — in possibly the most astonishing feature of this crime against humanity — China has managed to stifle, through 21st century repression and age-old thuggery, virtually any reporting from the crime scene.
Which makes all the more significant the publication last week of a heartrending compendium of evidence: “Demolishing Faith: The Destruction and Desecration of Uyghur Mosques and Shrines,” by Bahram K. Sintash.
Sintash, 37, lives in the United States but grew up in what is now, he says, “a police surveillance state unlike any the world has ever known.” Sintash knows: Chinese police took his father into custody in February 2018, and Sintash has not heard from him since.
Unable to help his father — who, if he is still alive, turned 69 last month — Barham has channeled his anguish into documenting the destruction of the Uighur culture heritage.
Uighurs — Barham, his father and millions of other Chinese citizens — are an ethnically Turkic and religiously Muslim people. For decades, they found a place in Communist China. In fact, the Chinese Communist Party vetted imams, approved their sermons and authorized the study of Uighur culture.
But in the increasingly intolerant rule of Xi Jinping, nothing that competes with party loyalty can be tolerated. Previously vetted clerics, even octogenarians, receive 20-year sentences. Anything that looks too “Islamic” — even a dome atop a department store — is flattened.
Based on satellite imagery and interviews with recent exiles — escapees might be an apter term — Sintash estimates that 10,000 to 15,000 religious sites have been destroyed, he told a conference at the National Endowment for Democracy last week.
Many of these are village mosques, too small to stand out in Google satellite imagery, and no one on the ground will send pictures, because to do so would guarantee confinement in the camps. But Sintash has documented the destruction of more than 150 larger mosques in before-and-after, shrine-to-parking-lot photographs. In big cities, one mosque may be spared, for tourism or propaganda purposes, but even that one will have its dome and minarets removed, its religious inscriptions displaced by party banners.
Even starker are the images of cemeteries, such as the centuries-old Sultanim burial ground in Hotan, replaced by what look like giant fields of mud.
“My father and my grandfather were also buried in this cemetery,” one exiled Uighur scholar told Sintash. “The cemetery was the most important holy place for millions of people to go and visit in Hotan every year.”
Workers in the world of human rights tend to be highly reticent when it comes to Nazi analogies. The Holocaust was a unique event.
Yet at the unveiling of the report last week, the Holocaust kept pushing itself into the conversation as the only adequate point of comparison. Omer Kanat, director and co-founder of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, noted the Kristallnacht anniversary.
Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy, likened the brave reporters of Radio Free Asia to Jan Karski, the Pole who tried to alert the West to Nazi atrocities. Those RFA reporters are living in exile, since China does not let them in, but dozens of their family members in western China have been imprisoned in retribution.
And what is the meaning of such destruction of sacred spaces?
Rahile Dawut is a respected scholar who in 2017 was preparing to travel to Beijing from her home in Urumqi when she was taken away. Years before she disappeared, she said, “If one were to remove these . . . shrines, the Uighur people would lose contact with earth. They would no longer have a personal, cultural and spiritual history. After a few years we would not have a memory of why we live here or where we belong.”
Sintash himself says he fears this is China’s “final solution” to destroy the Uighur people.
“I don’t know if my father died or is alive right now,” he says. “But I can see the mosque where we prayed is gone.”
Published in: The Washington Post, Sunday 03 November 2019