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Prosperity and Persecution: A Look at China’s Muslim Minorities

Chinese-looking women in headscarves and men in white prayer hats gather in front of a mosque with a distinctly Chinese arched roof. This scene takes place daily in the Chinese city of Xi’an, home to the Hui Muslim minority group.  But just nine hours away in the province of Xinjiang, religious services are held in secret. Police are placed strategically around the city to watch the Muslim population. Xinjiang is home to the China’s other large minority Muslim group, the Uighurs. Both groups share the same faith. But while the Hui are thriving as a religious community, the Uighurs are increasingly persecuted.

Islam first spread to China through Xi’an in the 7th century AD. But the province wasn’t part of China until the thirteenth century when Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar al-Bukhari, a Central Asian Muslim who served the imperial court, established this region as such. Many Hui revere Sayyid Ajjal because he showed that Islam could coexist with Chinese philosophy.

The Hui people are descendants of Persian, Arab and Mongol merchants on the Silk Road, who came to China over 1,200 years ago. Through intermarriages with the Han Chinese, the Hui have since ethnically mixed and spread across the country. The Hui assimilated by learning Mandarin and adapting their religious traditions to local customs. They built the great mosque of Xi’an, one of the largest and oldest mosques in China. The mosque boasts multiple courtyards, arches, and tiled roofs – all elements of traditional Chinese architecture.

According to Ahmed, an imam at a mosque in China’s Kunming province, Chinese philosophy fits neatly together with Islam. He stated in an interview with The New Yorker that “Chinese tradition teaches the dao of man, and Islam teaches the dao of heaven—the two are complementary.” Sayyid Ajjal built Confucian schools alongside mosques and Buddhist temples in an effort to infuse foreign religion and culture with domestic ideals of harmony and hierarchy. He initiated the state’s friendliness towards the Hui by ensuring that the minority group assimilated into Chinese society.

But relations between the Hui and the Han have not always been peaceful. Under Qing dynasty rule in the 19th century, tensions between the two groups erupted over how Yunnan’s mineral resources were being apportioned. Qing officials ordered a xi Hui, which translates into a washing away of the Hui. During this massacre in 1856, at least four thousand people were slaughtered over the course of three days. It prompted a sixteen-year rebellion, which was followed by another massacre of the Hui in which at least ten thousand Hui died. After the communist party took power in China, the Hui faced a difficult path to gaining acceptance because of the Maoist opposition to organized religion.

Despite this challenge, the Hui have gained relative prosperity and freedom under China’s rule. The Hui Muslims play a very important role in trade between the Middle East and China. Because of their knowledge of Arabic, numerous Hui people work in Dubai and work for Middle Eastern businesses in China.

The prosperity of China’s Hui may not be a sign of broad cultural acceptance, however. Haiyun Ma, a Hui Scholar at Frostburg University questioned the authenticity of China’s friendliness towards the Hui. In an interview with an online news magazine, she argued that this perceived friendliness is more of a sign of “business interest, not of religious tolerance.” Yet, because of their cultural closeness to the Han Chinese, there is no large-scale Hui separatist movement.

While the Hui practice their faith openly in China, the Uighurs, the other main Muslim minority group in China are experiencing severe restrictions on their religious freedom. The majority of Uighurs live in the far-western province of Xinjiang. Unlike for the Hui, there is an Uighur independence movement. As a result, the Chinese government has cracked down on this group. During last year’s Ramadan, a month-long Muslim holiday that entails strict fasting, the Uighurs were forced to break their fasts and some were not allowed to attend prayers or travel. Recently, in November 2016, all citizens of Xinjiang were ordered to hand in their passports by the Chinese government.

These restrictions are a result of the government’s belief that tougher security is the only way to reduce the escalating violence in the region. In September 2016, a group of attackers suspected to be Uighur separatists stabbed dozens of people to death at a coal mine. More recently, on February 14th, 2017, another knife attack ensued in this region where eight people were killed and ten were injured. No motive was given, but the government, which controls media outlets, subsequently blamed the Uighurs for such attacks. Rights groups say the violence is a response to these tight controls, but the government denies any repression.

