Islam, Ethnicity, and State Control in China

Authorities in Xinjiang have since May 2014 been waging a “war on terror” in response to mounting violence in the region and elsewhere in China. Official blame for the violence has been placed on religious extremists and separatists from the Turkic-speaking and predominately Muslim Uyghur minority native to Xinjiang, but rights groups and overseas activists cite increasingly repressive policies targeting Uyghur religious and cultural practices for stoking ethnic tension and exacerbating unrest. After calling for ethnic blending and the encouragement of Mandarin language education last November, Xinjiang CCP chief this week called for more inter-ethnic friendship in the troubled region. Reuters’ Ben Blanchard reports:

“We must, starting from officials in leadership positions, broadly develop different ethnicities making friends with each other,” Zhang said in comments carried by the official Xinjiang Daily.

Xinjiang needs a society in which “all ethnicities respect, trust, love and help one another”, he said, without detailing how this might be achieved.

[…] Speaking about religious policy, Zhang said the party would continue to push in the direction of “Sinification” to root out extremism and guide the faithful to follow “correct” beliefs.

Uighurs have traditionally followed a moderate form of but many have begun adopting practices more common in or Pakistan, such as full-face veils for women, as China has stepped up a security crackdown in recent years.

Exiles and many rights groups say the real cause of the unrest is heavy-handed Chinese policies, including curbs on Uighur culture, and a dearth of economic opportunity. [Source]

While the increasingly conservative Islam practiced by has been a main target in the ongoing crackdown in Xinjiang, the predominately Muslim Hui minority have been enjoying a “religious boom” (though there have also been accounts of narrowing space for religious freedom within the community). At The New York Times, Andrew Jacobs reports on ethnic and cultural similarities shared by the Hui and the majority Han, and the “light government touch” on Islam in Hui regions of northwestern China:

Throughout Ningxia and the adjacent Gansu Province, new filigreed mosques soar over even the smallest villages, adolescent boys and girls spend their days studying the Quran at religious schools, and muezzin summon the faithful via loudspeakers — a marked contrast to mosques in Xinjiang, where the local authorities often forbid amplified calls to prayer.

In Hui strongholds like Linxia, a city in Gansu known as China’s “Little Mecca,” there are mosques on every other block and women can sometimes be seen with veils, a sartorial choice that can lead to detention in Xinjiang [see prior coverage, via CDT].

[…] Unlike the Uighurs, who speak a Turkic dialect and whose Eurasian features set them apart from the country’s Han Chinese majority, the Hui speak Chinese and are often indistinguishable from their non-Muslim neighbors. In much of China, the white caps worn by men and the head scarves worn by women are all that give them away. In many places, the Hui have so thoroughly assimilated that their only connection to Islam is a vestigial aversion to pork.

[…] Their loyalty to the Communist Party has been well rewarded. In places like Linxia, people can easily obtain passports and about half of the senior officials are ethnic Hui, according to local residents. In Xinjiang, by contrast, most important government posts go to the Han, and young Uighurs find it hard to get passports to travel abroad. Government workers in Xinjiang who go to mosques or fast during the holy month of Ramadan often find themselves unemployed. […] [Source]

Jacobs also filed a video report from Linxia:

Jacobs’ print report continues to note that while authorities are generally tolerant of Hui religiosity, there is growing official concern about the spread of Salafism, an ultraconservative Sunni reform movement, among both Hui and Uyghurs. At the Los Angeles Times, Jonathan Kaiman reports on the rise of Salafism in China, official anxiety over its effect on state diplomacy and security, and the division within the Chinese Muslim community that the movement is creating:

The growth in the Salafi movement here has rattled China’s officially atheist communist government, which finds any expression of religious fervor to be unnerving, especially when it carries associations with foreign extremists.

[…] “Clearly Muslim ideologies can be very powerful,” he continued. Islamic State “is appealing to many marginalized young men throughout the world. And I think Han Chinese men, as well as younger [Chinese Muslims], look at this and say, ‘What are the alternatives to communism, to capitalism, to socialism?'” [says scholar of Islam in China Dru Gladney.]

[…] In 1984, Beijing began allowing individual Chinese Muslims to make the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and by 1990, nearly 10,000 Hui were flying out each year. Some learned about Salafism and, enamored with the idea of a “purer” form of Islam, spread its teachings at home.

[…] In recent years, the Saudi-China grass-roots relationship has grown more complex. Experts say that Beijing increasingly views foreign religious influence as a threat and that Chinese Salafis have rejected overtures from Saudi patrons, fearful about how officials — and other Chinese Muslim groups — would react.

China’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, the world’s second-biggest oil producer, has not suffered any obvious setbacks. […] [Source]