Meet China’s Salman Rushdie

On a warm late afternoon in June, I sat with Perhat Tursun as he slowly exhaled a puff of smoke from a blue cigarette with shiny gold trim. Arrayed on the pale lace tablecloth before us was an assortment of nuts, sunflower seeds, and wine. The furniture was a muted neo-Victorian, but on the wall behind Perhat hung a set of three abstract paintings, a shock of modern hues. “A local artist,” he told me.

A slight man in his late 40s, Perhat wouldn’t have seemed out of place in a Prague cafe, savoring Faulkner or pondering Camus in the company of a cadre of European intellectuals. But it was a Chinese-brand cigarette he was smoking, in an apartment just a 10-minute walk from one of the largest mosques in China’s tense far west. And interlaced with his odes to Freud and Faulkner, Perhat spoke earnestly of Mohammed and Jesus—but, tellingly, would not speak of politics on the record.

Perhat is the author of The Art of Suicide, a novel decried as anti-Islamic that in 1999 set off a religious firestorm among Uighurs, the largely Muslim, Turkic minority concentrated in the nominally autonomous Chinese region of Xinjiang. What followed—years of threats, a de facto ban on Perhat’s works, and at least one book burning—belied the officially atheist ideology of the Chinese Communist Party, which tightly controls the region. But tidal forces of history and competing civilizations have clashed over Xinjiang in recent decades, pitting the Party against a local ethnic reawakening, resurgent Islam, and the latest entrant to the region, liberal Western thought. And Perhat, with the publication of his bold philosophical novel, found himself wedged between hardening ideological fronts—a fault line that would put his life in danger.

* * *

Perhat was born in 1969 in Atush, a city in southern Xinjiang. The region is a relatively new addition to the Chinese map; the Qing dynasty didn’t officially incorporate the region into China’s imperial fold until 1759, and the relative recentness of that acquisition lingers in the name Xinjiang, which in Chinese means “New Territory.” But Uighurs have lived in the largely arid, mountainous land for more than 1,000 years, and Islam arrived in Xinjiang long before China’s imperial Manchus. Beginning around the 10th century, the religion spread among the formerly Buddhist Uighurs there, who were able to communicate with the larger Muslim world through travel and trade. Many Uighurs didn’t take well to the Chinese arrival in their homeland. Repeated 19th-century uprisings were followed by the creation, and subsequent defeat, of two successive short-lived republics in the 1930s and 1940s.

It was 20 years after the defeat of the second separatist state, the Soviet-backed East Turkestan Republic—and at the height of the Cultural Revolution—that Perhat was born. Even China’s far west wasn’t distant enough to avoid what would become a decades-long period of violence and ideological struggle fomented by Party Chairman Mao Zedong. Communist Party enthusiasts there targeted Muslims with particular ferocity, outlawing religious practice, converting mosques into granaries or even pigsties, and sometimes killing detractors. In southern Xinjiang, more isolated and traditional than the region’s cosmopolitan north, some Uighurs saw the chaos of the period as a chance to rise up once again against the Chinese government. On the day of Perhat’s birth, his father sat in prison as a suspected insurgent. From his jail cell, he sent along the name he wished for his infant son: Perhat, meaning “hero.”

By 1976, the Cultural Revolution had ended, and by 1978 China had embarked on a program of economic reform and opening that ushered in a new era of capitalism and a rejoining to the world order for the long-isolated country. Ideological controls were relaxed as well. In the 1980s, in a stark about-face from the enforced ethnic conformity of the previous decades, which had seen a suppression of minority heritage, state-run publishing houses in Xinjiang translated and published works of classical Uighur literature. This seemed to reawaken among many Uighurs an interest, long dormant, in their own cultural past. By the end of the 1980s—a decade that many Uighurs now refer to as a golden era—classical Uighur literary works had become best-sellers.

A belief began to grow among some there that Islam could help strengthen Uighur identity in the face of external pressure.

During this period, Xinjiang’s contact with the Muslim world was renewed for the first time in decades. Uighurs could attend the pilgrimage to Mecca, and Muslims from Pakistan and other countries could enter Xinjiang. With that, modern religious movements coming out of the Middle East—including an emphasis on Islamic political ideology and a more rigid dogmatism than had typically characterized Uighur religious tradition—began to seep into Xinjiang as well. Hundreds of new mosques were constructed, and it was legal once again to print religious literature, which became widely available. As new life was breathed into Islam in the 1980s, a spiritual reawakening accompanied the Uighur cultural flowering. A belief began to grow among some there that Islam could help strengthen Uighur identity in the face of external pressure.

