IN a bid to combat Islamic extremism, Chinese authorities in the northwestern region of Xinjiang has banned dozens of baby names that carry religious meanings and are widely used by Muslims across the globe, according to a report.
According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), names such as Islam, Quran, Mecca, Jihad, Imam, Saddam, Hajj, and Medina are among those banned under the Chinese Communist Party’s guideline for naming newborns for ethnic minorities.
The ban, according to sources in southern Xinjiang who detailed a list of banned names in 2015, told RFA the new ruling has been enforced region-wide.
An unnamed official from a police station in Urumi, the regional capital, confirmed “overly religious” names have been banned. Babies with banned names, the official said, would not be allowed to be registered under the government system for healthcare and education, known as the “hukou” system.
“You’re not allowed to give names with a strong religious flavor, such as Jihad or names like that,” the official was quoted as saying. “The most important thing here is the connotations of the name … [it mustn’t have] connotations of holy war or of splittism [Xinjiang independence].”
“The most important thing here is the connotations of the name … [it mustn’t have] connotations of holy war or of splittism [Xinjiang independence].”
The official, when asked, said names of Islamic scholars were not acceptable.
“Get [the parent] to change it; it’s the sort of thing that [could be regarded as] promoting terror and evil cults.”
The official also said names, such as “Yultuzay”, that referenced the Islamic star and crescent symbol were prohibited as they represented pagan symbols.
“[Mecca] would be a bit over-the-top … I don’t think you could call someone Saddam, either,” he said in response to questions on those names.
“Just stick to the party line, and you’ll be fine,” he said. “[People with banned names] won’t be able to get a household registration, so they will find out from the hukou office when the time comes.”
“They have received training in this sort of thing over here [in Xinjiang] so they’re the experts [on what is allowed],” he said.
A source said the ethnic Uighurs could use “safer” names that sounded more “mainstream.”
“I have been talking to friends in Xinjiang about this, and they all say any name with potentially extremist overtones will be banned, but names like Memet … that you see everywhere are considered more mainstream by the Chinese Communist Party,” the source told the RFA.
Earlier this month, the Chinese government stepped up the campaign against religious extremism by implementing a range of measures, including prohibitions against “abnormal” beards and the wearing of veils in public places, as well as punitive measures against those refusing to watch state television.
In response to the latest ruling, Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the World Uighur Congress group – an international organisation of exiled Uighur groups – said the ban proved the Chinese government is continuing to suppress Uighur culture.
“In setting limits on the naming of Uighurs, the Chinese government is, in fact, engaging in political persecution under another guise,” Raxit was quoted as saying.
“They are afraid people with such names will become alienated from Chinese policies in the region.”
“‘Yultuzay’ (the Islamic star and crescent symbol), for example, is seen by the Chinese government as carrying separatist connotations, [as having connections] with religion,” he said. “They are placing limits on Uighurs’ religious beliefs.”
For decades, the Muslim Uighur population has challenged Beijing’s authority in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in the far west corners of China by resorting to terrorist attacks aimed at undermining central authorities.
The Uighurs are native to Xinjiang – also known as East Turkestan – and are culturally and linguistically related to Turkey. This fact defies the widespread influence of Han Chinese culture in the region.
The Chinese government says foreign militants have stirred up tensions in Xinjiang, where it says it faces a determined campaign by separatists who want to establish an independent state called East Turkestan.
However, many rights groups and exiles doubt the existence of a coherent militant group in Xinjiang, and say the Uighurs’ anger at repressive Chinese policies bears more blame for the unrest.
The Chinese government denies any repression in Xinjiang.
Additional reporting by Reuters