Jul 3rd 2014
ON THE evening of June 29th at the Madian mosque in northern Beijing, 100 or so Muslims gathered for prayer and the communal breaking of Ramadan’s first day of ritual fasting. Among the attendees at the volunteer-run canteen were Chinese Hui Muslims, a handful of foreign Muslims, some recent converts to Islam and half a dozen Uighurs, the Muslim ethnic group from China’s restive Xinjiang region.
In China Ramadan this year comes against the backdrop of increased violence perpetrated by Uighurs and a government line which more strongly than ever attributes it to radical Islam and international jihadism. In Xinjiang, authorities have reportedly taken steps, as they have in years past, to discourage Ramadan fasting among ordinary people and ban it outright for many party members, government workers and school children.
At the Madian mosque, however, the scene was more relaxed. Bitter tensions may be roiling in Xinjiang, but in the cool shade of craggy pine trees and the sweeping eaves of the central courtyard of the Qing-dynasty mosque, diversity and tolerance were on display.
Though concentrated in western China, Islam is practiced across the country, with more than 23m adherents. Having spread to China along land and sea trade routes as early as the 7th century, Islam is embedded in Chinese history and society. Beijing alone has an estimated population of 250,000 Muslims, most classified by state demographers as Hui but who, apart from religious belief, are largely indistinguishable from the majority Han Chinese population.
Islam in China tends to be practiced with broad flexibility. Very few of the practitioners at the Madian mosque pray five times each day although one says that he could, if he wanted, take breaks from work in order to do so. In the words of one Muslim from the Niujie (Ox Street) community in south-west Beijing, the rhythm of modern life in China means ‘there are fewer and fewer strict observers of Ramadan”.
Amina, the manager of a Muslim restaurant in central Beijing, says she will observe Ramadan along with most of her staff, although the chef will not. “His work is too hard. He has to eat,” she says. The restaurant will stay open for Han customers throughout the month, so workers will not have time to attend prayers. At the mosque in this neighbourhood most congregants are migrant construction workers. The caretaker of the mosque knows most of them are unable to abstain from food and water throughout the scorching Beijing summer days. “The important thing is that they are believers,” he says.
Since January violent attacks by Uighurs have escalated dramatically. Though not especially sophisticated, they have been truly ruthless, such as the mass stabbing in a train station in the south-western city of Kunming on March 1st, which left 33 dead. In response the government has implemented a wide-ranging crackdown on terrorist organisations within the province—including restrictions on religious practices—and around the country.
Though not a new tactic, state media have over the past two weeks been making a concerted effort to link the ongoing violence directly to radical Islam. On June 24th state television aired a documentary positing close connections between violence in Xinjiang and jihadist organisations in neighbouring Afghanistan and Pakistan (an English language version is available here). It began with footage of the September 11th, 2001 attacks on America and continued with footage of Osama bin Laden and terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and, it claimed, Xinjiang.
Further linking China’s terrorism issues to those of religious extremism, what seems to have been a carefully staged confession video of a Uighur, Mu’er Zhati, accused as one of three assailants in a knife attack on a Chinese chess hall in Hotan city, was aired on state media on June 21st. Wearing handcuffs and an orange prison vest, Mr Mu'er said the others talked of holy war and said that if they died for the cause they would go straight to heaven.
The view of the Imam at the Madian mosque on this was unequivocal: “These people are not Muslims.”
As the Madian congregation tidied up the outside dining area in preparation for the final prayers of the first day of Ramadan, Hui, Uighur and foreign Muslims worked side by side in washing dishes, folding up tables and sweeping the floor. “I know a lot of Uighurs who come to this mosque, and they are all good Muslims,” the Imam says. He does worry, however, about members of the general public misunderstanding Islam and seeing it as a violent and dangerous religion. A young Hui Muslim who works for an American technology company knows Islam is often seen negatively in the West because of its association with radicalism. Along with the Imam, he hopes that China can steer clear of that dead end.