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China Doesn’t Mind Islamic Extremists
As long as they're not Uighur.
LANZHOU, China — Ma Xin couldn’t find the Salafi mosque. We were walking through the northwestern city’s Xiaoxihu neighborhood, a traditionally Muslim minority-dominated area. Ma, a 24-year-old Chinese Muslim who’d recently graduated from university and was working for a halal fruit juice company, had promised to bring me to one of the mosques adhering to Salafi teaching. Behind a busy shopping street, we found a dirt lot piled high with debris, the red character chai (“demolish”) still sprayed on the half-destroyed walls of a recently scrapped building.
But what looked like a sign of a crackdown turned out to be the opposite. A few minutes away from the lot, we met 38-year-old Hussein, an Arabic-language teacher at the mosque’s attached madrasa, or Islamic school, temporarily located in a set of portable trailers. It was the congregation that had decided to knock the mosque down, Hussein told us: “That mosque has already been renovated three times. Everything is funded by private donations.”
Now they were going to rebuild and expand the building, making more space for the approximately 60 madrasa students and additional worshippers. Hussein had studied Arabic for two years at King Saud University in Riyadh and now taught language for scriptural interpretation to Hui teenagers, members of the ethno-religious minority that makes up approximately half of China’s 23 million Muslims. When Ma asked Hussein if their school had trouble operating because of its Salafi association, Hussein frowned. “Foreign media is messing things up by saying Salafis are extremists. The government doesn’t interfere with us,” he said.
Hussein’s experience of a hands-off state approach was surprising in the context of Beijing’s convoluted history with Islam and recent rhetoric about countering extremism through ideological control. Chinese authorities have historically associated religion with ethnic separatism, unwanted foreign influence, and domestic turmoil. In the 19th century, sectarian Islamic clashes and an apocalyptic Christian revolt led to the deaths of millions of people in the country’s south and west. In recent days, the rise in violent extremism and radical jihad around the world has also left China grappling with its own terrorist incidents, including a knife attack at the Kunming train station in 2014, another attack on a coal mine in Aksu in 2015, and a car bombing at the Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan this fall.
In April, Chinese President Xi Jinping stated at a national conference on religion that religious institutions should “resolutely guard against overseas infiltrations” and stick to moderate theologies that “merge religious doctrines with Chinese culture.” At the China Islamic Association’s 10th National Congress in Beijing this November, the head of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, Wang Zuoan, warned that extremism was spilling into eastern and central China. Islamic clergy should “stand in the front line in the fight to curb religious extremism,” Wang said, emphasizing that “converting the mindset” of people was critical to countering potential violence and terrorism.
Yet in many Muslim-majority parts of China, ideologies commonly associated with extremism are flourishing. Salafism, an ultraconservative school based on the belief in return to a purer Islam as practiced in the time of the Prophet Mohammed, has caused global worry as radical groups like the Islamic State and al Qaeda draw on elements of its teaching. In China, however, the level of state control over religious activity depends on ethnic and geographical factors, not ideological ones. The core of Chinese “counterterrorism” remains domestic control over certain minorities and regions — namely, the Uighurs, an Islamic ethnic minority in the western regions of China, especially the tumultuous and massive border province of Xinjiang. There, an ongoing and brutal state crackdown is exacerbating ethnic tensions and violent resistance. The authorities speak of terrorism as an ideological problem while treating it as an ethnic one, trying to contain it in Xinjiang without admitting to discriminatory treatment of Uighurs. Thus an actively proselytizing Hui Salafi in Lanzhou enjoys more freedom than a secular Uighur in Kashgar. One result of this discord between policy and practice is the alienation of Uighurs from Hui, who seek distance from Uighurs for their own survival. Another is the self-fulfilling prophecy of Uighur radicalization, as discrimination pushes the minority toward extremist narratives.
This May, in Lanzhou, in Xinjiang’s neighboring province of Gansu, I met a Hui Muslim named Abdelhalim, whose family had enough wealth from their successful halal lamb restaurant chain to open a private mosque and madrasa. He showed me stacks of booklets on the life and teaching of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism, inside the mosque library. “I got these for free when I went to Saudi Arabia for hajj,” Abdelhalim told me proudly. The only other free books he had in the library were compilations of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s teachings. “Those were gifts from the government,” Abdelhalim said. “We keep them on the bottom shelf.”
And in the southern border province of Yunnan, the “3.01” incident in 2014 — when eight knife-wielding attackers killed 29 civilians at the Kunming train station — led to an province-wide crackdown on religious institutions. State authorities identified all eight attackers as ethnic Uighurs, at least one of whom had spent six months studying at a Salafi madrasa in the small town of Shadian, which has its own history of Islamic struggle but is now held up as an example of religious harmony. Within several months of the attack, the Religious Affairs Administration had issued a policy forbidding nonlocal students and teachers to study or teach in Yunnan.
After resistance from local mosque leaders, the bureau adjusted the policy to one of “rectification,” still allowing out-of-province students but stipulating that everyone first return home and obtain permissions from local and Yunnanese public security and religious affairs bureaus. The effect was what locals called liang qing (“double sweeping”), as nonlocal students and teachers left. Student numbers at the Shadian Grand Mosque’s madrasa dropped from 450 to 200. Two years later, some nonlocal students have returned but no Uighurs.
