SHAFAQNA – Many couples fret over choosing the perfect name for their newborn, but for Muslims in western China that decision has now become even more fraught: pick the wrong name and your child will be denied education and government benefits.
Officials in the western region of Xinjiang, home to roughly half of China’s 23 million Muslims, have released a list of banned baby names amid an ongoing crackdown on religion, according to a report by US-funded Radio Free Asia.
Names such as Islam, Quran, Saddam and Mecca, as well as references to the star and crescent moon symbol, are all unacceptable to the ruling Communist party and children with those names will be denied household registration, a crucial document that grants access to social services, healthcare and education.
A full list of names has not yet been published and it is unclear exactly what qualifies as a religious name.
China blames religious extremists for a slew of violent incidents in recent years that have left hundreds dead. It has launched a series of crackdowns in Xinjiang, home to the Muslim Uighur minority and one of the most militarised regions in the country.
Uighur rights groups complain of severe restrictions on religion and freedom of expression, and say the attacks are isolated incidents caused by local grievances, not part of a wider coordinated campaign. Young men are banned from growing beards in Xinjiang and women are forbidden from wearing face veils.
Rights groups were quick to condemn the name ban, which applies to dozens of names deemed by Communist party officials to carry religious overtones.
“This is just the latest in a slew of new regulations restricting religious freedom in the name of countering ‘religious extremism,’” Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “These policies are blatant violations of domestic and international protections on the rights to freedom of belief and expression.
“If the government is serious about bringing stability and harmony to the region as it claims, it should roll back – not double down on – repressive policies.”
Authorities in Xinjiang passed new legislation last month expanding a host of restrictions, including allowing staff at train stations and airports to deny entry to women wearing face veils and encouraging staff to report them to the police.
The new law also prohibits “abnormal beards” and “naming of children to exaggerate religious fervour”. Various cities in Xinjiang previously had rules banned women wear face veils and men with long beard from public transportation, but the new law applies to the entire region.
A Communist party village chief and ethnic Uighur was demoted last month for not having a “resolute political stance” after he refused to smoke in front of Muslim elders. The state-run Global Times newspaper quote another local official as saying cadres should push against religious convention to demonstrate “their commitment to secularisation”.