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China, Islam and Islamophobia

EGalois

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I intend to write this thread to inform my Pakistani friends about Islam in China and Islamophobia in China. To further the relations between the two countries, I think it's important for Pakistanis to understand the role of Islam in Chinese culture, Chinese history and what modern Islam is like in China, as well as the relations between Chinese Muslims and the rest of the Chinese society.

Part I: History of Hui Muslims in China

Islam arrived in China in the early 7th century. Legend says that the Huaisheng Mosque in the southern city of Guangzhou was built by Muslims directly sent by the Prophet Muhammad PBUH to China in the 7th century.


However, for the next few centuries, Islam in China was relatively obscure in comparison to Buddhism, another foreign religion in China coming from India, which exerted fundamental influence on Chinese culture, literature and philosophy. There were certainly Muslim merchants in the port cities of Southern China, and some Muslim graveyards were discovered, but there was very little Islamic literature. Muslim communities, if they had existed, remained small and probably were limited in several port cities.

Islam started to play a prominent role in China starting from the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), when China was part of the Mongol Empire, as the territory directly ruled by the Great Khan of the Mongols himself. When the Mongol civil war broke out, the Ilkhanate forged an alliance with the Great Khan's Yuan Dynasty to oppose the Golden Horde and the Chagatais. It was during this period that a lot of Persian Muslims travelled to and settled down in China. In China, Persian was called 'the Muslim language'. Many Muslims climbed to high positions in the Chinese bureaucracy. There was one Ahmed (阿合马), who was probably a Central Asian Muslim, serving as the financial minister of Kublai. Another called Ajall Shams al-Din Omar, a Persian Muslim, served as the Governor of Yunnan Province and he built Confucian schools and Mosques in Yunnan to build up the local bureaucracy, where the dominant religion had been Buddhism.

When the Yuan fell to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), an ethnic-Han founded Dynasty, in 1368, many Muslims, who had settled down in China for generations, quickly joined the ranks of the new dynasty. The most famous among them was Zheng He, a Muslim from Yunnan Province, who was made the Admiral of the Grand Fleet, and led several large scale diplomatic expeditions to Indonesia, Malacca, India, the Gulf, and East Africa.

The Ming was a formative period for the Chinese Muslims identity. Many descendants of Arabic and Persian Muslims in China were gradually sinicized, abandoned Persian in favor to Chinese as their main language. Because of the ban on foreign trade in Ming, many of them lost their former oversea connections and were indigenized. They started to have Chinese surnames and take part in Confucian Imperial exams to be come scholar-officials, while pertaining their Islamic faith. A new ethnic identity was gradually formed: the Hui ethnic group.

The Hui speak Chinese. They dress as Chinese except for when they do prayers in a Mosque, when they would take on a small white cap. Their cuisine is mostly like other Chinese, except for the fact that they do not eat pork, and preferably only eat Halal. There are some traditional Hui dishes that are famous throughout China, such as the Lanzhou Lamian (Ramen) Beef Noodles. They make up most Muslims in China outside of Xinjiang. They are mostly non-denominational Sunni Muslims. While those living in the Northwest region of Ningxia, Qinghai are still very religious, most Hui living in East China have become secular and fall into what I would call 'cultural Muslim'. Some of the Hui are not religious but they are still classified as Hui under Chinese law, even though they have no difference with the Han majority anymore. There are around 1000,0000 Hui Muslims in China.

Part II: A Brief History of Xinjiang

When talking about Islam in China, it's impossible not to mention Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The Uyghur are as numerous as the Hui, and form another half of Muslim population in China. But before we talk about the Uyghur, it's important to go over Xinjiang's history.

Xinjiang, the region east of the Pamir Moutains but west of modern day Gansu Province of China, was primarily an Indo-European inhabited area at the dawn of history. The were two main groups in Xinjiang in the 2nd century BC: in Eastern and Northern Xinjiang there were the Tocharians, speaking the Tocharian branch of Indo-European languages; in the south and west there were the Saka, an Eastern Iranian ethnic group, possibly Zoroastrians. At the time they had no scripts.

