We’ve previously noted how Al-Jazeera’s treatment of the Tibet issue tends to be somewhat lopsided, but this latest report on Islam in China which features interviewees from both ends of the political spectrum does exhibit cognisance of the various sensitivities and the interplay of a variety of complex factors. The heterogeneity of Muslims in China makes them a highly fascinating group to study, if we can even consider them as a “group” to begin with. The longstanding suspicions among Uyghurs of the Hui’s are underscored by activist Rebiya Kadeer’s assertion that many of the spies employed by Chinese intelligence in Xinjiang are Hui Muslims — an ethnic group that accounts for about half of China’s 22 million Muslims. The main distinction that sets the Hui’s apart from the Han’s is derived from their practice of Islam and in many cases, there is no genetic distinction between the Hui’s and the Han’s due to a decision by the Communist Party in the 1930s to define Hui’s as an umbrella group for all Sinophone Muslims.
It is interesting to note that Rebiya Kadeer was once co-opted as a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Her rags-to-riches story and successes as a businesswoman earned her a high standing among the Uyghur community. Unfortunately, her barring from re-election in 1998 and subsequent imprisonment in 1999 (a missed opportunity by the Chinese government to address real concerns perhaps?) may have had the effect of radicalising her views. Since her exile to the United States, she has gained influential friends and meetings with heads of states and has also been named President of the World Uyghur Congress, but for all her actions is likely to exert only limited pressure on the Chinese government.
Even as the Chinese government continues to guarantee more space for the expression of religion, the rise of political Islam will be a real concern. This is because Islam is a set of beliefs which not only govern how man is to behave before God, but also how states should be run. As more and more imams (religious leaders) are trained not just in local seminaries but also in such revered institutions of fundamentalist thought such as the Al-Azhar University in Egypt, the face of Islam in China will change (note the totally veiled women in the video). As record numbers of Chinese Muslims go on Haj year-on-year, their spiritual aspirations and views of their relation to the state will also evolve. Not all of this will be bad though. As we have previously noted, there is much that Muslim communities elsewhere can glean from the Chinese Muslim experience, in particular the establishment of nu si (“女寺”) or female mosques (seen in this video) and the ordination of large numbers of female imams that are unheard of elsewhere. While female imams and mosques are more peculiar to Hui rather than Uyghur communities, it has been studied with great interest by anthropologists.
Shanghaiist: The most unlikely birthplace of progressive Islam?
Shanghaiist: Record number of Chinese Muslims on Haj
Wikipedia: Rebiya Kadeer
Youtube: Cause and Causes
In These Times: Rebiya Kadeer: The Uighur Dalai Lama
Journal3.net: Islam in China: China Nu’s Ahong
Asia Times: Islam with Chinese characteristics