Ten years ago, I started researching Islam among the Uighurs. I spent my summers travelling around the Xinjiang region in western China. I took long bus journeys through the desert to Kashgar, Yarkand and Kucha, slept on brick beds in family homes in remote villages, stopped off at Sufi shrines, and visited many, many mosques. My husband was working with me, and we dragged our kids along for the ride. The kids were quite small and not at all interested in our boring interviews with imams, and I bribed them with treats. I have a lot of photos of them sitting in the dust outside mosques, faces smeared with ice-cream, playing on their iPads.
It was an incredible time for mosque building in Xinjiang. After the Cultural Revolution, Uighur and Kazakh Muslims began to reconnect with their faith. They resumed the traditional practices of pilgrimage and festivals at the shrines that lie deep in the Taklamakan desert. They began to learn about Islam in the wider world; people who could afford it travelled to Mecca for the hajj, and they began to rebuild their mosques. As local communities grew richer they invested in bigger and more beautiful mosques; people crowded into them for Friday prayers, and they served as living symbols of community identity and pride.
I was reminded of all this by an image posted on Twitter last week. Shawn Zhang, who did pioneering work revealing the existence of the massive network of detention camps for Muslims in Xinjiang, posted “before and after” satellite images of Keriya mosque in the southern region of Hotan. This towering architectural monument, thought to date back to 1237 and extensively renovated in the 1980s and 1990s, was photographed on a festival day in 2016 with thousands of worshippers spilling out on to the streets. By 2018 the site where it had stood was a smooth patch of earth. [Continue reading…]