As the sun sets on a Friday evening, it is almost prayer time. The faithful silently, and patiently, gather outside the Xiguan mosque, located at the heart of Yinchuan's old district in this far-western corner of China. Among them is Hai Ming Tang, 78. He hasn't missed a prayer at Xiguan in three decades. The last time, he says for the record, was during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when Mao Zedong's Red Guards were running amok, decrying the 'four olds' — customs, culture, habits and ideas. The mosque then had to close its doors to save itself from the rampaging mobs. “Things are better now,” he says matter-of-factly.
Hai Ming is one of China's 10 million Hui Muslims, the country's biggest minority Muslim group. Huis have lived in China for more than 10 centuries — they are the descendants of the first Arab traders the Silk Road brought to China. Over a millennium, they assimilated into Chinese culture, marrying with the local Hans, China's majority ethnic group, and setting up their own communities, such as this quaint neighbourhood in Ningxia. Hai Ming looks ‘Chinese' — he even dresses in the dull, blue workman's uniform that is a common sight in small-town China, a legacy from the days of Mao. The only clues to his faith are his grey, square hat, and a small, white beard that protrudes from his wrinkled chin. As the light dims, the call to prayer finally arrives, diffusing through the stillness of the hot, desert evening. Hai Ming briskly jogs up the steps of the grand mosque, and disappears into the darkness of the prayer hall.
It is also prayer-time some 2,500 km to the west, on another hot Friday evening. Mahsum (Name has been changed on request), in his early 30s, relaxes with his friends at the sprawling square which is the centre of life in Kashgar, the ancient Silk Road city on China's western frontier. Young women, in brightly-coloured headscarves, stroll around the square, children in tow. Old men sit side-by-side on a rickety wooden bench. They silently watch the proceedings, indistinguishable from each other with their tanned, weathered faces and in the intricately-designed hats that are unique to the Uighurs (pronounced wee-ghurs), the ethnic Turkic-speaking people who inhabit Xinjiang. The grand 550-year-old Id Kah mosque, freshly painted in a jarring yellow, glistens in the fading evening light, casting a shadow over the square. Mahsum waits for the call to prayer.
But in Kashgar, it will not come. A ban on the use of loudspeakers means his wristwatch is his only guide. The only sound comes from a nearby police-van — a recorded message urging all ethnic groups “to maintain harmony, support the Communist Party and serve the motherland.” A battalion of armed police, with guns at the ready, watch over the square. Mahsum heads towards the Id Kah's bronze gates in silence.
Prayer-time at the two mosques presents two snapshots of Islam's complicated, and continuing, journey into China. In Ningxia, the Huis have flourished and thrived for centuries, developing their own unique brand of Islam, acquiring a following of millions and largely co-existing peacefully with other ethnic groups. Xinjiang, however, has had a troubled relationship with the People's Republic of China (PRC) since it came under Chinese rule in 1949. This has been a relationship of increasing tension; last July saw the worst ethnic unrest in the PRC's history, as deadly riots between Uighurs and Hans left at least 197 people dead in Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital.
The riots, Uighurs say, were the result of years of simmering tension between the two groups, exacerbated by what they see as Beijing's flawed developmental policies. The increasing migration of Hans has stirred local resentment; so have recent restrictions on local mosques. Uighur unemployment is on the rise, as is the income disparity between the two groups. The Chinese government has, however, blamed exiled separatist groups — as well as some local religious leaders — for fomenting the recent unrest. It has since launched a campaign against “the three evils” — terrorism, separatism and religious extremism. Xinjiang's mosques — and its worshippers — are now on the government's radar.
In Ningxia, the days of the Cultural Revolution, when mosques were under siege and religious books were burnt in the streets, are long-forgotten. The “autonomous region” is now being promoted by Beijing as a model of “ethnic harmony”. Huis make up 36 per cent of the region's population. The Hans are the majority, with 60 per cent. A scattering of a dozen other ethnic groups makes up the rest. An increasing source of the region's revenue is tourism, which is part of the reason behind the government's drive to promote ethnic diversity. Ningxia has 3,760 mosques, many of which run on government support.
“We are largely left to pray as we wish, and they don't interfere,” says Lou Zhan Jun, the soft-spoken and professorial Imam at Xiguan. He stresses the government did not interfere with his appointment — he was elected by the local community. The Imams, however, have to be registered with the government's ethnic affairs department; so do all places of religious worship. “Huis have lived here for centuries, and we don't have any of the problems between ethnic groups [as in Xinjiang],” says Yang Shengrui, who serves as the department's deputy director. “So where is the need for us to interfere?”