In retrospect, that marked a development that Perhat should have watched more closely. But while a religious and cultural reawakening swept Uighur society, his attention lay elsewhere, for he had recently discovered the great works of another civilization: the modern West. Perhat had, perhaps on a whim, borrowed a Uighur-language book from the local library called Modern Famous Writers, which identified authors but did not contain extensive excerpts of their works. That was how Perhat got his first taste of thinkers such as American writer William Faulkner and German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, and he found himself immediately intrigued. But he didn’t know English, and none of these works had been translated into Uighur. Nor could he read them in Chinese translation; as a child he had declined to learn Chinese. When Perhat entered college at Beijing’s Minzu University, he could barely even write his own name in Chinese script. But when he learned that some Western literature existed in Chinese translation, he put aside his previous reservations and immediately set out to master the language of China’s dominant ethnic group.

By encouraging Uighurs to receive a Chinese education—including Perhat, who attended university on a government scholarship—China’s governing authorities likely intended to assimilate them into Han Chinese civilization. But for Perhat, the Chinese language became his window to the West. Along with Schopenhauer and Faulkner, he devoured Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, James Joyce, even Sigmund Freud, all in Chinese. He also began to write poetry and short stories, tackling controversial subjects such as sex, religion, death, and ethnicity with a dream-like, modernist twist.

Uighur society hadn’t always been closed off from outside influence. Gardner Bovingdon, an associate professor of Central Eurasian studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, and the author of The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land, told me in a phone interview that Uighur traders had once traveled widely through Central Asia, the Middle East, and even Russia. By the early 20th century, new ideas such as Marxism and Jadidism—an Islamic reform movement that promoted modernization and education—were beginning to trickle into Xinjiang. But these trends worried conservative Chinese administrators, including Yang Zengxin, who governed Xinjiang from 1911 to 1928, and it became Yang’s policy to “isolate, divide, and maintain enforced ignorance” in the region. Yang kept out newspapers, imprisoned Uighur intellectuals, and, in one famous anecdote, “kept the single key to the telegraph in his own pocket,” Bovingdon said. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the entire country, including Xinjiang, became largely closed off from much of the world until 1978.

Perhat’s growing knowledge was thus uncommon in his home region, and when he graduated and returned to Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, in 1989 with his knowledge of Western ideas and his rare ability to access knowledge outside traditional Uighur sources, he became a highly sought-after companion among local intellectuals. Uighur writers such as Yalqun Rozi, Batur Rozi, and others who had not been trained in English and Chinese in Beijing, would gather with Perhat to discuss questions they had about Western culture and ideology. An atmosphere so conducive to free intellectual exploration, however, would not last long.

* * *

Farther east, in the heart of traditionally Han China, a political awakening was making earnest progress, peaking with an idealistic student movement mercilessly crushed at Tiananmen Square in June 1989, which ended the brief intellectual ferment of that decade. The cultural and Islamic renaissance in Xinjiang faced a similar trajectory. “As Uighurs were given more freedom through the 1980s, they wanted more say in making decisions about their own affairs,” said Ildiko Beller-Hann, an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen who has conducted field research in Xinjiang since the 1990s, in a phone interview. “Emboldened by the leeway that they were given, they started making more demands.” In early April 1990, a group of Uighurs left a mosque in Baren township in southern Xinjiang, chanting that Islam would triumph over communism. Armed with knives, the group marched on local government offices, demanding an end to the Han Chinese migration that had reduced the percentage of Uighurs in Xinjiang, their homeland, from more than 80 percent to less than 50 percent. The government’s response was a page out of the Tiananmen playbook, as it sent in the People’s Liberation Army to halt the demonstrations. But the Uighurs fought back, capturing guns and ammunition, and it was days before the revolt was quelled. Dozens perished.

The uprising “sent a chill of fear down the spine” of Beijing, said Bovingdon. It marked a turning point. The government feared Uighur separatism, according to Beller-Hann, who added that the “authorities identified Islam as the vehicle of separatism.” The Chinese government began promulgating a narrative that Islam had held back the Uighurs and kept them in a backwards state—and that too much religiosity was dangerous. This was accompanied by the state-led crackdown on Islam in Xinjiang that has continued, with disastrous consequences, up to the present day.

