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Story | Education
25 February 2019

I went to China to explore what it’s like being Muslim there. This is what I learnt.


In 2018, Waleed Zahoor went to China as part of a class examining the socio-political dimensions of Islam and Muslims in China. He writes below about what he learnt during his trip and what we ought to know.

I’m from Pakistan, a long-time ally and neighbor of China. I grew up singing songs revolving around the friendship of Pakistan and China, but never really knew much about the country, its history, and its culture. To borrow from Jonathan Lipman, China to me was a ‘Familiar Stranger.’

The one thing I did know about the country was the one thing anyone who knows anything about the country knows: The Great Wall of China. It was also the first stop of our trip and, as we climbed up its many steps, it felt like we were stepping back thousands of years of history. Being there was a surreal experience, but while we started the trip with a tour, we weren’t simply there as tourists; we were there as students and researchers trying to explore a country and culture we had spent hours trying to understand through books, lectures, and discussions.

The trip was organized by Georgetown University in Qatar as part of the Zones of Conflict and Zones of Peace program, where students dive deep into the history and consequences of a particular conflict over the course of several months, culminating in an international trip led by faculty and staff mentors. This year’s topic: Islam and Muslims in China.

China is home to more than 50 different minzus, which can be understood as ethnic minorities. As part of our collective research, we chose to focus on the Muslim minzus, particularly Huis and Uyghurs as they are the most populous. While there are other Muslim minzus, these two have very different relationships with the state.

While China realizes the potential of its Muslim population in bettering its relations with countries in the Middle East, its policies towards Muslims are quite discriminatory.

The Hui Muslims’ relations with the Chinese state are quite friendly and, because of this, they live relatively comfortable and prosperous lives compared to their Uyghur brothers in faith. The Uyghur population, with the majority dwelling in the Xinjiang province, have historically experienced a hostile relationship with the Chinese state. Escalating tensions between the state and certain Uyghur outfits, such as the East Islamic Turkistan Movement, have turned violent and led to armed clashes. While only a handful of Chinese Uyghurs with strong separatist tendencies join such armed militant organizations, the rest of the Uyghur Muslims living across China still have to bear with the consequences of their confrontations with the state.

Uyghur Muslims are subject to extremely strict measures by the state. It imposes severe limitation on their freedom to carry out their religious practices and wants to erase away their ‘Muslimness’ to necessitate their assimilation in the larger Chinese society. Uyghur Muslims are not allowed to fast and there have been reports of pork being force fed to them. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of Uyghur men are kept forcibly in what the Chinese state calls ‘re-education camps’ to drive out extremism. However, critics who have raised a voice against these questionable detention centers label them as ‘ethnic gulags.’

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For the Hui Muslims in China, however, the situation is quite different. In recent years, relations between China and the Middle East are becoming stronger, and, therefore, Muslims in China have become increasingly important to the nation. They are one of the few common factors between the two very distinct regions and can serve as strong bridges to further strengthen these ties. The Chinese government realizes this and has therefore invested heavily in portraying itself as a nation that celebrates Chinese Muslims and is driven to contribute toward their prosperity.

Examples of this are the multi-million Islamic-themed parks that have sprung up in Hui majority cities that are often frequented by traders and business delegations from countries in the Middle East. Similarly, China has invested a significant amount of money to mark itself as one of the biggest markets of halal food products worldwide, and much of this booming industry depends on the country’s Hui Muslim community that, under the state’s patronage, enjoy religious freedom and support for their religious infrastructure.

While China realizes the potential of its Muslim population in bettering its relations with countries in the Middle East, its policies towards Muslims are quite discriminatory. During our trip, our interactions were mostly with Hui Muslims in Hui dominated cities and, unfortunately, we could not even travel to Uyghur-dominated areas because of clearance issues, which also hints toward the discrimination of the different Muslim minorities in China.

The trip was an excellent opportunity for us to go to China and take a much closer look at these problems and try to understand them from the perspectives of Chinese citizens belonging to different strata of society. The structure of the course we took in the semester prior to the trip proved to be very helpful as all the participants of the trip arrived in China well versed with the rich history of Islam in China along with a sense of the contemporary situation and therefore every student was able to ask intelligent and focused questions to help advance their research.

I’m looking forward to continue asking such questions as I prepare for life after graduation.

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