China’s Muslims: The Dragon and the Crescent

An ethnic Uighur woman carrying bread walks past armed Chinese paramilitary police in riot gear as they stand guard on a main street in the city of Urumqi in China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region. REUTERS/David Gray

Muslims in China are free to practice their faith — as long as it’s on the government’s terms

BY Arfa Shahid & Leila Hatoum 

In a country where over 21 million citizens constituting up to 1.5 percent of the population practice the Islamic faith, one wonders why the world hears so little about China’s Muslims, unless there are reports of abuse or terrorist attacks and even then, those reports are mainly carried by foreign media outlets.

Newsweek Middle East has spoken to Uyghurs and other Chinese Muslims as well as experts on the history of Islam in China, to get a clearer picture of the state of religious freedom in the country. It is worth noting that reports on the treatment of Muslims in China have been subjected to much inaccuracy. Western media bias towards China has often meant that the issue of religious practice has been reported with an alarmist perspective, lacking detail of what is a complex situation.

History of Islam in China 
The issue of religious freedom, particularly that of Chinese Muslims, goes far beyond a crackdown on Islam. It is a complex issue with nuances of ethnic identity, separatist movements and minority rights at its core.
To understand the present day scenario of China’s diverse Muslims, one has to examine the arrival of Islam in the region. The religion came to China approximately 20 years after Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) passed away, during the rule of Othman, the third Muslim Caliph, in the year 651. It was concentrated mainly in Western China, which is home to a large Uyghur population.

Before the Mongol era, Muslim traders came to China and settled there. The Mongols brought more Muslim allies from Central Asia to China to rule the majority Han Chinese. Although Muslims were naturalized legally, they were still culturally foreign. From the 14th century onwards, when the Chinese overthrew the Mongols, Muslims in China became culturally assimilated. In the last dynasty of the Qing, Muslim-Chinese wars and conflicts lasted for at least 150 years.

According to Chinese official documents, Islam was introduced into the southern part of China’s Xinjiang province towards the end of the ninth century. By the mid-10th century, Muslims launched a war against the Buddhist Kingdom of Khotan but only conquered the kingdom 40 years later. Thereafter, Islam quickly became the predominant religion in Xinjiang, coexisting with many other religions there including Buddhism and Christianity.

People prepare for prayers at the historic Niujie mosque in Beijing, China, July 6, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

People prepare for prayers at the historic Niujie mosque in Beijing, China, July 6, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj









Chinese Muslims vs. Uyghurs
Before delving deeper, it should be made clear from the outset that not all Muslims in China are being persecuted. It is specifically the Uyghur ethnic minority, particularly in the autonomous north-western province of Xinjiang, that bears the brunt of state repression.

In China, being Muslim is not just a religious identity, but it is also weaved into a complex ethnic identity. There are Chinese Muslims who identify as Hui and Han, in addition to the Uyghur Muslims as well as the minorities of Kazakh, Tatar, Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Tajik and others.

Hui Muslims are the largest Muslim group in China and are said to be originally Han Chinese, who assumed this new identity after converting to Islam in 1949. They are ethnically and linguistically similar to the Han, who constitute 92 percent of mainland China.

Haiyun Ma, an assistant professor of history at Frostburg State University who specializes in Islam in China, says that a complicated history of Chinese Muslims, coupled with a historical record of ethnic separatism in the 1930s and 1940s, is why the Uyghurs are targeted.

“The collapse of the Soviet Union and the formation of Central Asian republics makes China worry about possible Uyghur independence. Moreover, the Uyghurs’ perceived connection to Muslim militant groups outside China, as well as the West’s support for Uyghur separatism are all factors that makes China consider them a threat.”

He adds that “Israeli lobbying groups began to exploit the Uyghur situation, and lobbied the central government to implement harsh policies even on Hui Muslims.” These factors, coupled with the struggle for domestic power that Xinjiang’s government needs to highlight its position within the Chinese communist system, are reasons for the crackdown on the Uyghurs.

