China’s Islamic Awakening

Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 10

In March 2003, the Chinese State Council produced a white paper cataloguing the country’s “progress” in promoting personal liberties and religious freedoms. This followed an amendment to China’s Constitution, endorsed by the National People’s Congress earlier in the same month, to incorporate the protection of individual freedoms into the country’s legislation. Such moves are but the latest in Beijing’s attempts to contain the blowback effect of its constant reversal of policies toward Islam and Muslims.

Islam in Central Asia

Since the introduction of Islam to Central Asia during the 8th century, its role in the lives of its adherents has been grossly misunderstood. Non-Muslim rulers have enacted a variety of policies at different times to deal with the issue of Islam in territories under their control, including integration, assimilation, pacification, and oppression. While imperial China considered all but the Han Chinese to be barbarians, its need for expansion required accepting groups of such ‘barbarians’ and policies were thus developed to insure their loyalty through a process of integration. However, as the empire expanded, there was a need for assimilation to incorporate the new groups into the Chinese state. The Qing (1644-1911) administered policies of ‘divide-and-rule’ and military force to maintain control and punish Muslims for supporting their predecessors, the Ming. Tsarist Russia controlled the hajj, waqf (endowment) revenues, and construction of mosques and madrasas, with the aim to oust Muslim education through Russianization, and modified the application of Shari`ah laws.

Muslims’ reaction took the shape of pan-Islamist, pan-Turkist nationalist movements, giving birth to organized Muslim political movements and resistance that reached their peak during WWI. Subsequent massacres forced many Kyrgyz and Kazakhs to move to China, where they gradually became part of the growing non-Chinese Muslim population in Xinjiang at a time when China’s policies were proving most unsuccessful in areas inhabited by religious or ethnic minorities such as Mongolia and Tibet. The inconsistency of such policies has contributed to the radicalization over time of a tolerant faith. Oppression of the legitimate public practice of the faith forced Muslims’ religious life underground where adherents resorted to secretive practices under the auspices of tariqas (Sufi orders), many of which were misinterpreted by fanatic religious leaders. Meanwhile, ethnic tensions and ultra-nationalist sentiments grew as Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Turkmen and Uzbeks strived to preserve their respective religious traditions.

Both China and the Soviet Union took little notice of Muslims’ strong sense of political identity, be it based on minority nationality or religious heritage, a fact to which their policy of forced introduction of atheism attests. Note the similarity with which anti-Islamic attacks were launched in both countries: communist party branches in Muslim areas were purged of Muslim nationalist leaders who, along with ulema, sheikhs and mullahs were exterminated in forced labor camps. During the Russian Civil War (1918-20), all official spheres of Muslim life were crushed: Latin (then Cyrillic or Pinyin) alphabets replaced Arabic, mosques and madrasas were destroyed, tariqas were declared illegal and lands belonging to Muslim individuals and institutions were nationalized. As the Red Army fought Nazi Germany, the persecution of religious beliefs superficially decreased and official Islam was legalized to avoid the destabilizing impact of internal Muslim discontent on a country at war. Beijing followed many aspects of Moscow’s model in its own unsuccessful policies. For their part, Chinese republicans rewarded Chinese Muslims for their support of the revolution but antagonized the non-Chinese Muslims in Xinjiang for their strong sense of nationalism. Mao Zedong’s early support for equality between minorities and the Han Chinese attracted many Turkic Muslims to join his communist forces. The quid pro quo on offer was a promise of protection for religious freedom upon communist take-over in return for their known fighting skills. The promise was short-lived.

A History of Inconsistency

Like the Russians, time and again, Chinese policies toward Islam and Muslims have proven to be demonstrably inconsistent. Beijing considered religious beliefs to be dying and continues to reap the harvest of this miscalculation to this day. China’s Islam policy has always been linked to its internal and external power relations: while strong dynasties such as the Tang and the Yuan allowed Muslims to prosper, unstable governments such as Qing oppressed Muslims for fear of reprisal. During the late 19th century, the Qing struggled to quell uprisings by the Hui Chinese Muslims in Yunnan, Gansu and Shanxi, and Turkic-speaking Uyghur and Kazakh Muslims in Xinjiang. For their part, the republicans expected Muslims to be assimilated and incorporated into Chinese society. Such hope was met with the Xinjiang Muslims’ rebellion of 1944, which the Russians helped put down in 1946, leading to the establishment of the East Turkistan Republic.

