By Darren Byler
On May 10, 2017, Xinjiang University, the largest university in the Uyghur Autonomous Region, held a mass rally in the school’s sports complex. Thousands of Uyghur, Han and other ethnic minority students and faculty members were asked to attend the event in order to hear Communist Party leaders discuss what they referred to as “the overall goal.” This goal was to “mobilize the masses” in the ongoing war against the “infiltration” of destabilizing Islamic forces. They emphasized that China too had joined in the so-called “Global War on Terror” by proclaiming its own “People’s War on Terror” in 2014. The “terrorists” they were referring to were members of the ethnic group indigenous to the southern part of the region – the Uyghurs. They were also referring to a discursive shift in official policy. This discourse first described Uyghur claims to ethno-national autonomy in the 1990s as “separatism.” Following 9/11, descriptions of the same Uyghur rights protests, and emerging forms of Islamic piety, came to be categorized as “religious extremism” and “violent terrorism.”
In order to accomplish the mission of the “People’s War on Terror,” the Party Secretary of the university Zhou Xuyong declared that all “static” (zaoyin) and “noise” (zayin) would need to be eliminated. Anyone who demonstrated the slightest resonance with unapproved Islamic ideologies was to be purified through a process of “reverse osmosis” (fan shentou). He said the goal was to create an atmosphere in which Uyghur Islamic “extremists” scurried across the street like rats while the public surrounded them screaming their disapproval and beating them in righteous anger.
What we have here is a virulent mix of metaphors attempting to signify an “overall goal,” which Uyghur human rights groups refer to as “absurd.” The overall goal appears to be one of eliminating noise and purifying minds by taking to the streets and screaming at rats. Static and noise in this case are anything that does not conform to the new standards of secularism that are being imposed on the Uyghur population. It is anything that signals a lack of loyalty, gratitude, and obedience. Noise and static are any sound that cannot be accounted for by the state and thus signals a dissonance from the main melody line of “harmonious” development.
Of course, the harmony of the state is also the sound of a particular form of Chinese Islamophobia. At the school, this purification of ideology was aimed at students and faculty members who demonstrated a lack of submission. In the broader society, noise eradication is aimed at “rectifying” Islam in Uyghur society. This is accomplished by through the everyday policing of moral behavior – a type of re-engineering project. It is established through “beautification” projects that demand that Uyghur women to take off their hijab or jilbab and men shave off their beards. It is established through the mass detention of young Uyghurs in training centers across Southern Xinjiang. Young men and women are being held indefinitely while the state attempts to train them in Chinese and patriotism while preventing them from practicing their faith. Many of these young men and women have children that in some cases are now being treated as wards of the state. These children too are being “rectified.” In order to keep themselves from becoming detainees and allow their children access to school and healthcare, Uyghur parents are being asked to change the names of their children. Names, it seems, can also be read as a sign of “noise” and “static.”
A few weeks prior to the mass rally at Xinjiang University, local authorities announced a province wide ban on 29 Uyghur names. They were determined to be a manifestation of the static and noise that stood in opposition to the harmonious melody of Chinese secular development. Some of the names on the list were unusual in the Uyghur community given their explicit appeal to political Islam. Names like Osama and Jihad stand out to Uyghurs as a referent to political resistance or religious violence. Uyghurs I spoke with said that they had never heard of a child being given such a name. In general, though, the names on the list were the names Uyghurs have used for centuries. For instance, the name Wahap has long been a common name among Uyghurs. In decades past, most people had little consciousness of the name’s relationship to the Wahhabi school of Reformist Islam. It was simply one of the many names of Allah: “servant of the all-giver.”
One Uyghur young man I spoke with regarding the names on the list noted the way religiosity has been a common feature of Uyghur naming for as long as he could remember. It was simply shifting in recent years. He said: “I have a friend whose daughter’s name is Muslime, but never heard of a man with the name Muslim. I think it would be quite improbable that someone would be called just Muslim. We have names like Mohemmed, Haji, Islam, and Imam. These are quite common.”
Indeed, over the years of my fieldwork in Xinjiang in 2011 and 2014, these names were not considered “noise” at all. They fit quite easily into the framework of the Chinese nation. No one considered a name such as Muhemmed or the more common local variation, Memet, subversive in the least. As Uyghur friend told me: “It is interesting that one of my great uncles was named Islam, but he was a hardcore communist from 1950s to the 1990s. At the time, the name was not a problem at all. No one would think that it has any political significance relative to the state. Now people have become much more conscious of that.”
He continued by saying that he thought the criteria for the list was inspired at least in part by their association with Arabic. This, for instance, is why Muhemmed was banned but Memet was not. He said: “I think these names are banned because most of them evoke some association with the Middle East (Medina, Suriye, Baghdat, Ezhar), high profile figures from the region (Erefat, Sadam, Osama), overt religious identification (Imam, Haji, Muslima, Islam), or very pious adherents of Islam and ardent preachers or fighters that protect the religion (Moydun, Mujahidin, Wahap, Zikirulla).”