Unlike the crackdown at Tiananmen, however, which effectively eradicated China’s nascent pro-democracy movement, the Islamic revival in Xinjiang continued to simmer, gradually penetrating more deeply into Uighur society despite ever tighter government restrictions. “In the mid-90s, many of the intellectuals that I met felt there was too much [state] pressure on religion, too much emphasis on training students to be atheists,” Bovingdon told me. “But a number said to me, ‘I’m not really keen on going back to a society when mullahs were able to dictate; I’m not keen to have religious authorities have more authority over me.’” But when Bovingdon returned to Xinjiang in 2002, there seemed to have been a marked shift. He learned that the religious revival that had been spreading in Xinjiang from “missionary types from Pakistan” was having influence even among intellectuals. “People [were going] to mosques in greater numbers, more likely to practice the five daily prayers,” said Bovingdon. Uighurs in rural areas had always been more religious. But now even among urban dwellers, there was interest in “increasing open religious practice.” Islam, as Beller-Hann explained, had become an “integral part of national [i.e., Uighur] identity,” and thus for some, religious practice became a way of asserting “ethno-national belonging” and expressing dissent toward the government policies that had marginalized them.

The Communist Party’s anti-Islam campaign may have largely backfired, but its assault on Western thought would prove more successful.

The Communist Party’s anti-Islam campaign may have largely backfired, but its assault on Western thought would prove more successful. Perhat recalled an article by influential politician Li Ruihuan, published in Party mouthpiece People’s Daily in the early 1990s, denouncing Western values and calling Chinese people to look to Chinese tradition instead. That was when Yalqun, now an emerging leader among Uighur intellectuals, began to separate himself from Perhat, seeming to echo the Party’s call to reject Western values. Yalqun criticized freedom and democracy and added that Uighurs should look to their own traditions. In a precursor to the religious storm that would ensue in 1999, Yalqun denounced Perhat’s 1991 novella, Desert of Messiah, for its biblical references and its focus on the teachings of Jesus—a respected figure in Islam, though far less central than the Prophet Mohammed—and accused Perhat of being a Christian. That denunciation completed the break between them.

It also highlighted the growing divisions within Uighur society itself, which was splintering under enormous government pressure. On one side stood those who increasingly declared their ethnic loyalty through religious practice and who began to castigate fellow Uighurs deemed neither religious enough nor Uighur enough. On the other side stood those who had benefited from China’s governance of Xinjiang, perhaps by joining the Communist Party and rising in the Han ranks, and sending their children to school in the east to assimilate and make money in China’s economic rise. Someone like Perhat posed an ambiguous figure—he was not active in Party or government affairs, but his Chinese education and affinity for Western learning over Uighur tradition made him suspect.

As the 1990s progressed, the Chinese tightened the screws even further, restricting religious education and rooting out vaguely defined “illegal” religious activities. Episodes of violence occurred with greater frequency, leading to shows of military force in the region.

That was when Uighurs began killing other Uighurs. In May 1996, a group of militants assassinated Harunhan Khaji, the pro-government imam of one of the most important mosques in the southern region of Kashgar. “This was Uighurs getting rid of a religious leader whom they accused of siding with the Chinese,” said Beller-Hann.

* * *

It was in the middle of this sea change that Perhat’s Uighur-language novel The Art of Suicide was published. Released in 1999, its highly philosophical narrative helped it fly under the radar of Uighur editors at state-run presses; the book contained explicit sexual content and almost reverential descriptions of suicide, an act that the Quran repeatedly condemns. Perhat’s old nemesis, the conservative Yalqun Rozi, read the book and came upon a portion which he found heretical: In one scene, a fortuneteller names a cryptic date, stating that it was the year that civilization ended. Yalqun interpreted that date as the year of the Prophet Mohammed’s birth, thus inferring that the book portrayed the prophet, and Islam in general, as bad for humanity. Perhat insisted later that this was not a correct interpretation, but the damage was already done. Yalqun published an essay denouncing Perhat as an enemy of Islam, and the resulting controversy rocketed both Yalqun and Perhat to fame in Uighur society.

In the evolving religious environment, so charged with implications of ethnic loyalty, the hammer swiftly fell. Soon, other writers followed Yalqun’s example. They declared that Perhat had humiliated the prophet and that Perhat’s being alive was the “shame of Uighur people.” Perhat told me that one, Batur Rozi, even compared The Art of Suicide to HIV, “spreading to all the Uighur people, corrupting their souls.” A school in the southern Xinjiang city of Kucha staged a book burning. Perhat’s wife left him.

