Freedom of religion: If it’s wrong, it’s wrong

Freedom of religion: If it’s wrong, it’s wrong April 21, 2005

On April 12, 2005, Human Rights Watch issued its report, “Devastating Blows: Religious Repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang,” detailing the chilling campaign of religious persecution of the Uighur Muslim minority in northwestern China. Using previously undisclosed Communist Party and government documents, local regulations, official newspaper accounts, and interviews conducted in Xinjiang, Human Rights Watch “unveils for the first time the complex architecture of law, regulation, and policy in Xinjiang that denies Uighurs religious freedom, and by extension freedom of association, assembly, and expression. Chinese policy and law enforcement stifle religious activity and thought even in school and at home.”

Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said, “The worldwide campaign against terrorism has given Beijing the perfect excuse to crack down harder than ever in Xinjiang. Other Chinese enjoy a growing freedom to worship, but the Uighurs, like the Tibetans, find that their religion is being used as a tool of control.” The Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking people who number 8 million. According to Human Rights Watch, “at its most extreme, peaceful activists practicing their religion in ways that the Party and government deem unacceptable are arrested, tortured, and at times executed. The harshest punishments are saved for those accused of involvement in so-called separatist activity, which officials increasingly term ‘terrorism’ for domestic and external consumption.”

Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, said, “Uighurs are seen by Beijing as an ethno-nationalist threat to the Chinese state. As Islam is perceived as underpinning Uighur ethnic identity, China has taken draconian steps to smother Islam as a means of subordinating Uighur nationalist sentiment.” For example, a Uighur is quoted by the report as saying, “This is a Uighur school and we are mostly Uighurs working here. But neither at home nor at work are you supposed to talk to the children about religion. You just talk about it and it is illegal. Even with my own son, I am not supposed to tell him about Islam. How can this be possible?” He continues, “In my home village, the militia regularly comes to check villagers. They come during the night, searching house by house, and if they find religious material they take you for questioning. They say it’s ‘illegal religious publications.’ My father is a simple farmer, what does he know if his Koran is illegal or not?”

Now, I do not defend any illegal or violent activity that may be occurring in China. If there are Muslim terrorists who kill innocent people in China, I do not defend them. Nay, I condemn them. Nevertheless, preventing people from practicing their religion under the guise of “fighting terrorism” is wrong. All people should be allowed to practice their faith in complete freedom. What the Chinese government is doing is just plain wrong, and it must end. The United States, if she is truly committed to freedom across the world, should pressure the Chinese government to end its oppression of the Uighur minority.

Yet, if that is wrong, then so is this. At the end of March 2005, according to a number of newspaper and news wire reports, Saudi Arabian religious police destroyed a makeshift Hindu temple in an old district of Riyadh and deported three worshippers found there. Members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (pretty Orwellian, eh?), or the so-called “religious police,” stumbled across a room in an apartment that was converted into a Hindu temple and destroyed it. A caretaker who was found in the worshipping area ignored the religious police’s order to stop performing his rituals, and thus he, along with two other men who arrived on the scene to worship, were deported from the country. The police made their discovery while raiding a number of apartments suspected of being used for the manufacture of alcohol and the distribution of pornographic videos.

This is totally wrong. The Hindu temple was in the apartment of the worshippers. It was in their private space. The “religious police” had no right to destroy it. This is a gross violation of the freedom of worship that is guaranteed by the very Qur’an these “religious police” claim to uphold. The Qur’an says, “There is no compulsion in matters of faith” (2:256). It is quite clear. Yes, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was sent to purify the Ka’ba, the central shrine in Mecca first built by Abraham and his son Ishmael (peace be upon them both), from the gods that were put there. Yes, Islam is strictly monotheistic. But this Hindu temple was not at the Ka’ba. It was in a private apartment in Riyadh. They had no right to destroy it. What if a bunch of FBI agents had raided a Muslim’s apartment and destroyed a makeshift mosque there? Muslims around the world would have been up in arms, and rightly so. Well, Muslims around the world should have been up in arms about this gross injustice, done in the name of their beautiful faith. If they are not, well then at least this Muslim is.

I would have never known that this incident had even taken place if I had not stumbled across a press release by the Hindu American Foundation. I was very upset by the actions of the “religious police” in Saudi Arabia, and it left a very bad taste in my mouth. If no other Muslim or Muslim organization has condemned this action, then let me be the first to do so. What the “religious police” in Saudi Arabia did was completely wrong, and I condemn it unequivocally. Just as it is wrong for the Chinese government to “smother Islam” in Xinjiang under the guise of “fighting terrorism,” it was wrong for the “religious police” to destroy that makeshift temple in that apartment under the guise of “promoting virtue and preventing vice.” In my mind, it is very simple: if it’s wrong, it’s wrong. The identity of the wrong-doer is completely immaterial.

Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is at

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