Many of the Uyghurs I spoke with about the list said that they feel as though the list is an attempt to further eliminate even the appearance of religiosity. One of them told me: “I think by putting a few names that most people would strongly disapprove of (such as Jihad and Osama) on the list, they are trying to put other common names in the same common category of problematic names.” Continuing on, he argued that “by retroactively associating some common names with extremism and banning them, they are reinforcing the very thing that they are trying to eradicate.” That is, by associating common Uyghur names with religious extremism, the state is arguing that the “noise” problem is larger in scale than even Uyghurs imagined. Many Uyghurs are now being told that their names have become a social issue.
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In general, it appears as though the naming restriction was addressed toward the parents of young children and infants. If the child received one of the banned names, they would be rendered a legal non-person by the state. They would not be given household registration or an ID card. They would not be permitted to attend school. All legal rights would be canceled until the child’s name was rectified.
But what happens if an adult has a banned name? Based on reports I have received from Uyghurs in Southern Xinjiang, in some cases adults too are being forced or pressured to change their names. For instance, in a case I am familiar with a thirty-year-old woman whose name was on the list was coerced into changing her name to something “harmonious” such as Patigul. Often, in adult cases, name changes are something the person initiates on their own in an effort to avoid trouble at work and demonstrate their loyalty to the state.
These new restrictions on naming are particularly onerous for Uyghur men, since traditionally Uyghurs have stressed that the names of male children should be found in the Quran and, at times, be associated with the grandparents of the child. When parents go about selecting a name, they often consult with a local imam. The imam in turn is tasked with verifying the origin of the name in question and conferring the name onto the child during a ceremony that occurs seven days after the child’s birth. Uyghurs I interviewed regarding the importance of naming practices noted that choosing a name was often seen not only as a marker of religious piety but also a way of maintaining ties to familial tradition. Since Uyghurs take on the given name of their father as their surnames, family names shift with each generation. It is important to name children in way that reflects the family lineage, so that the names of ancestors are carried forward into the present. These new restriction on naming throws this rite of passage into question. Imams are now being asked to direct parents away from names that reflect religious piety no matter the familial legacy of those names. Parents are thus explicitly being asked to cease reproducing many of the Islamic social norms that have dominated Uyghur society for centuries.
Though the state has inserted its will even further into the personal lives of its Uyghur subjects in an effort to “purify” their minds and eliminate unwanted noise pollution many Uyghurs I spoke with feel as though it will not have the effect the state intends. One young man I spoke with argued that he was “sure people would come up with other not yet banned subversive names since naming has now been constructed as a battle field by the state.” This sentiment reinforces the way the act of naming is political.
Scholars such as Barry Larkin (2008) who write about the effects of noise in media infrastructures, discuss noise as a kind of flexible signal. It is a sound out of place. It does not conform to normalized rules of communication and thus is available for interpretation. Noise can thus be read as a kind of pollution or it can communicate something more. It could be read as something sinister, as something harmful to the dominant regime of truth. By attempting to control the naming of Uyghur children by determining what names are unharmonious and what ones are not, the state is in fact signaling the political import of names. Noise in this case is thus also a signal. Names and the process of naming are able to carry messages or signals. The state’s reading of these messages as non-harmonious noise signals to Uyghurs that what they may have thought as a non-political cultural and religious practice are in fact tactics for submitting and refusing to submit to the sovereignty of the state.
By rendering 29 Uyghur names a kind of noise, the state is opening them up to contestation and, given the totalitarian force of the state, erasure. If a name is recognized as noise, it can throw into question the citizenship rights of the carrier of the name. Children with a banned name are no longer seen as fully human and as having a life that matters. Their parents, by association, are subject to indefinite detention and as a result the children are subject to removal from their home and renaming by the state. The sight and sound of Uyghur Muslim identification in general is thus subject to a general purging. Uyghur citizenship rights in China appear to depend on the “purification” process laid out by the “overall goal” of the state and it’s so-called “People’s War on Terror.” Yet, of course, Uyghurs are Muslim. The vast majority of their bodies will never pass as Han, nor will their way of knowing and being in the world be eliminated in their life time. Thinking about the history of “final solutions” that seem to rhyme with the current “overall goal” perpetuated by the Chinese state, one is forced to think of the type of “social elimination” discussed by scholars of settler-colonialism around the world (see Wolfe 2006). It is now a question of speed. How soon will noise and static be eliminated in Northwest China?
Darren Byler is a doctoral researcher in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Washington, Seattle. His work focuses on emerging forms of art and politics among Uyghur migrants and Han settlers in urban Northwest China. His co-translations of Uyghur fiction and poetry have appeared in Guernica, Pathlight and Banango Street.
Barry Larkin. (2008). Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria. Durham: Duke University Press.
Patrick Wolfe. (2006). “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research, 8(4), 387-409.