It is perhaps in this sense that we understand the Chinese government’s stance in the White Paper on Religious Freedom, that the country “will never allow any foreign organization or individual to interfere with China’s religious affairs…The Chinese government resolutely opposes the politicization of religious matters and any other country’s interference in China’s internal affairs in the name of religion.”

Religious Freedom?
The Uyghur Muslims living in China’s far western province of Xinjiang Autonomous Region claim they are persecuted for practicing Islam, despite the country’s constitution stipulating that citizens enjoy freedom of religious belief without any coercion or discrimination against them. The complicated history of Xinjiang is what may be making the Chinese government fearful of outside influence. Historically the area was known as East Turkestan and was a part of Central Asia, not China. Hence the reported 15 million population has a culture of its own.

When contacted by Newsweek Middle East to comment on the issue of religious freedom for Muslims and Uyghurs in China, an emailed reply from the Spokesperson’s Office of the Foreign Ministry stated that the country’s respect for and “protection of freedom of religious belief is a long-term basic national policy of the government… No Xinjiang citizen has been punished because of his or her rightful religious belief.”
However, a recent visit by a colleague to Kashgar in Xinjiang revealed otherwise. The Chinese government holds that it is entirely up to Muslim restaurant owners whether they wish to provide services or not during the Islamic month of fasting.

The colleague, who wished to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution, says the mood in this old city was rather “depressed and low-spirited during Ramadan.”
China reportedly prohibited civil servants, students and teachers in the region from fasting during the Islamic holy month and ordered catering for businesses to stay open.

“We have to work but there are hardly any visitors during the day time. It really doesn’t make sense,” says Gulbahar, a waitress at Eden Café. The café is close to the famous Id Kah Mosque, built by Saqsiz Mirza in 1442. The mosque is China’s largest, and it houses nearly 10,000 worshippers during Friday congregational prayers. However, it can accommodate up to 20,000 people at a time.

At Kashgar’s main Western and Central Asian Bazaar, the colleague says an Uyghur Muslim shopkeeper explained to her and to Newsweek Middle East that no one was happy because of the regulation.
However, not all Muslim Chinese see eye-to-eye when it comes to the government’s regulations and prohibitions.

Huang, a tour guide from the Han majority —which is the origin of the Muslim Hui in China—who was leading a group of tourists around Abakh Khoja Tomb, a family cemetery of Kashgar’s 17th century Islamic leader, agrees with the government’s policies during Ramadan.

“You have to keep business going, otherwise the economy would suffer and there would be no souvenir shop open for the tourists and my clients,” she says.

Furthermore, the Chinese government “prohibits any organization or individual from splitting the country, disseminating extremist religious thoughts, inciting ethnic hatred, undermining national unity, disturbing the social order, or impairing citizens’ physical and mental health in the name of religion. It also prohibits behavior that violates national security and interests, public interests, and citizens’ legitimate rights and interests in the name of religion,” the Ministry says.

But such broad terms of “disseminating extremist religious thoughts,” and “undermining national unity,” among others have long been the tools of regimes throughout modern history to quell opposition and confiscate freedoms, including in the U.S. with the much criticized Patriot Act.

Freedom for Me, Not for Thee:
Kamla Hsin Tung is a Chinese-American Hui Muslim who studied International Relations at the University of California, San Diego. Besides having taken anthropology courses at Nanjing University as a study-abroad student, Tung moved to China after her marriage and works in Nanjing, the capital of China’s eastern Jiangsu province, as a program coordinator at a language center.

She tells Newsweek Middle East that the repression of Muslims in China is mostly limited to Uyghur Muslims, particularly in Xinjiang where the Uyghurs were once the majority population. Now, Tung says, the Uyghur population has been watered down by the government’s push of flows of Han migrants into the area—said to be a result of Israeli influence —to take on senior posts and higher paying jobs. Beijing says it is merely pumping investments into the region to help it grow.

Tung says that government control on practicing Islam is aimed at things such as preventing Uyghurs from fasting in public spaces such as schools and offices, banning beards and headscarves and disallowing young individuals (under 18) to attend any form of religious lectures. Local media reports showed leaked government documents that expressly forbid men with beards from using public transport. Students under 18 are prohibited from fasting and are reportedly forced to eat lunch with their teachers during the fasting month of Ramadan. There have also been reports of the government forcing restaurants by law to sell alcohol – a habit prohibited by Islam.

CHAINS OF COMMUNISM: The Uyghurs in the autonomous Xinjiang region of China claim religious persecution by the mainland Chinese authorities.

CHAINS OF COMMUNISM: The Uyghurs in the autonomous Xinjiang region of China claim religious persecution by the mainland Chinese authorities.

Tung adds that this policy has slowly been trickling into other provinces such as Gansu (also known for a large Muslim population), but says that it is nowhere near the same scale or practice as in Xinjiang. In fact, these policies are not at all enforced or expected amongst the Hui minorities, who also live in significant numbers in major Chinese cities.

“For Hui minorities [to which I belong], living in cities such as Nanjing (one of China’s larger cities), Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou etc., there are no major restrictions that we can pinpoint, we hold regular prayers with not much fanfare,” Tung says.

However, things take a different turn where the Uyghurs are concerned. Tung explains how her Uyghur friends have been targeted for practicing Islam: She says that she herself can get away with a lot more, not only because she doesn’t look Uyghur, but because as a Hui she is “privileged.”

Tung’s friend agreed to speak to Newsweek Middle East on condition of anonymity. After she finished telling her story, it is evident why she would want to keep her identity a secret.

For the purpose of this article, we will refer to Tung’s friend as Luna.

Luna is from Hotan in Xinjiang and currently studies at a university in Nanjing. As a student, she says that Uyghur students are not allowed to wear scarves or any other form of religious clothing.

Many teachers in Nanjing say that the way a student dresses does not concern them, but they are forced to abide by the government regulations and report on students wearing the hijab. Some teachers offer comfort to their students by saying that they should not let such matters affect their education, but if they continue practices that are forbidden by the government, they will have to be reported.

While Luna is lucky to have supportive classmates, teachers and dorm-mates who are “quite respectful” of her religious practice, others are not so lucky.

Some of Luna’s classmates were reported by their dorm-mates for praying, partly because the teacher had asked them to notify the school authorities should they see “such behavior.” In one student’s case, the dorm-mates bullied her while praying, so much so that she was forced to pray on her bed.

Luna says the students have become so cautious that they are wary of carrying out mundane everyday tasks such as holding group study sessions.

“Ever since that one meeting where they asked us to stop wearing the headscarf, there haven’t been any [weekly meetings]. They all know what we’re doing. It’s definitely because someone among us has already told the police officers. I mean, everything we did, everything we talked about, they were very aware of. So there’s this kind of feeling of lack of trust amongst us. Now we’re all very cautious.”

Luna recalls that things were never this bad in Nanjing. The situation deteriorated starting May 2015, when a few people visited from Xinjiang.

“I don’t know if they were police officers or teachers. But they came once, and after their meeting, the school tightened regulations and became stricter, not allowing prayer or any publications on Islam.”

Previously, Luna says the authorities did not care about Tarawih (extra night prayers during Ramadan) or Jummah (Friday’s noon congregational prayers). Now, however, all those who work in government positions are not allowed to enter the mosque. If they absolutely must pray at the mosques, they must register using their national I.D. number.

BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING: Government workers in China are prohibited from fasting or praying congregational prayers. If they absolutely must go to the mosque, they must register using their national I.D.

“It’s messed up,” Luna says with a nervous laugh.

Back in Luna’s hometown, Hotan, authorities can arbitrarily detain anyone or check their cellphones if they are seen as suspicious, particularly males. “But it’s not safe to speak about the situation of stricter inspections over the phone to my relatives and family. So, I don’t know if my family is going through this because I haven’t been back in a year.”