Perhat says he would receive anonymous phone calls with threats on his life. “Some people said I would die in a car accident,” he relates. “They said I would be killed by the Taliban.” Once he caught a man following him; when Perhat confronted him, the man ran off.

Such a spectacular backlash against Perhat’s novel was far more than a perceived religious affront. Once the stalwarts of the Uighurs’ religious circles believed that the book was anti-Islamic, it became easy to finally fit the ambiguously liberal Perhat into one of the two camps, pro-Uighur versus pro-Chinese. And it was clear, at least to those who did not know him well, that Perhat wasn’t on their side. “From a certain vantage,” Bovingdon explained, “he could be depicted as a traitor to Uighur culture.”

Since The Art of Suicide, Xinjiang’s publishing houses—largely state-run and all under government purview—have refused to publish anything by Perhat, not even a rebuttal to the outpouring of criticism that fractured his life and put him in danger. “I can’t publish anything to explain myself,” said Perhat. “I didn’t humiliate the prophet, but any one word I can’t publish in Xinjiang, in any media. They refuse.”

Meanwhile, Yalqun’s writing career soared. His attack on Perhat awarded him double popularity. By calling out a religious and ethnic “traitor,” Yalqun gained admiration in broader Uighur society, and by dethroning a leading liberal fond of Western thought, he seemed to have pleased government authorities. In Xinjiang’s state-controlled media environment, Yalqun has published several books and now has a new CD and DVD lecture series available in bookstores. (In multiple phone calls, Yalqun was not willing to speak with me at length, and in a final call passed the phone to his wife once I identified myself.)

But Perhat, too, has remained quietly well known, though for years it was taboo to mention his name in certain circles. “One of his virtues as a writer,” said Bovingdon, “is that he calls things as he sees things, and he’s not afraid of saying dangerous things.”

After spending an afternoon drinking tea with Perhat in his Urumqi apartment, I began to understand what Bovingdon meant. When asked what he had imagined Uighur readers would think of his book, Perhat laughed. “I didn’t think about it. I just like to write,” he said with a grin. There was nothing like it at the time, Perhat explained. “No one dared to write it, so I just wrote it myself.”

* * *

Despite his virtual pariah status, Perhat told me he feels no bitterness toward religion. In fact, he identifies as Muslim himself, though in between sips of wine, he told me that his belief stems from a sort of philosophical universalism rather than a pure acceptance of creed. “Religion is a very good thing,” said Perhat, “very beautiful, just like a poem, just like literature. But some people make religion very horrible.”

Sixteen years after his public excoriation, it seems that Perhat is finally able to publish again. He’s currently working on a novel about a car accident, which explores how strangers in a city view sudden death. Another of his recent works will soon be released in translated English, along with a collection of Uighur short stories, his first major publications since 1999. He is remarried and now has two children, a boy and a girl.

While Perhat has managed to rebuild his life, the situation in Xinjiang has in many ways deteriorated. Ethnic riots in Urumqi in 2009, which pitted Han Chinese and Uighurs against each other, killed at least 197 civilians, plunging the city into a military lock-down that lasted months. The past two years have seen a rise in violent attacks that Chinese authorities have blamed on Islamic terrorists, though due to extremely tight information control such claims have been difficult to independently verify. In March 2014, a group of knife-wielding attackers killed 31 at a train station in the southwest Chinese city of Kunming, while a May 2014 bomb attack in an early-morning market in Urumqi killed dozens of mostly Han Chinese shoppers.

The worsening conditions in Xinjiang indicate that by circumscribing Uighur culture while simultaneously shutting down religion, Chinese authorities are merely adding fuel to the fire. And by closing off Western thought, the government has also stymied what could be an intellectual third way outside the fraught Han-Uighur paradigm. Perhat’s perspective on the world’s sacred literature provides a glimpse of a liberal, eclectic worldview that Chinese government authorities, and a conservative Uighur society, have both chosen to marginalize. “I always read some Buddhist scripture, some Christian scripture,” said Perhat, who also mentioned his admiration for the Tibetan Buddhist Book of the Dead. “There are lots of beautiful words in these books. I love all these words.”

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian traveled to China on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project.

Darren Byler contributed research.