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Demolition of mosques, ban on Arabic language, Islamic schools : China’s new war to confront Radical Islam

Realising the threat that emanates from radical Islam, the People Republic of China seems to have decided to strictly regulate the menace of it in the country and defend from the harm it may bring upon on the Chinese societies. The Chinese government has now begun to strip off all the Islamic symbols, expressions, especially in the North-west of the country where most residents are ardent Muslims. The Chinese authorities have destroyed domes and minarets on mosques, including one in a small village near Linxia, a city known as “Little Mecca”, reports New York Times.

Similarly, mosques have been destroyed in other parts of China including Inner Mongolia, Henan and Ningxia, the homeland of China’s largest Muslim ethnic minority ‘Hui’. In the southern province of Yunnan, three mosques were closed. Interestingly, from Beijing to Ningxia, officials have banned the public use of Arabic script.

The Chinese government’s precautionary measure represents the newest front in the Chinese Communist Party’s rollback of religious freedoms, after decades of relative openness that allowed more moderate forms of Islam to exist. The crackdown on Muslims that began with the Uighurs in Xinjiang is spreading to more regions and more groups.

The Communist Party of China believes that the adherence to the Muslim faith could turn into religious extremism and open defiance of its rule. Across China, the party is now imposing new restrictions on Islamic customs and practices, in line with a confidential party directive. The measures also reflect the hard-line policies of China’s leader, Xi Jinping, who has sought to reassert the primacy of the Communist Party and its ideology in all walks of life.

Last year, a top party official from Ningxia praised Xinjiang’s government during a visit there and pledged to increase cooperation between the two regions on security matters.

However, according to Haiyun Ma, a Hui Muslim professor at Frostburg State University in Maryland, the crackdown was continuing a long history of animosity towards Islam in China that has alienated believers.

“The People’s Republic of China has become the world’s foremost purveyor of anti-Islamic ideology and hate,” he wrote in a recent essay for the Hudson Institute. “This, in turn, has translated into broad public support for the Beijing government’s intensifying oppression of Muslims in the Xinjiang region and elsewhere in the country,” wrote Ma.

The Chinese government actions in some of the North-West regions have not yet approached the magnitude of Xinjiang’s mass detentions and the intense surveillance of Uighurs. However, they have created panic among the Hui community, who number more than 10 million.

“We are now backtracking again,” Cui Haoxin, a Hui Muslim poet who publishes under the name An Ran, said in an interview in Jinan, south of Beijing, where he lives.

According to the report, the influence of Islam in China exists for centuries. There are now 22 million to 23 million Muslims, a tiny minority in a country of 1.4 billion. Among them, the Hui and the Uighurs make up the largest ethnic groups. The Uighurs primarily live in Xinjiang, but the Hui live in enclaves scattered around the nation.

The restrictions they now face can be traced to 2015 when Xi first raised the issue of what he referred to as “Sinicisation of Islam,” which meant that all faiths should be subordinate to Chinese culture and the Communist Party. Last year, reportedly, Xi’s government issued a confidential directive that ordered local officials to prevent Islam from interfering with secular life and the state’s functions.

The directive alleged warned against the “Arabisation” of Islamic places, fashions and rituals in China, singling out the influence of Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam’s holiest sites, as a cause for concern.

The directive intends to ban the use of the Islamic financial system, bars mosques or other private Islamic organisations from organising kindergartens or after-school programmes, and it forbids Arabic-language schools to teach religion or send students abroad to study.

The most noticeable aspect of the crackdown has been the targeting of mosques built with domes, minarets and other architectural details characteristic of Central Asia or the Arabic world.

Cui, a poet, calls it as the harshest campaign against faith since the end of the Cultural Revolution, when so-called Red Guards unleashed by Mao Zedong destroyed mosques across the country.

According to the Chinese state, the spread of Islamic customs dangerously subverts social and political conformity. In Ningxia, the provincial government has banned any public displays of Arabic script, even removing the word “halal” from the official seal it distributes to restaurants that follow Islamic customs for preparing food. The seals now use Chinese characters.

The authorities in several provinces have stopped distributing halal certificates for food, dairy and wheat producers and restaurants. The Chinese state media have described this as an effort to curb a “pan-halal tendency” in which Islamic standards are being applied, in the government’s view, to too many types of foods or restaurants.

Reportedly, Ningxia and Gansu have also banned their traditional call to prayer. Around historical mosques in these provinces,  prayer times are now announced with a grating claxon. An imam in Yinchuan, the capital of Ningxia said that authorities had recently visited and warned him to make no public statements on religious matters.

The Chinese authorities have also targeted the mosques themselves. In Gansu, construction workers in Linxia demolished the dome on a mosque in April. The mosque is yet to be reopened. The NYT claimed that the policemen did not allow two of their journalists to enter the mosque. In the southern province of Yunnan, a home for Hui communities, authorities in the last December closed mosques in three small villages which were built without any official permission.

Defending the decision of the Chinese government, Xiong Kunxin, a professor of ethnic studies at Minzu University in Beijing, said that China’s far-reaching economic changes over the last 40 years had been accompanied by a loosening of restrictions on religious practice, but that the laxity had gone too far.

“Now China’s economic development has reached a certain height and suddenly problems related to religious and other affairs are being discovered,” said Kunxin.

He further added that the proliferation of mosques and the spread of “halal” practices into public life, conflicted with the cultural values of the majority Han Chinese population.

In a further worry for Chinese officials, the statistics indicate that there are now more mosques in China than Buddhist temples. The country had 35,000 in the current year compared with 33,500 in the last year. In the last year, scores of mosques have been altered, closed or destroyed entirely, many of them in Xinjiang, according to officials and news reports.

The CPC asserts that it has the right to control all organised religion. However, critics say that the Chinese government fears that religious organisations could challenge their political power. In the past, the party’s repression has triggered violent responses.

The current pressure has also met with unrest. In August 2018 in Weizhou, a village in Ningxia, protests erupted when the authorities sent demolition workers to a newly built mosque. After a tense showdown that lasted several days, the local government promised to suspend the destruction and review the plans. Nearly a year later, police officers still block the roads into the village, turning away foreigners, including diplomats.

Nevertheless, China asserts that it allows freedom of religion, but emphasises that the state must always come first. The Ningxia government when asked about its recent restrictions on Islam, said that China had rules on religious practice just like any other country. It stated that mosques which violate laws such as building codes will be closed, it said, and schools and universities will not permit religious activities.

“Arabic is a foreign language,” said the Ningxia government responding to the allegations on restrictions on public signage. The government added that they have been imposed to make things convenient for the general public.

In an NYT interview, Ma, the Frostburg State scholar, said the current leadership viewed religion as the major enemy the state faces. He said senior officials had studied the role played by faith, particularly the Catholic Church in Poland in the collapse of the Soviet Union and its dominion in Eastern Europe.

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