Beyond the harmonious surface, Luo Zhan has deep concerns about Islam's future in Ningxia. Most of Xiguan's visitors are in their sixties and seventies; young worshippers are hard to spot, even on a relaxed Friday evening. “They have better things to do,” he chuckles, “in their coffee shops and bars.” Part of the reason for the fading interest is that under the PRC laws, schools are forbidden from teaching religion. So, during the first nine years of compulsory schooling, young Huis have no formal religious education. Instead, they will only learn of the Communist Party's history and of New China's progress.
“When children are 10, they start coming here for lessons in the summer,” Luo Zhan says. “By then, it is too late for them to learn Arabic, so we teach them very little. But with the pressures of this society, there is no time for such study.” Few Huis now speak Arabic; Mandarin is their only language. The other problem for Luo Zhan is financial. He started a school at Xiguan to teach several hundred children Arabic, but finds it difficult to keep it running. His only source of funding is an annual grant from the Saudi Arabia-based Islamic Development Bank. He says he receives no funding from the local government. Luo Zhan, however, is still optimistic. “For 500 years, this community has survived,” he says. “So it will continue. And, we have had no ethnic problems here for 100 years. This is a model for the rest of China.”
On July 6, 2009, when Urumqi was in flames, the Id Kah mosque in Kashgar was closed down by the Chinese government. The local community was enraged. Faced with the strong public backlash, the government opened the mosque the next day. Following prayers that Tuesday morning, around 200 Uighurs staged a protest in the square in front of the mosque, calling for greater autonomy and religious freedom. The protest was quickly dispersed by forewarned armed police.
Source of anxiety
The Chinese government, it is clear, views the influence that local Imams wield in the Kashgar community with considerable anxiety, if only for the reason that this is one public forum over which they cannot exercise complete control. Unlike in Ningxia, Imams chosen by local communities are often replaced in Xinjiang, locals in Kashgar and Urumqi said in interviews, if they are found deviating even a little from the official script.
In April, the local government in the town of Aksu issued a public notice, calling for all religious texts, even those used in local schools, to be submitted for government approval. It also began a monthly inspection of religious sites. “Religious teachers are strictly prohibited from using non-approved texts, and no person may conduct religious activities outside of pre-approved religious sites, or face investigation as an unapproved Imam,” read one regulation. The government has also cracked down on informal religious schools in Kashgar, where young Uighurs like Mahsum would get together to study the Quran. These gatherings are now deemed illegal.
Communist Party members — who dominate government positions — are also discouraged from being believers. Those who are found attending mosques will likely lose their jobs, says Mahsum. One advertisement for a job position in the Xinjiang government's education department openly calls for candidates “who do not believe in religion” and “do not participate in religious activities”. Students in State-run schools are routinely encouraged to follow the Party's officially atheist line, though state policy suggests otherwise. “The government thinks religious schools are stirring up trouble after what happened on July 5,” says Mahsum, referring to last year's riots. There has been little evidence to suggest religious leaders had any role in organising the protests. But what is clear is that the violence has left Xinjiang's mosques facing an uncertain future.
Outside the Id Kah is a conspicuously-displayed sign from the local government. It reads: “All ethnic groups live together here in a friendly manner. They cooperate to build a beautiful homeland, heartily support the unity of the country and oppose ethnic separatism and illegal religious activities.” As prayers conclude, the faithful quietly file out, walking past the sign, and out through the old mosque's gates into the square. As darkness falls on the square, the evening calm is only interrupted by the familiar drone from a nearby police-van.
There are an estimated 20 million Muslims in China, though there are no current official statistics. In officially atheist China, there is no State-sanctioned data on different religious groups. The Huis, one of China's 55 ethnic groups, make up the majority of Muslims, with an estimated 9.8 million population (according to the 2000 census). They are concentrated mainly in Ningxia and in China's northwest, but have established large communities in many other provinces. The Uighurs, mainly residing in Xinjiang, are the second biggest group, with around 8.4 million (according to the 2000 census).
China's Muslims are likely the country's third-biggest religious group, behind Buddhists and Christians. Christianity is considered by many to be the fastest growing religion in China -- there are an estimated 50 million Christians, though there are few reliable statistics. Officially, there are 14 million Christians who pray in State-sanctioned churches, though more Chinese Christians pray in unofficial underground churches. There are no official statistics on the most widely followed faith - Buddhism - though unofficial surveys estimate there are at least 100 million Buddhists in the People's Republic.
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