So Xinjiang's recorded history started when Zhang Qian, a Chinese Han Dynasty (here the Han does not mean the Han ethnicity, it's the dynastic name) explorer entered the region in the latter half of 2nd century BC. Long story short, because of his exploration and subsequent Han dynasty diplomatic as well as military expansions, most Indo-European city-states in Xinjiang fell under Han rule as military protectorates. A military protectorate of Han ruling all of Xinjiang was established in 60BC.

Soon after this Buddhism came in along the Silk Road, and from the 4th century AD on, many Xinjiang city-states adopted the Brahmi Indic alphabets to write their local Tocharian or Iranian language. Chinese rule in Xinjiang lasted on and off till the mid 8th century, when a rebellion shook the Tang Dynasty and Xinjiang fell to the rule of the Tibetan Empire. At the time, there were Buddhists, Manicheans and Nestorian Christians in Xinjiang, but Buddhism was the dominant religion there.

Tibetan rule in Xinjiang didn't last long. The Tibetan Empire broke apart in around 840. At the same time, the Uyghur Khanate in the Mongolian Plateau disintegrated and the Uyghur started migrating into Xinjiang. They formed a Qochom Kingdom in the North East of Xinjiang, abandoned Manicheanism and adopted Buddhism as their religion. In the south west, the city-state of Khotan, ruled by Saka Kings, started to expand and finally the Iranian-speaking Saka Kingdom of Khotan ruled the southwest of Xinjiang.

Another branch of the Uyghur migrated further west to modern day Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. There they along with the Karluks established the Qarakhanate (meaning the black khanate in Turkic). They were initially Tengrist, but later on converted to Islam under Samanid influence. After that, they started a JIhad into Xinjiang, defeated the Khotan Kingdom in around 1006 and started fighting wars with the Qochom Buddhist Uyghur Kingdom. It's around this time that Islam took a root in Xinjiang. Under the Qarakhanid rule, Kashgar became a center of scholarship. Muhammad-al-Kashgari wrote the first Turkic-Arabic dictionary, and documented what pre-Persianate Turkic language was like. It was of high value to Turkic studies scholars today.

The rule of the Qarakhanid did not last long though. In 1141, a sinicized Khitan general Yelü Dashi (耶律大石 in Chinese) led his troops into Xinjiang and Central Asia, defeated an alliance led by the Seljuk Sultan, and controlled both Xinjiang and Transoxiana. Since he was a general of the Liao Dynasty, he called his kingdom Western Liao. The Western Liao was a Chinese-style kingdom ruled with religious tolerance. Buddhism and Nestorian Christianity flourished alongside with Islam.

Then came the Mongols. The Mongols defeated the Western Liao and established their Chagatai Khanate in Xinjiang. The Chagatai Khan converted from Tengrism to Islam in the mid-14 century and started the total Islamization of Xinjiang. It was a gradual process. After Hami, the easternmost part of Xinjiang fell under Mongol rule in the 16th century, Xinjiang as a whole became Islamized in the early 17th century.

In the 17th century, the remnant of the Chagatai Khanate ruling Xinjiang was called the Yarkand Khanate. But their time was done. A new Mongol tribe called the Dzungars, whose leaders were Tibetan Buddhists, conquered Xinjiang. Starting from the 1690s, the Dzungars started to fight a war with the Manchu-led Chinese Qing Dynasty. In 1717 the Dzungars conquered Tibet, and in 1720 the Qing Dynasty kicked them out of Tibet. (Since 1720 Tibet fell under Chinese rule).

Finally, taking advantage of a Dzungar internal fight, the Qing marched into Xinjiang and destroyed the Dzungar Khanate in 1757-1759. Since then Xinjiang was ruled from Beijing. Chinese sovereignty over Xinjiang and Tibet was recognized by both the Russian Empire and the British Empire when they were playing the Great Game of Asia.

