Officials in Beijing have ordered all shops to cover up any Arabic signs or Islamic symbols, in the latest phase of the government’s crackdown on Muslims.

Restaurants, cafes and food stalls which serve halal produce have been visited by government officials in recent weeks and told to remove not just the word “halal” in Arabic but also any images associated with Islam, such as crescent moons.

The campaign against visible signs of Islamic identity began in 2016 as an attempt to ensure China’s 20 million Muslims more closely confirm to mainstream Chinese culture.

The crackdown has been most severe in the province of Xinjiang, where the state security forces have imposed a deeply authoritarian assault on the freedoms of the Uighur Muslim minority, including detaining as many as two million people in what it claims are re-education camps. 

One manager at a Beijing noodle shop told Reuters news agency government workers watched as he was made to cover up a “halal” sign.

“They said this is foreign culture and you should use more Chinese culture,” the manager said, declining to give his name for fear of reprisals.

One employee at a halal butchers said the new ruling would “erase” Islamic culture.

“They are always talking about national unity, they’re always talking about China being international. Is this national unity?”

There are at least 1,000 halal shops and restaurants in the Chinese capital. Some have chosen to replace the Arabic halal signs with ones which use Chinese characters, while others visited by Reuters have simple taped over their Islamic symbols.

Darren Byler, an anthropologist at the University of Washington who is an expert on Xinjiang, said China’s Communist Party saw Islamic culture and Arabic as foreign influences outside of its control.

“It is also seen as connected to international forms of piety, or in the eyes of state authorities, religious extremism. They want Islam in China to operate primarily through Chinese language,” he said.

Uighur Muslim woman tells Congressional-Executive Commission on China she asked Chinese to kill her whilst in detention camp

Zha Xi, from China’s National Erthnic Affairs Commission, would only say the constitution protected the rights of all minority groups and insisted halal regulation was handled by Beijing’s local government.

But the Beijing council’s committee on ethnicity and religious affairs also declined to comment, saying there was a national directive on halal restaurants.

The expunging of Arabic and Islamic signs marks one of the softer parts of China’s attack on Islam.

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Human rights groups and the UN have decried the large camps set up in Xinjiang as equivalent to “wartime concentration camps”

Former detainees have spoken of Muslim Uighurs inside he camps being forced to denounce Islam, swear loyalty to the Communist Party and even eat pork or drink alcohol – both forbidden by their religion.

The government maintains it is simply attempting to combat Islamic extremist terrorism in Xinjiang.