In a heavily Muslim area of Western China, the government has banned a list of at least 29 Islamic names. China is known for repressing religious freedom, but this policy arguably hits a new — and petty — low.
A document titled “Naming Rules for Ethnic Minorities” prohibits a long list of names used by Muslim parents, including Islam, Quran, Mecca, Jihad, Imam, Saddam, Hajj, and Medina, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported.
The ban applies to the Muslim-majority province of Xinjiang, where the Communist Party has been imposing restrictions on religion in what it claims to be a battle against “extremism,” fighting a separatist uprising among the Uyghur people.
Any babies with “overly religious” names will be barred from the hukou household registration system, which governs access to healthcare and education, a police official in the regional capital of Urumqi told RFA. “You’re not allowed to give names with a strong religious flavour, such as Jihad or names like that,” the official said.
“The most important thing here is the connotations of the name … [it mustn’t have] connotations of holy war or of separatism.”
Some of these might make sense — “Wahhab” is a reference to a militant sect, and “Jihad” can mean a spiritual struggle but has taken on terror connotations worldwide — but general Islamic terms like “Medina” (the city where Mohammed first established an Islamic community), “Islam” (which does mean “submission,” but is also the name of the Muslim religion), and of course “Mohammed” should not be off-limits.
This reported list also emerged less than a month after Xinjiang authorities imposed new rules prohibiting the wearing of “abnormal” beards or burqas in public and imposing punishments for refusing to watch state television or radio programs.
Repression of religious freedom is nothing new in China, and the Uyghurs in particular have suffered a great deal. In July 2014, two members of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), M. Zuhdi Jasser and Katrina Lantos Swett, reported specific violations to The Washington Post.
“During the just-concluded month of Ramadan, China denied Uighur Muslim students, teachers, professors and government employees the freedom to fast and fulfill related duties,” Jasser and Swett reported. “With Ramadan coinciding this year with the commemoration of the Communist Party’s founding, Chinese authorities used the occasion to identify fasting Muslims, particularly in Xinjiang province. Those defying the ban have been subject to threats, detention and arrests.”
In addition to the name ban and the 2014 Ramadan ban, Chinese officials have shut down Muslim sites, conducted raids on independent schools, restricted private study of the Quran, monitored the sermons of imams and forced them to undergo political training, restricted Muslim dress and religious expression, and arbitrarily deemed religious gatherings “illegal.”
It’s one thing to fight radical Islamic terrorism; it’s another thing to take away fundamental religious freedom rights. This is an example of the latter.
Muslims are also by far not the only religious group undergoing persecution in the region. In Tibet, religious freedom for Buddhists is deteriorating. Between 2011 and 2014, more than 130 Buddhists, including at least 61 monks, nuns, and former nuns, immolated themselves.
In addition to Muslims and Buddhists, Beijing has conducted campaigns against the Falun Gong and of course Christians.
Catholic and Protestant groups refusing to register with the government face arrests, fines, and the shuttering of churches. Beijing has even issued a directive to “eradicate” unregistered Protestant churches over the next decade.
In Zhejiang province, where Christianity has grown dramatically, the government has targeted more than 100 churches, demolishing dozens and forcing others to make major alterations and remove steeples and crosses. The government even bulldozed the Sanjiang Church, which housed a congregation numbering in the thousands.
In light of the oppression of other religious groups, this list of banned names is a rather petty addition to China’s crimes against religious liberty.