Part III: the Uyghur Muslims

As we have seen in Part II, the Uyghur mainly migrated into Xinjiang in the 9th century, and they turkified the original Indo-European, Han and Tibetan inhabitants. That's why you can find a range of physical appearances among the Uyghur: some of them look like Eurasian-mixed (such as Dilraba, famous Uyghur actress), some other look like completely East Asian (such as Gülnazar, another Uyghur actress famous in China).

The Uyghur identity was mainly formed under Chagatai Khanid rule. The Uyghur consider the great scholar Ali-Shir Navai'i as part of their pride. But Uyghur nationalism is a modern construct, under the influence of late 19th century Pan-Turkicism. There were mainly two Uyghur political movements in the 20th century. One was from 1933 to 1934, where some Uyghur separatists near Kashgar declared a so-called 'East Turkestan Islamic Republic', but the rebellion was crashed by mainly Hui-Muslim forces of the Republic of China. Another was in 1944 near Ili, under Soviet influence. This movement was started by a coalition of Communists, Islamists and secular nationalists as a reaction against the then Republic of China nationalist government, but in the end the Uyghur Communists (who were not separatists) took over and declared their allegiance to the Communist Party of China.

After the PRC was established, Xinjiang became an ethnic autonomous region of the People's Republic of China. It remains so ever since.

Xinjiang as an autonomous region, has its own language and holiday policies. Mandarin and Uyghur are both used as official languages. Traditional Uyghur festivals such as Eid-e-Fitr and Nowruz are public holidays; The Chairman of the Government of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region must be an ethnic Uyghur. Uyghur language is taught in schools.

Besides Uyghur, there are also other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang who are traditionally Muslim. There are Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Tartar Muslims in Xinjiang. There are also Hui muslims. The Tajiks in Xinjiang, unlike other Muslims in China, are Shi'a Muslims. They follow the Shi'a Ismaili tradition. But nowadays many are no longer religious. They have their own religious places and do not go to Mosques. They don't observe fasting during Ramadan. Their language is Sarikoli, an Eastern Iranian language that is related to Farsi. They live on the Chinese side of the Karakoram, along the China-Pakistan/China-Afghanistan/China-Tajikistan border.

Western allegations that Uyghur are being genocided are absurd. Their population is growing at a faster rate than Han in Xinjiang.

Part IV: Islamophobia in China

As in many countries, "Islamophobia" does exist to some extent in China. But it's in a very different phenomenon than Islamophobia in Western countries and the origin is different.

Chinese are very secular and in general don't care what you believe in but what you do. Most Chinese are not religious and are not interested in religious issues. So they are not like Christians for whom Muslims are inherently heretics. Most of them don't have an inherent grudge against Muslims. In every Chinese university, there is a halal-canteen for Muslim students.

One of the reason why some Chinese dislike Muslims is their grudge about the preferential treatment of some Muslim minorities by the Chinese government. For example, there is a government-sponsored Halal industry in China mostly monopolized by Hui Muslims. No other industry in China is so connected with a specific ethnic group. The Islamic Association of China, a government-sponsored body, issues Halal certificates for companies in the food industry. Some Chinese think this is unfair to other ethnicities. Ethnic minorities also get preferential treatment when they apply to college, apply to governmental positions etc etc. I personally think that the preferential treatments are justified because of their historically disadvantageous circumstances.

Another reason is because of the fear of foreign interference. After all, Islam is a world-wide religion and Chinese are afraid that foreign powers might use Islam to influence Chinese Muslims politically. China firmly opposes pan-Islamism and pan-Turkicism. Materials propagating pan-Islamism and pan-Turkicism are illegal in China. For the same reason, any form of political-Christianity is also frowned upon in China.

Another reason is the superiority complex of some Chinese Muslims, such as unwillingness to dine with non-Muslims.

China has no anti-blasphemy law per se. But Islam is recognized as the traditional religion of Uyghur, Hui etc minorities. So public blasphemy can still land one to a charge of 'inciting ethnic hatred'. There are cases in China of people jailed for showing his Hui neighbor a pighead in a disparaging manner. Usually public anti-Muslim speech can be prosecuted under this category. Private blasphemy is not illegal in China. And because China has no anti-blasphemy law and no traditionally Christian minority group, I've never seen anti-Christian blasphemy prosecuted.

