Tracing the destruction of Uyghur and Islamic spaces in Xinjiang
Nathan Ruser with Dr James Leibold, Kelsey Munro and Tilla Hoja
This report maps over 900 mosques and other important Uyghur religious-cultural sites across Xinjiang, analyses their condition before and after 2017, and then used statistical extrapolation to estimate the full extent of their destruction and alteration.
Media and NGO reports have unearthed individual examples of deliberate destruction of mosques and culturally significant Uyghur sites in recent years.
Our analysis finds that such destruction is likely more widespread than reported and has intensified in recent years, with an estimated one in three mosques in Xinjiang demolished mostly since 2017.
Visit the NY Times to see their multimedia reporting on this report.
This equates to approximately 16,000 mosques across Xinjiang (65% of the total) destroyed or damaged as a result of government policies, mostly since 2017. More than half – around 8,500 (± 4%) of these – were demolished outright.
This includes the protected gatehouse of the 16th century Grand Kargalik Mosque which has been destroyed, despite official XUAR level cultural protection, in late 2018, and replaced with a miniaturized recreation of its entranceway.
Due to government policies since 2017, we estimate the current number of mosques in Xinjiang is at its lowest level since the Cultural Revolution, when over 26,500 mosques were destroyed.
Furthermore, 30% of important Uyghur sacred sites (shrines, cemeteries and pilgrimage routes) across Xinjiang have been demolished despite many being protected under Chinese law, with an additional 28% damaged or altered in some way, mostly since 2017.
This includes the sacred pilgrimage site of Ordam Mazar located in the Great Bughra desert between Kashgar and Yarkant, where the grandson of the first Islamic Uyghur king died in a battle to conquer the Buddhist Kingdom of Hotan.
In December 2017, the same month that Ordam was demolished, the Uyghur anthropologist and leading international expert on Xinjiang’s sacred sites, Rahile Dawut went missing, one of over 300 Uyghur intellectuals who have been detained since 2017.
Tighter control over mosques and religious personnel is central to the plan to sinicise Islam in Xinjiang as is the “rectifying” (整改) of places of religious worship.
Under the Chinese government’s “four entrances” campaign (“四进”清真寺活动), mosques across Xinjiang are required to hang the national flag, post copies of the Chinese constitution, laws and regulations, uphold core socialist values, and reflect “excellent traditional Chinese culture.”
Architecturally, this involves the removal of Arabic calligraphy, minarets, domes, star and crescent and other symbols deemed “foreign” and their replacement with traditional Chinese architectural elements.
Many international organizations and foreign governments have turned a blind eye to these destructive policies.
UNESCO and ICOMOS should immediately investigate the state of indigenous, non-Han cultural heritage in Xinjiang and if they are found to be in violation of the spirit of both organisations, the Chinese government should be appropriately sanctioned.
Governments throughout the world must speak out and pressure the Chinese government to end its campaign of cultural genocide in Xinjiang and consider sanctions or even the boycotting of major cultural events held in China, including sporting events like the 2022 Winter Olympic games.
We used satellite imagery analysis and a statistical model to quantify the extent of erasure and alteration of tangible indigenous cultural heritage in Xinjiang.
The basic methodological aim was the creation of a new unbiased, stratified dataset of locations of mosques and sacred sites before the 2017 crackdown. Those locations were then checked against recent satellite imagery to ascertain their current status.
See the appendix of the report for a full explanation of our methodology.