In keeping with their short-lived promise, the communists showed some respect for Islam at the outset: religious freedom was preserved, Muslim customs at workplaces were observed, religious and social ceremonial practices were permitted, the Islamic Association was founded in 1953, the Institute of Islamic Theology was established in 1955 and autonomous regions were set up in Muslim areas such as Xinjiang. Muslim leaders were encouraged to criticize communist policies during the Hundred Flowers Campaign for thought-reform in 1956. This swiftly changed by 1957, when policies were reversed in an attempt to contain Muslim ‘separatist tendencies,’ leading to a gradual narrowing of Muslim autonomy and the launch of an anti-Islam campaign similar to the Soviet model. Within a year, large-scale relocation programs shifted non-Muslim Chinese to Muslim areas to dilute the ethnic composition of “troublesome” regions. This was part of a policy aimed at integrating the non-Han minority nationalities into the ‘big family’ of China, but later moved towards assimilation, in particular during the ill-fated Great Leap Forward (1958-9).

When Beijing later realized that such policies jeopardized the diplomatic support it needed from Muslim states that disapproved of this oppression, it re-reversed its course of action, again. Beijing sent Muslim Chinese delegations to Mecca for pilgrimage and encouraged Sino-Muslim interaction with foreign countries. Before such policy could gain Muslims’ trust, years of Mao’s untested economic ventures took its toll: the great famine of 1959 struck, causing further economic devastation that was made the more harsh in underdeveloped areas, such as Xinjiang, where large numbers of Han settlers were moved following the completion of the Hami Railway that year. At the same time, numerous Muslims who were sent to Sunni Islam’s most prominent university, al-Azhar, in Egypt were introduced to the widespread ideas of Islamic scholars, whose thought shaped Islamist movements in the Middle East as the region moved from its colonial past. Mistrustful of how long the honeymoon could last, Central Asian Muslims brought back the same literature that provided the Muslim Brotherhood, and its subsequent radical offshoots (such as Islamic Jihad and al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya) with the foundation for their ideology. From that point on the roots of self-preserving Islamic revivalism slowly penetrated the fiber of Muslim life under communist rule.

Moscow’s painful lessons were not well learnt in Beijing whose Soviet-inspired nationalist policy ruled China’s Muslim regions. For instance, during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), oppression of Muslims reached unprecedented levels. Mao’s Red Guards effectively ended special privileges granted to minority nationalities and set about burning mosques, killing imams, persecuting leaders, dispersing families, prohibiting Qur’an study and forbidding Islamic social practices. Following Mao’s death and the overthrow of the “Gang of Four” in 1976, Muslims were partially rehabilitated, although the integration of Han Chinese in Muslim areas continued. While the rights to observe Islamic practices were recognized, there were no assurances that religious freedoms would be protected, another indication of policy inconsistencies a la Moscow. In 1978, Deng Xiaopeng launched China’s Opening and Reform program to liberalize the economy and reactivate contact with the world following his country’s isolation during the Cultural Revolution. But his policy, which opposed national and local chauvinism and promoted regional autonomy, failed a serious test when students’ democracy demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square were ruthlessly suppressed (April-June 1989).

The root cause of ‘terror’

Decades of communist oppression have inevitably contributed to the radicalization of the Islamic identity of ethnic groups who survived such oppression, as became evident in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s disintegration. Once Muslims in Central Asia were permitted to contact the wider Muslim world, the seeds of global Jihad were already planted and the Central Asian Republics, Moscow, Chechnya and Beijing are indeed harvesting some of the bitter crops. For its part, Beijing is yet to acknowledge that closing legitimate channels for expressing grievances forces ordinary folks into practicing violence and terrorism to express their discontent. Instead, it claims that terrorism is a cancer but refuses to consider what has caused it, as its current policies in Xinjiang demonstrate.

Islam’s role in China and Central Asia is different from that of the unfolding al-Qaedaism in the Middle East. Beijing’s inconsistent religious policy has inflicted pains similar to the Soviet oppression in Central Asia. Both led to Islamic insurgency and aspirations for political independence that enabled the Muslim Central Asian states to exist, and that continues to feed Xinjiang’s Uyghurs’ aspirations for their own cause. Yet, despite the exaggerated fears about fundamentalism, Islam is not inherently destabilizing. The lack of religious freedom and the absence of democracy are, and no white paper can change that.