In general, there is no widespread anti-muslim sentiment in China. After all, public speech is regulated by the government, and they won't allow such a sentiment to grow.

Part V: Future of Islam in China

Frankly, I think secularization is inevitable for Muslims in China, save for those Uyghurs in Southern Xinjiang and some Hui-inhabited areas in Ningxia, where Muslims are the local majority. They are less than 2% of the population and China does not support Communalism. As China becomes a Urban-majority country, their life can no longer be separated from that of non-Muslims. Indeed, it takes some effort to find a halal restaurant in cities in Eastern China. I believe in the end most Chinese Muslims are going to become cultural Muslims who no longer practice the religion strictly but celebrate Islam as a cultural identity, as people do with Christianity in the West.
 
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OppositeDay

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Regarding anti-blasphemy law, a few years ago the government tried to introduce a legislation which would have, among other things, given the police the the power to impose administrative detention (i.e. detention without trial) on people who has caused offence to religion. The proposal caused such an uproar from the public the government had to withdrawn it.
 

EGalois

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Regarding anti-blasphemy law, a few years ago the government tried to introduce a legislation which would have, among other things, given the police the the power to impose administrative detention (i.e. detention without trial) on people who has caused offence to religion. The proposal caused such an uproar from the public the government had to withdrawn it.
Source? I've never heard of it.
 

OppositeDay

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Source? I've never heard of it.
My memory failed me a little bit. The government did remove an article from the final version of the anti-terror law, but not the whole legislation.

Compare the public comments draft version of the anti-terror law with the final version:



(article 24 in the draft)

But the government tried again to add in a similar clause into a revision of Public Security Administration Punishment Law
(article 68)

The revision is still under discussion (Chinese legislative process often takes a long time). What's scary is that there are already reports of police handing out administrative detentions based on this draft revision (which hasn't been passed). The police in China generally have minimal understanding of Chinese law. They cannot be trusted making complex legal judgment. The court has to get involved.
 

beijingwalker

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I grew up with many Muslims in Beijing, my best friend is a Hui from middle school, we don't see any difference between us, He is more patriotic than me.
The west always tries to portray Xinjiang issue as a religious one, Xinjiang may have some issues in the past, but they are never religious issues, they are separatist issues.
If Uighurs really fight Hans, who do you think the biggest Muslim group, Hui Muslims will support? it's a question as simply as one plus one is what.
 
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OppositeDay

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I grew up with many Muslims in Beijing, my best friend is a Hui from middle school, we don't see any difference between us, He is more patriotic than me.
The west always tries to portray Xinjiang issue as a religious one, Xinjiang may have some issues in the past, but they are never religious issues, they are separatist issues.
If Uighurs really fight Hans, who do you think the biggest Muslim group, Hui Muslims will support? it's a question as simply as one plus one is what.
There were certainly issues with religious extremism in Xinjiang. One of the most influential liberal mullah was assassinated. Definitely not purely a matter of separatism or ethnic conflict.

As for Uyghurs vs Han vs Hui, during the Urumqi riot (which was an ethnic conflict) some Uyghurs were shouting the slogan 'Kill the Hans, Kill the Huis'.
 

beijingwalker

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There were certainly issues with religious extremism in Xinjiang. One of the most influential liberal mullah was assassinated. Definitely not purely a matter of separatism or ethnic conflict.

As for Uyghurs vs Han vs Hui, during the Urumqi riot (which was an ethnic conflict) some Uyghurs were shouting the slogan 'Kill the Hans, Kill the Huis'.
It's not purely a separatist or ethnic conflict, but it's separatist and ethnic based conflict. China has over a dozen of ethnic Muslim groups.
 

EGalois

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Hui Chinese Muslims are pretty much not mistreated in China. Xinjiang is more of a separatists issue who happen to be Muslims.
Nobody is mistreated. Xinjiang was subjected to pan-turkicist propaganda for a long time, but Hui Muslims are not, since they only differ from Han by their religion.
 

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