Fighting Terrorism
In China, hundreds of people have been killed in unrest in Xinjiang over the past few years. The government blames the violence on Western-backed Islamist militants, whom it claims want to establish an independent state called East Turkestan, for the minority Uyghurs.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying says that “cracking down on East Turkestan Islamic Movement is a core concern of China’s on the issue of counter-terrorism.

Religious extremism, “has grown and spread in Xinjiang in recent years,” deluding and deceiving the public, “particularly young people, with their fallacies,” according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s emailed reply to Newsweek Middle East.

Following a series of several violent attacks in China—including a knife attack at a train station in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, in March 2014; a market bombing in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi in May 2014; the attacks in Shache County in 2014; and the terrorist attacks in Baicheng, a city in the north-eastern province of Jilin in September 2015—the Xinjiang authorities adopted a policy of “de-radicalization” to prevent and combat religious extremism.

This allowed for the crack down on “terrorism and extremism in accordance with the law,” and the ministry believes that “Xinjiang cracks down on the propaganda of terrorism and extremism and the incitement of terrorist and extremist activities,” in accordance with relevant laws and regulations.

State Monitoring
For the Uyghurs in China, particularly in Xinjiang, there is no distinction between being monitored in public or in private spaces. That is, the government will inspect and monitor private homes as well public spaces like universities, schools, offices, etc. Government officials are not allowed to pray or fast. In middle school, students are forced to eat lunch during recess.

“They will come in, and we can’t even protest or fight back because they’re police officers. If you protest or fight back, then the next day, you might never be found again. This stuff has happened before. Right now, in Xinjiang, if anything problematic related to religion occurs, you don’t even need to open a case or have an arrest warrant—they can directly take you away,” Luna tells Newsweek Middle East.
If that isn’t chilling enough, Luna adds that police officers don’t require any documentation to prove their identity as long as they are in uniform.

She recalls an incident when five police officers barged into her brother’s home last summer. Luna had been interning at Hotan. One of the officers was an ethnic Han while the other four were Uyghur.
Luna describes the incident in vivid detail. She says her sister-in-law took longer than usual to answer the door as she was wearing a sleeveless shirt and wanted to cover up first. The police went through every room, being especially “vicious.”

Luna adds that they questioned her for wearing an all-black outfit. As it turns out, long black abayas are not allowed. On that basis, one officer forced Luna to give him her phone and unlock the screen. “I said, give it to me and I’ll unlock it. And he hit my hand, saying ‘I’ll hold it and you open it.’”

Luna told us of the multiple times the police officer hit her, simply because it was in his power to do so.
When it later turned out that Luna’s brother had helped the police officer while on duty at a hospital, he returned her phone and said to her brother: “This is only out of respect for you. Next time, if this happens, we’ll just take her directly away. Put her away for many days.”

Luna recalls the time when an Uyghur policeman saved them during an inspection of their computer, which had a few files with Islamic content.

“The Han officer kept asking him, is there anything on there, and the Uyghur officer said no. The Han officer said, inspect properly is there really nothing there, and the Uyghur said there’s nothing.”

When asked about her toughest experience with the authorities, Luna says it’s the constant policing. Despite being used to that, she recalls an incident when she was in Beijing with her father, who was quite sick.

“I was holding a lot of luggage. My dad’s, mine, I was holding it all, because my dad couldn’t carry anything heavy. And I explained clearly to the police officer, but they still made me open all my suitcases one by one, and open everything inside to see what they were,” she says.

“Inside, we had some rose candy cakes, my mom had made, and they were wrapped, because otherwise they would break apart. But they made me open them all, and then, made me put it all away again. I normally never cry over these situations, but I felt so wronged.”

EAT, PRAY, DISAPPEAR: An ethnic Uighur woman stands on the side of a road as Chinese paramilitary police ride on a truck on a main street in Urumqi, China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Many Uyghurs in Xinjiang say the local police is allowed to arrest them arbitrarily, without requiring an arrest warrant, if an individual raises suspicions.

Big Brother Knows All
For the Uyghurs, mainland China evokes an Orwellian atmosphere.

