Today, China is home to 60-80 million Muslims with about 11 million living in the Xinjiang province, where China has locked down over one million people. Muslims of Xinjiang province, popularly known as Uyghurs, are ethnically Turks and have lived under an “autonomous” rule within China. The semi-autonomous region has seen a few separatist movements and incidents of ethnic violence in the recent past.
The communist regime of China alleges that Xinjiang province is a potential bed of separatism threatening Chinese “unity” and “sovereignty.” The response from the Chinese government has seen an extreme form of forced assimilation that targets the Islamic faith and culture of Uyghurs. There are also reports that the crackdown on Islam is extending beyond the troubled Xinjiang province. The radical measures indicate that perhaps the CCP’s ultimate wish is to see everyone living in China become a single community by shedding their beliefs and embracing the communist ideology.
Did you know?
In Chinese language, Islam is called Yisilinjiao, which literally means “Pure Religion.” Muslims have lived in China for nearly 1400 years and played an important role during critical times of the country’s history. At their peak in the 18th century, Muslims numbered over 400 million in population.
The Chinese government vehemently denies the reports and says it takes good care of its 56 ethnic and religious minorities. According to the government, the country is targeting what it has termed “the three evils” of “separatism, terrorism and religious extremism.” The most troubling is perhaps the ambiguity of what constitutes “extremism,” giving credence to the view that the CCP wants to shove communist values down people’s throats and will judge opposing beliefs as extremism. It is impractical that a nation of 1.4 billion people must all embrace the values espoused by the leaders of the communist party. Attempts to force the ideology will ultimately lead to what the CCP fears the most: civil unrest and the splintering of its sovereignty.
The Communist Party came to power after promising religious freedom to Muslims
In the late 1970s, China had embraced a tolerant approach towards its minorities and allowed different religions and cultures to flourish. Muslims were able to freely practice and, during this period, Islam flourished in the country. China’s relations with Muslim countries improved and in 1980 the first group of Muslims from the People’s Republic of China went on Hajj with official approval. Daʽwah organizations worked on propagating Islam. Hundreds of Chinese Muslims went abroad to study Islam traditionally in Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
However, the events that unfolded after 9/11 and the ethnic conflicts in Xinjiang province in 2008 and 2014 have steadily led to a deterioration of that tolerance and an extreme form of oppression against Uyghurs and their Islamic faith. International politics and misuse of the Uyghur issue for countries’ own interests against China have also exacerbated the issue.
It is important for China to understand that the religion does not promote separatist movements, which are ethnic in nature and have a history of their own. The spread of Islamic knowledge has not influenced separatism. Researchers have pointed out that the most Uyghurs simply want religious freedom, not an independent state.
Muslims as minorities have lived dutifully and peacefully under many governments. China is not oblivious to this fact. Muslims have been a critical pillar of support for various Chinese dynasties in the last 1370 years. In fact, the current ruling Communist Party came to power with the support of Muslims after promising them the freedom of religion.
Yet many Muslims around the world are unaware of this story. In our magazine’s special issue of Muslims in China and in our subsequent articles, we go into the details of our history in China.