Ruslan Yusupov, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who spent the last two years living in Shadian, said the policy response to “3.01” reflected the Chinese government’s regionally calibrated approach to questions of extremism. In Shadian, Yusupov said, police from Xinjiang — not local forces — implemented the expulsion of nonlocal students. “The whole question was not one of national policy but of geographic problems. Yunnan’s government didn’t know how to deal with it. The idea was, ‘This is a Xinjiang case, and we have to send it to them,’” Yusupov said. Today, there are virtually no Uighurs left in Yunnan.
On my own visit to Shadian in April, a Han convert to Islam showed me an illicit religious magazine he’d been publishing for years. The authorities stopped him once, he said, because it was getting popular in Xinjiang. Once he stopped circulation there, no one gave him any more problems. Likewise, a prominent imam who’d studied in Saudi Arabia told me he’d taught informal Islamic classes at Lanzhou University and the Northwest University for Nationalities for five years. There was no problem — until 2015, when he was arrested and detained in Xinjiang for several months because authorities found that a few Uighur students had begun attending his weekend lectures. Gansu authorities negotiated to bring the imam back, but he no longer teaches, and no Uighurs attend his mosque.
One reason Beijing prioritizes Uighur separatism as a bigger threat than Hui sectarianism is because Xinjiang independence is a real possibility — and has been actualized for brief periods in the past, in the 1930s and 1940s. The Uighurs speak a Turkic language and are ethnically and linguistically distinct from Han Chinese. They possess a strong sense of identity as a separate nation from China that is being exacerbated by Beijing’s heavy-handed security practices across Xinjiang. The Hui, in contrast, have no separatist ambitions. Although Hui Muslims theoretically share Central Asian and Middle Eastern ethnic roots, most are heavily intermarried with and virtually undistinguishable from the Han Chinese majority. They look alike, speak the same language, and tend to espouse an apolitical form of faith. “We are a minority, not trying to establish a law or a nation through our religion,” Hussein, the Salafi Arabic teacher, told me. “We don’t even think of having religion in politics. It’s not realistic.”
Some believe that Beijing actually welcomes the splintering of non-Uighur Muslim groups, even into sects with potentially violent proclivities, because it discourages the country’s Muslims from banding together. Mohammed al-Sudairi, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Hong Kong who researched the connection between Hui Muslims and Saudi Salafis in northwestern China, said he found many schools there using texts from abroad. “Lots of schools in Guanghe and Linxia [Muslim-populated towns in Gansu] were using Saudi high school textbooks. They’re the same books on fiqh [Islamic legal scholarship], tawhid [divine oneness], and so on that we used growing up in Saudi Arabia, probably brought back and copied by Chinese students who’d been at Madinah University,” Sudairi told me.
But, he pointed out, the growth of Salafism in China has actually caused fragmentation among Chinese Muslims, which decreases the potential for religious challenge to state authority. “It gives the state more room to opportunistically intervene and support one group over the other. Chinese Muslims are at the end of the day trying to accommodate to Chinese realities: sectarianism, the party-state, search for authenticity, materialism — they’re picking and choosing what they want. You don’t have any one cohesive movement,” Sudairi said.
Zhang Weixin, the former principal of an Arabic school in Linxia, told me that plenty of groups in northwestern China, Salafi or otherwise, practice takfir — an extreme act of pronouncing other Islamic groups to be non-Muslim because of doctrinal differences, usually done to sanction violence against them. But unlike well-known takfiri groups like al Qaeda or the Islamic State, China’s fundamentalist sects are more concerned with vying for local material power and arguing about ritualistic differences than with challenging Communist Party authority or establishing an Islamic law-based society. “Many people here are just following a surface-level understanding of tradition,” Zhang said, which leads to a form of conservatism that does not threaten the state.
But conservatism is no longer an option for Uighurs, for whom any sign of serious interest in Islam is read by the authorities as a potential threat. The state continues to increase social control over Uighurs, banning them from having beards or wearing hijabs in public spaces, forbidding their minors from entering religious premises, obliging their children who’ve taken part in religious activities to “receive rectification” at special schools, and even confiscating the passports of all Xinjiang residents. Ironically, that’s making violent extremism more attractive to young Uighurs, producing a radicalization of Uighur extremist movements, which have significant numbers fighting in Syria and draw directly on Chinese state oppression for their narratives of violent resistance and holy war.
Hui locals told Yusupov that spending time in Shadian once had a de-radicalization effect on many Uighurs who came from southern Xinjiang to study religion. “Many people were antagonistic to the government when they came to Shadian,” Yusupov said. “When exposed to a vibrant culture of different relationships between Islam and the government, they recognized that peaceful coexistence is possible.”
Uighurs from southern Xinjiang who once considered Mandarin an infidel language, for example, would often change their minds after praying and working alongside Hui Muslims, who primarily speak Chinese. “But now that window is closed for Xinjiang people, because they can’t go out. They live in a world where they only see that the government is against them,” Yusupov said. “They draw the connection that government is bad, Han is bad — these things are against us, they say — and they resist.”
Photo credit: JEFF ROTMAN/Getty Images
This story was reported with funding from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting