China has released new restrictions on the naming of children in the far western and mostly Muslim region of Xinjiang, banning ethnic minority Uighur parents from naming their newborns "Muhammad" or names that authorities say have “extremely religious” meanings.
The move is the latest in sweeping controls instituted in Xinjiang that authorities say are aimed at keeping the spread of religious extremism in check.
Analysts, however, say the hardline approach towards Muslims is not only fueling opposition in Xinjiang, but also stirring ethnic hatred nationwide.
Local governments recently rolled out a list of banned ethnic minority names that forbids dozens of religious names, such as “Jihad,” “Medina” and even “Yultuzay,” a reference to the star and moon symbol of the Islamic faith.
All in all, nearly 30 names have been banned according to documents provided to VOA by overseas Uighur activists. According to the regulations and accounts of the new rules circulating online, individuals who violate the restrictions will be denied a hukou, or household registration, which grants citizens access to social benefits, health care and education in China.
Complaints among Uighurs are growing and the ban is but the latest restriction.
Michael Clarke, an associate professor at Australian National University’s National Security College, told VOA in an emailed reply that through the ban and other earlier measures to enhance surveillance of Uighurs, China is seeking to determine which aspects of the Uighur identity will be considered acceptable. And that is making the party-state the arbiter of what he called acceptable "Uighur-ness."
Such policies “actively contribute to the further alienation of many Uighurs from Han Chinese and provides fertile ground for the Islamic radicalism that the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] fears in Xinjiang.”
Xinjiang is home to more than 10 million Uighurs, a largely Muslim Turkic-speaking ethnic minority.
And all this, he said, “acts to construct elements of Uighur identity, such as the practice of Islam, as potentially deviant and dangerous to the security” in China.
On April 1, a new set of rules was implemented along with the ban. Those rules also prohibit so-called "abnormal" beards, the wearing of veils in public places and the refusal to watch state television.
“All this time, we’ve [received] lots of complaints directly or indirectly. The situation has gotten worse particularly in the region’s south, such as Kashgar, Hotan and Aksu,” said Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the Germany-headquartered World Uyghur Congress.
“The resentment there has been indirectly substantiated, which is [a] quite worrying [sign]," he said. "I’m afraid that it may trigger even more radical resistance from Uighurs, who find it too much to bear, if the condition continues."
The rights activist urged authorities in China to stop suppressing traditional and normal Uighur culture and religious belief in the name of combating Islamic extremists, whom China blames for terrorist attacks and separatist movements.
He said China’s repressive controls are the real cause of violence and unrest in Xinjiang.
China has strongly denied of any abuses there and insisted the legal, cultural and religious rights Uighurs are fully protected.
Still, following years of China’s forceful attempts to integrate Xinjiang and crackdown on Islamic extremists, the social stigma attached to Uighurs is growing a divide and misunderstanding, said Chang Chung-fu, an associate professor of National Chengchi University’s ethnology department in Taipei.
“I’ve seen quite a lot of acts of stigmatizing people in Xinjiang and Uighurs. Many generalize conclusions such as ‘people in Xinjiang are violent terrorists’ or ‘you Uighurs are foolish religious followers,’” Chang said.
“I find the spread of such [misleading] sentiment an adverse impact on the Mainland’s pursuit of so-called Chinese dreams or peaceful rise,” he added.
And perhaps that is why there has been a prevailing stream of nationalistic response to the rules on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform. On social media, most voiced their support for the regulations and even urged the central government to roll out the Xinjiang-oriented anti-Muslim extremist campaign nationwide to areas including Ningxia, Qinghai and even Shaanxi.
“In China, the state has to be put before any ethnic groups,” a Weibo user wrote in late March, calling Islamic extremists “malignant tumors,” which should be removed to “revive the Han Chinese culture.”
Only a few users questioned the campaign’s legitimacy, with one arguing that the rules “infringe on people’s freedom of speech and is thus unconstitutional.”