Armored vehicles and armed police deploying to the streets of Urumqi in Xinjiang in 2009
The second biggest global power is having some trouble with its Muslim population – trouble of its own making, that is. Recently, China has become increasingly oppressive towards its Muslim population. In 2014, the Chinese government declared that in some of its cities, such as Karamay in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Chinese Muslims wearing hijab and men with long beards were banned from taking the bus. According to the Chinese authorities, long beards and hijab were signs of radicalization. Later that same year, several imams were jailed. The latest anti-Muslim measure was taken this past Ramadan when Chinese authorities outlawed fasting. But they did not just outlaw it; they also forced students to eat, made sure that all restaurants in the Xinjiang province would stay open through the holiday, and even threatened shopkeepers with sanctions if they did not sell and display alcohol.
These measures are not only against religious freedoms in general, they are also against Islam itself. What is most striking about this situation, however, is the lack of condemnation or even simply a reaction from the outside world, in particular from Muslim countries. When France passed a law forbidding the wearing of niqab and burqa in public spaces, or when French Muslim students were prohibited from wearing the hijab in high schools, protests erupted in Pakistan. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, protests were organized in Nigeria, Pakistan, Jordan, and Algeria to oppose publications of the caricatures of the Prophet. What is happening in China is far more invasive and threatening to religious liberty than what has been occurring in France, but almost no protests were reported to have been organized in response. Protestors gathered in Istanbul, but other than Turkey’s vocal opposition, little else has been done. Why are there such different reactions across the global community?
First, we need to clarify the situation regarding Muslims in China a bit. Anti-Muslim laws in China are only enforced in Xinjiang, which has a Muslim majority and a history of unrest. The Chinese authorities are currently trying to reduce “terrorist” activities that are believed to be particularly strong in this province. Indeed, several attacks have occurred in the past two years, with a particularly gruesome one resulting in 33 dead by stabbing at a train station. The Xinjiang province is also targeted by Chinese authorities because parts of the Muslim community there would like to separate from China. Moreover, most of the Uyghur population (the Muslim demographic living in Xinjiang) does not speak Chinese very well, which hampers access to employment opportunities among other detrimental and segregating effects.
Nonetheless, the Uyghurs are not the lone Muslim community in China. Another Muslim community, the Hui, is living freely without restriction to religious practice. The Hui are more numerous than the Uyghurs (11 million Hui versus 8 million Uyghurs) and they are dispersed all throughout China. The Hui are allowed to practice their religion freely because they are one of the officially recognized minorities in China. The Uyghurs are not included on this list. Furthermore, racially and culturally, the Hui are closer to traditional Han Chinese and are thus more appreciated. This discriminatory divide shows that the Chinese restrictions on religious liberty are not merely a blanket oppression of all Islam, but are also racially and culturally inflected.
The second reason we see such a disparity in global concern is that international and national media are more or less censored and restricted when they report from China, especially regarding the coverage of such sensitive security issues. On the other hand, international media are free to report from France, so the attention paid to Muslim issues in France is greater. But this isn’t just a tragedy for freedom of the press, there are real lives at stake. France may have a population of around 5 million Muslims, but there are over 19 million Chinese Muslims, making the international community’s disproportionate outrage against France versus China almost farcical. The ban on the burqa concerns 2,000 women in France, while the ban on fasting in China concerns millions of Uyghur Chinese. The media coverage of the two has been massively imbalanced.
It seems that there is also a media bias favoring Western countries over Eastern countries. Since 9/11, Western countries, mainly the US, have been leading a War on Terror, perceived by Muslims to be a war on Islam more than anything else. As a result, when a perceived anti-Muslim law is passed in a Western country such as France, it garners more attention and more criticism from Muslim countries than when China passes anti-Islam legislation, no matter how harsh that legislation may be. The whole narrative is different because China is not perceived as waging a war on Islam, even though it is clearly at war with its Uyghur community. Furthermore, while the West is associated with imperialism and has a long history of interference in the Middle East, China is spared that specific historical taint.
Despite the factors working against its publicity, the anti-Muslim legislation in China needs to be brought to account. Uyghur Chinese should not be cast aside by anyone, especially by Muslim communities and leaders around the globe. Their plight deserves to be highlighted and the Chinese government should be under pressure from the international community for its treatment of Chinese Muslims in Xinjiang.
Photo is public domain.