Ramadan under Communism

As the Muslim world celebrates Eid al-Fitr, the end of the holy month of Ramadan, now is the time to contrast the opportunities that Islamic men and women have to celebrate their faith in democratic societies with the opportunities they have to do so under communist regimes. After all, the expression of one’s religious identity, active participation in a religious community, and the right to worship are things that we typically take for granted, but that are unlawful or have resulted in fierce persecution under totalitarianism.

Communist regimes have a long and brutal history of oppressing Muslims. As communists took control in Russia, the Soviet Union moved quickly to target mosques across Central Asia, which dwindled from 26,000 in 1912 to only 1,000 in 1941. Perhaps the most infamous example of this oppression was the mass deportation and displacement of nearly a quarter million Muslim Tatars from their homes on the Crimean Peninsula in 1944. In what many governments have since labeled a genocide, Stalin’s regime forced the sick, the elderly, and the young alike into closed cattle cars, leading to the deaths of tens of thousands.

In 1979, the world watched as the Soviet Union launched a bloody invasion of Afghanistan. What became abundantly clear at that time was Moscow’s lack of regard for the lives of Afghans. The Soviet carpet bombing of civilian centers, torture, murder, and wholesale obliteration of towns and mosques had no strategic justification but were nonetheless key aspects of Moscow’s playbook. In ten years of conflict, an estimated 1 million civilians lost their lives, as did at least 125,000 combatants.

Many people only dimly remember the era of communism. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union more than 30 years ago, communism has become a distant memory while younger generations have no recollection of it. However, in China, the communist ideal is alive and well — backed up by its enormous economic clout.

Today, the largest and most powerful communist regime, the People’s Republic of China, has declared war on much of its religious population. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) does not even bother to hide its attempts to manipulate religion, or if it cannot be controlled, to obliterate it altogether. Since 1951, the world has watched as China annexed Tibet and slowly erased its language, Buddhist religion, and culture.

The most tragic example of Beijing’s oppression is the CCP’s actions toward the Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim people whose culture and faith are being systematically targeted by Beijing through imprisonment, coerced labor, forced sterilization, and murder as elements of a genocide. In a sweeping, and insidious effort masked as “integration,” the CCP has introduced the concept of “Islam with Chinese characteristics” in an attempt to Sinicize the religion. This state-sanctioned version of Islam forces religious expression to conform to the communist dogma, effectively stripping it of its essence and autonomy. Traditional Islamic practices and ownership of sacred texts are criminalized, with the Koran and other religious books systematically replaced with state-approved versions. Faced with being imprisoned under arbitrary sentences in China’s mass internment campaign, imams are compelled to undergo “patriotic education” programs to ensure that their teachings align with communist thinking, and mosques are mandated to display communist slogans instead of being adorned in calligraphy with the illustrious names of Allah.

In the Uyghur homeland (called the “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region” by Beijing) of East Turkistan, the Chinese government’s crackdown on religious practices is not just a policy but part of a campaign to eradicate the entire ethnicity. This effort bans long beards and religious attire, enforces the removal of domes and minarets from mosques, and inhibits Uyghurs from fasting during Ramadan. These actions do not occur in isolation but rather are part of a calculated strategy under the guise of counterterrorism and “de-extremification.”

China’s human-rights atrocities in East Turkistan are corroborated by satellite imagery documenting the expansion of detention facilities and the destruction of religious sites and cemeteries. Leaked official documents and the courageous testimonies of victims who have escaped this harrowing reality paint a grim picture of a religion and culture under siege, where even a simple act of fasting or a prayer whispered in the privacy of one’s own home can lead the authorities to disappear you forever. According to the Chinese government’s own documents, individuals suspected of religious extremism, for reasons such as studying the Koran 60 years ago, have been arbitrarily arrested and sent to “reeducation” camps.

China’s attempt to erase Islam extends beyond architecture and attire, penetrating the very core of the spiritual life and community of the Uyghurs, reshaping their religion into a hollow echo of its former self, and fundamentally undermining their right to cultural and religious identity. To the millions of Uyghurs facing communist China’s crimes against humanity, freedom of religion is about their survival as a people.

Ramadan is a time of both fasting and fellowship that deepens Muslims’ sense of community and identity. Loyalty to a moral code and transcendent authority beyond the Communist Party and its totalitarian state is exactly why Soviet leaders of the past targeted Muslims and other people of faith, and why Beijing’s leaders are doing so today. None of this is justifiable under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the various international conventions and protocols covering specific grave crimes against humanity, such as torture and genocide. The legitimate expression of one’s faith is not a right given by government, but rather a fundamental human right inherent to individuals and their communities.

We look forward to future Ramadans, and other religious holidays, when all people are free to practice their faiths and live according to their deeply personal religious convictions — from making decisions about life, marriage, family, and worship to celebrating the rituals and festivities of their respective spiritual traditions — without fear of persecution.

This op-ed was originally published in the National Review. Rushan Abbas is the founder and executive director of the Campaign for Uyghurs. Eric Patterson is the president and CEO of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.