As with the tough security measures, travelers from Xinjiang are forced to stop at ubiquitous highway checkpoints. Heavily armed soldiers are allowed to rummage through car trunks and examine ID cards. Uighurs can sometimes be asked to even hand over their cellphones so that the police can search them for content or software deemed a threat to public security. What the police determine to be a threat is flagrantly subjective; besides being on the lookout for jihadi videos on these cellular devices, the police are also on the lookout for popular apps like Skype and WhatsApp, both of which can allow users to communicate with people outside of China. These restraints are seen in schools as well. Schools have largely switched to using Mandarin as the main language of instruction and the government has begun offering cash and housing subsidies to encourage intermarriage between Uighurs and Han, all in an effort to assimilate the Uighurs. The Chinese government has gone so far as to impose birth restrictions on Muslim minorities in Xinjiang in 2014. The party chief said it was necessary to lower fertility and implemented a family planning policy as part of efforts to fight terrorism.

Dr. James Leibold of LaTrobe University explained in an interview with The Politic that the restrictions the Uighurs live with are equatable with a police state. “The police are very visible and they’re there to remind people that the state is watching.”

In 2015, China launched an anti-terrorism campaign in Xinjiang following a string of deadly attacks Beijing blamed on extremist Uighurs seeking to establish an independent state. According to a Uighur Human Rights Project report, 700 people were killed due to political activities in 2015. The number of those arrested increased 95 percent compared to in 2014, reaching 27,000. The number of those sentenced to execution or life imprisonment increased by 50 percent last year. It became a crime to wear a headscarf in public, including when getting married in a religious ceremony, with fines of about $353 for doing so. In 2015, a group of five Uighur men who had “crescent moon-shaped” beards was put on trial for religious extremism after they were found to have secretly attended religious ceremonies.

The Uighur issue is generally viewed as an internal Chinese security problem but some experts argue that it should also be looked at in the context of the rising global jihad and Islamic fundamentalism. The crucial point, the analysts say, is that the Uighur cause is getting increasingly hijacked by the jihadist movements, particularly in Afghanistan where a number of Uighur militants are reportedly fighting alongside the Taliban and al Qaeda. Many of the Uighur fighters are organized under an umbrella group called East Turkestan Islamic Movement or ETIM. The ETIM was listed as one of the “more extreme separatist groups” and as a terrorist organization by the US in 2002.

According to the UN, the ETIM is associated with al Qaeda and its fighters are believed to have fought alongside them and the Taliban in Afghanistan against NATO troops. Furthermore, the Uighurs gained combat training in Chechnya and were involved in terrorist activities in Kyrgyzstan. Reportedly, the ETIM has also sent its members to fight for “Islamic State” (IS) in Syria. IS has declared jihad against China on the grounds that Beijing is mistreating the Uighur Muslim population. This classic Sunni jihadist propaganda based on the persecution of the Uighurs is evident in videos and other jihadist material in which IS has called for global jihad and an uprising in China.

Despite the severe oppression that the Uighurs do face, Dr. Gardner Bovingdon of Indiana University believes that the possibility of a large-scale extremist movement by the Uighurs is close to null. Bovingdon stated in an interview with The Politic, “Most Uighurs are not really interested in replacing rule by the little red book with rule by the Quran.” In other words, most Uighurs do not desire to trade in the autocratic model provided by the Chinese Communist party for the heavily doctrinal rule by an extremist group. However, this is not to say they enjoy the current status of their treatment under the Chinese, but they would not trade that in for a religiously motivated autocracy. If anything they would like “a secular, religiously tolerant regime of their own.”

Dr. James Leibold agreed that an uprising led by the Uighurs is highly unlikely. He states, “The only scenario that an uprising could occur is if the Chinese economy were to decline tremendously and as a result, security measures of the region were weakened.”

The juxtaposition of conditions faced by the Hui and the Uighurs is alarming. Some have wondered why the Hui have not stood up in any significant way for their Muslim counterparts. According to Dr. Leibold, most Hui are indeed sympathetic towards what is happening in Xinjiang amongst the Uighurs. However, part of the problem is that China’s autocratic regime is extremely intolerant of dissent and criticism, especially related to policy dealing with religious minority groups.

Dr. Bovingdon agreed. He stated, “It would be extremely surprising if they {Hui} had given the history of government attacks on protesters.” The lack of voiced support from the Hui is not a selfish response, but rather a helpless one. In principle, on religious grounds, it is expected for fellow Muslims to help each other. The problem is that the Chinese government has prevented such from happening through fear.

In all likelihood, the future of the two groups will not converge. The Hui will continue to prosper as long as they do not demand more political rights. For the Uighurs, however, there seems to be little hope of improvement in the near future. As violence escalates around ordinary Uighurs who are trapped in a Chinese police state, it is hard to imagine what a brighter future will look like.