China Curtails Islam Nationwide, Targeting Intellectuals

A campaign of repression against Islam is underway in Muslim-majority areas across China. While the construction of mass internment camps seemingly remains unique to Xinjiang, two new reports by The Los Angeles Times and National Public Radio indicated that China is attempting to systematically curtail Islam nationwide. At The Los Angeles Times, Alice Su described the impact of the government’s campaign to “Sinicize” Islam in northwest China:

[A] Linxia propaganda official confirmed that they had received orders from the central government to combat “Arab-ization, Saudi-ization, and pan-Islamification” in Gansu, and to restrict mosque-building and participation in the hajj, an annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca.

[…] Adults had relative freedom to worship, he said, but Communist Party cadres, following new state guidelines, sat outside the mosques to ensure no minors entered for Friday prayers. Summer religion and Arabic schools once attended by many Hui children were banned. The call to prayer was forbidden as a “public nuisance,” Ma said, despite Muslims making up 60% of Linxia’s population.

[…] On the road approaching Bulengou, two icons towered over the village: a gongbei, an old Islamic-Chinese religious structure in rusty shades of red and blue, and a bright red billboard quoting Xi Jinping. The gongbei was enclosed behind a padlocked gate, with a sign forbidding photos. The Xi billboard welcomed visitors to a museum honoring Xi’s visit to the village in 2013, with images and video of grateful Muslims flocking to see the party leader. [Source]

Campaigns aimed at the “Sinicization” of religion have become a hallmark of the Xi administration. As early as 2014, an official campaign aimed at the Sinicization of Christianity and the “construction of a Chinese Christian theology” was unveiled. In 2015, Xinjiang’s top CCP official remarked that religion must be “Sinicized” in the region, and in 2016 top Party leaders called for the same for the Buddhism practiced in Tibet.

The Los Angeles Times’ recent report also detailed how officials hoped that new factories built in Muslim-majority areas would “[transform] people’s thinking,” inspiring secularization. The drive to bring factories inland is part of a larger poverty alleviation campaign, which is in part aimed at “changing the mindsets” of China’s rural poor.

A new report detailed the official drive to reform thought in Muslim communities through the co-option of intellectuals and scholars. Six years to the day after a Chinese court affirmed Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti’s life sentence on dubious separatism charges, Emily Z Feng wrote for NPR about China’s campaign to silence Muslim thinkers and the resilience of those attempting to maintain their faith:

“What dominates Muslim [government] cadres is the [Communist] party line and the official version of Islam promoted by government agencies and organizations,” says Ma Haiyun, an associate professor at Frostburg State University, where he studies Islam in China. “The result of this restriction is to make traditional discourses on Islam more commercial, patriotic and Chinese.”

[…] “The printing plant was closed and our equipment and all books were confiscated. In the first days [of my imprisonment], I was almost completely cut off from the outside world,” Ma Zhixiong wrote in an essay widely circulated this fall among chat groups on the Chinese WeChat app. “During my prison days, human dignity disappeared. Every day, people had to take off their clothes for inspection and to hold our heads while squatting down while being interrogated… We lived like ghosts.”

[…] He and hundreds of other Chinese Muslims used to moderate online forums and events and curated websites that discussed issues of scripture and philosophy. By 2016, those sites were shut down or censored within China’s Great Firewall. They moved to WeChat, where the writer now runs chat groups of 500 people each, but doing so requires constant vigilance: “Even on WeChat,” he says, “it is a continuous process of continually being shut down by censors and starting a new group.” [Source]

Nowhere in China is repression of religious expression more severe than in Xinjiang, where over one million Uyghurs and other ethnic minority groups are held in interment camps. After a seemingly miraculous journey, a poem by famed Uyghur scholar Abduqadir Jalalidin has escaped the camps even as its author remains imprisoned. Transmitted orally and committed to memory by released detainees, the poem found its way to Joshua L. Freeman, a Princeton historian and a former student of Jalalidin’s. The New York Times published Freeman’s translation, and his broader reflections on poetry and resistance in Uyghur culture:

Poetry permeates Uighur life. Influential cultural figures are often poets, and Uighurs of all backgrounds write poetry. Folk rhymes pepper everyday conversation — popular wisdom like “Don’t forget about your roots / keep the shine on your old boots” — and social media pulses with fresh verse on topics from unemployment to language preservation. Every Uighur knows the words of the poet Abdukhaliq, martyred by a Chinese warlord in 1933: “Awaken, poor Uighur, you’ve slept long enough…”

[…] Today, as the Chinese state bans Uighur books and paves over Muslim graveyards, poetry remains a powerful form of persistence and resistance for the Uighur people. Uighurs around the world are turning to poetry to grapple with the calamity in their homeland. “The target on my forehead / could not bring me to my knees,” wrote the exile poet Tahir Hamut Izgil from Washington in 2018.

[…] The world has much to learn from a culture that has made art its antidote to authoritarianism. From behind the barbed wire and guard towers, my old professor has reminded us that we must not stand silently while that culture is annihilated. [Source]

Pope Francis recognized Uyghurs as “persecuted peoples” for the first time in a soon-to-be-published book. Francis’ conspicuous silence on the Uyghur crisis elicited broad criticism from human rights groups, and increasingly from within the church as well. In July, the Archbishop of Yangon wrote, “[in] China, the Uighur Muslims are facing what amounts to some of the contemporary world’s worst mass atrocities[…] And I urge the international community to investigate,” according to The New York Times. The Pope’s comments were published after the ordination of the first Chinese bishop to be appointed under a secret Vatican-Beijing treaty, believed to give the CCP some degree of control over bishop appointments. A spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry said the Pope’s statement has “no factual basis at all,” but did not further elaborate on China’s relationship with the Holy See.


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