Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group native to Xinjiang, the westernmost region of China. They are distinct from the Han Chinese, the predominant ethnic group in China. Uyghurs are the second-largest predominantly Muslim ethnicity in China and Islam is an important aspect of Uyghur identity.
When I visited Xinjiang in 1985, the region had a strong central Asian culture – Kashkar, locked away in the westernmost corner of China, is closer to Teheran or Damascus than Beijing. Located on the silk road between central and east Asia, Kashkar was the epicenter of regional trade and cultural exchanges for centuries. Chinese central government , although opposed to religious celebrations, was tolerant of the Uyghur cultural differences, even allowing Hajj pilgrimage for Uyghur communist party members. From 1979 to 1989, hundreds of mosque were built in Xinjiang, sometime with funds from the central government.
But in later years, modernity swept through Xinjiang, bringing waves of Han migrant workers, and tighter central policing over cultural affairs, as China wanted to assert stronger control over a border region rich in natural resources. Cultural differences became political struggle for the Uyghurs and the relationship with the Han Chinese population began to sour. (Out of Xinjiang's 25.9 million inhabitants, 11.6 million are Uyghurs and 10.9 million are Han Chinese).
China’s “Strike Hard” campaign against crime, beginning in 1996 nationally, also marked a stricter reduction in religious freedom. These policies, and a feeling of political marginalization, contributed to the rise of groups opposing China’s rule. The number of violent attacks and uprising against the state governance and Han Chinese increased from 1990 until 2014. In 2017, Chinese authorities responded by cracking down on Uyghurs suspected of being dissidents and separatists. Citing a need for greater security, the government set up cameras, checkpoints, and constant police patrols in Uyghur-dominated areas. The most controversial governmental undertaking—which was met by protests from human right organizations—was the indefinite detention of up to one million Uyghurs in “political training centres”, heavily fortified buildings that were likened to the reeducation camps of the Mao era. In August 2018 the United Nations called upon China to end the detention, but government officials denied the existence of the camps .
These pictures dating from 1985 are from a time of relative harmony in Xinjiang, when Uyghurs could express their cultural differences and their religious identity without fearing imprisonment. For a Uyghur, growing a beard today could be interpreted as a sign of religious extremism…