Uyghurs have to meet regularly with the authorities for “tea-time.” During these meetings, the officers ask them questions about university, what they studied that week, their social interactions and about their Uyghur friends. Often, the officer will be someone the government has chosen from within the community, to make the interrogation seem less threatening.

But regardless of the officer’s identity, such practices place a lot of pressure on them, says Tung, adding that even if their intentions are good, ultimately the idea is to monitor the Uyghurs to supposedly prevent them from “extremist leanings.”

Tung says that the effect of this monitoring ultimately is that the Uyghurs feel even more “oppressed and angry” and in some cases, the situation turns violent. But in most cases, the students just want to leave the country and never come back, she adds.

“They told me that if I were to leave the country to study, I would have to keep an eye on my classmates and keep them posted. And so I felt a bit scared. I felt like a pair of eyes are always watching me. There’s just no freedom,” she laments.

Tung believes the situation of Uyghur Muslims in China is unique for this very reason – they have this sort of state monitoring “contingent on them, something the Huis don’t have and the Hans even less so.”

A Hierarchy of Threats
Newsweek Middle East spoke to a Han Chinese Muslim activist who runs an Islamic organization aimed at promoting religious freedom for Muslims in China. When asked why he, as a Han Muslim, felt the need to hide his identity, the activist said: “I’m just being cautious, especially as a community leader.”

The activist, who converted to Islam while studying in Australia, says that Han Muslims are one of the minorities in the Chinese Muslim community.

Because their numbers are so small and because most of them “don’t have a political pursuit, the government doesn’t care what we do,” he tells Newsweek Middle East. In fact, he adds, the government might not even know that they are Muslims.

In this hierarchy of potential threats to national security, the Huis are the second least threatening to China. According to the activist, the government only keeps an eye on the scholars and imams (religious leaders) in the mosques. As Tung’s experiences show, there are hardly any restrictions on the Huis in China. As the activist confirms it: “the Uyghurs have it worst and are spied on wherever they go, especially in Xinjiang.”

In fact, according to the activist, the entire Muslim community in Xinjiang is persecuted, including the Huis. Capital punishments are certainly carried out, although the number remains a state secret. In 2014, Amnesty International reported that in China “authorities made use of the death penalty as a punitive tool in the ‘Strike Hard’ campaign against unrest in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Authorities executed at least 21 people during the year related to separate attacks, while three people were condemned to death in a mass sentencing rally conducted in a stadium in front of thousands of spectators.”

However, the activist says that elsewhere the restrictions are a lot more lax. In fact, all interviews conducted for this report showed that the implementation of the law regarding religion varies from one region to another. “The ban on religious practice is minor but certainly destructive,” the activist tells Newsweek Middle East.

He claims that there are other religious groups in China, besides the Uyghurs, that are targeted by the government, including “certain deviant Christian groups,” raising the question of an even wider state policy on religious freedom. Many in China, including the activist, are contesting state repression of religious practice.

While the ban on religion in China may be a wider issue, facts make it hard to ignore that there is a deliberate crackdown on the country’s Uyghur Muslims. Luna is certain that the state targets Uyghurs specifically, and not other Chinese Muslim minorities.

As of this moment, the activism for religious freedom has been ineffective. To be a government worker in China, you have to be a communist in most cases. As the interview above reveals, you are forbidden from practicing your faith if you work for the government. Thus, the activist says “we are weak in making our voices heard by the government.” However, they hold onto the internet as their beacon of hope. Advocates of religious freedom in China believe the omnipresence of the internet makes it hard for the government to have complete control, thus making it an effective medium for advocacy.

Xinjiang has 24,800 venues for religious activities, including mosques, churches, lamaseries and temples, with 29,300 clerical personnel. Among these, 24,400 mosques have 29,000 clerical personnel, according to an official document emailed by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

There are eight religious colleges, including the Xinjiang Islamic Institute and Xinjiang Islamic School. And over the past 15 years, the State Administration for Religious Affairs in China has held only 12 training classes on Islamic scripture interpretation, training more than 500 clerical personnel for Xinjiang.


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