The Muslims always experienced a certain tranquillity thanks to the care that the empire devoted to trade with central Asia and through central Asia with the West. It is also true that the Confucian Chinese world always despised what was connected with trade and although, on the one hand, it allowed the presence of Muslim foreigners, it was never interested in their religion and indeed always tried to 'educate them' and to 'make them Chinese', thereby also making them less barbaric and more illuminated through Han culture, the Chinese culture of the Yellow River. Because of this contempt, in Chinese culture there was nothing written on the Islamic religion until the sixteenth century. And this was the case even though in the Yuan period (1279-1368) and the Ming period (1368-1644) various Muslim figures were a part of the imperial court. However, these were remembered for their contributions as astronomers, doctors or admirals and not for their religion.
Only in the sixteenth century did there appear some writings on the Islamic faith when some Muslim Chinese, whose families had been converted for centuries, began to demonstrate and explain how the Islamic faith was not distant from the teachings of Confucius, although they criticised the great sage for his rejection of a single God and of monotheism [here see the heading 'Islam in China' in M. Eliade, editor in chief, The Encyclopedia of Religion, New York, 1993, vols. 7 and 8, pp. 377-383]. This attitude of superiority on the part of Chinese culture carried forward even by Mao Tse Tung also explains why after so many centuries Islam had not spread very much in China. The very ritual elements of the Islamic world (the prohibition on alcoholic drinks and eating pork) are in contrast with the culinary and family traditions of China which has these two products as the fundamental ingredients of every celebration and of daily life as well.
How much Islam had been 'made Chinese' is demonstrated by the Great Mosque (Ta Qing Zhen Si) which is not in the least different from a Buddhist or Taoist temple: it has courtyards, pagodas, gardens, pointed roofs, and at the centre of everything a large hall for prayer. The present structure of the temple is that built in the eighteenth century and it is the outcome of an increasing Chinese influence to which the Muslims submitted themselves in order to be accepted and left free to express their faith, at least within the bounds of their holy buildings.
Islam in Chinese form is typical of an ethnic group called the Hui, who are present above all else in Ningxia (central China), in Shaanxi, in Qinghai, and in Peking. They number about fifteen million. Theirs is a faith based upon the teachings of the Koran and prayer in mosques but one which is not interested in politics and does not dare to criticise the present religious policy of the government. It accepts this policy as an inevitable form of conditioning, indeed it praises it for its liberality.
A striking element of this Islam 'in Chinese form' is the support that is given to mosques 'for women only', where teaching is provided by women Imams and not by men. In the view of some scholars this innovation is in reality a throw back to ancient Islam which had women Koran experts who later disappeared because of the influence of Wahabite Islam, which was more fundamentalist.
As is the case with all religions that are officially recognised by the government, Islam, too, has its patriotic associations that control and manage the life of its communities: the Imams, the publications of the Koran, and the annual pilgrimages to Mecca. All of this, however, does not appear to present any problems to this kind of tamed Islam. The government grants to this minority the possibility of not following the policy of one child only, it gives economic grants for the hajj (the pilgrimages to Mecca), and it also assures university positions for them. However, the government does not allow religious instruction for children until the age of eighteen.
The Muslims, like all the religions of China, suffered very severe forms of violence against individuals and places of worship during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Even the Great Mosque of Xian was almost razed to the ground; in the 1980s it was rebuilt with a grant from the government (and a number of Arab countries).
Thorn in the Flesh
A very different atmosphere is to be found in the region of Xinjiang (in the north-west of China), which is inhabited by the Uiguri, an ethnic group of Turkish origins. This ethnic group has been here for centuries and is Muslim. At different times, in the past and the present, it has struggled for independence and autonomy and has resisted the policy of making it Chinese. Here Peking has only been able to colonise the region by pushing the Han population to migrate there. The Han are given jobs in the bureaucracy, companies and banks, with fiscal incentives, thereby leaving the Uiguri in a state of social semi-marginalisation. Xinjiang has always been a thorn in the flesh of Peking. From 1911 to 1949 there was even an attempt to declare an independent Republic of Eastern Turkistan. This name remains linked to the Uiguri groups that are fighting for independence from China (the Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkistan) and which in the recent past have carried out attacks on party offices, buses and discotheques in cities such as Urumqi, Wuhan and Peking, causing the deaths of dozens of people.
China continues to respond with repression. In recent years hundreds of Uiguri have been condemned to death or have disappeared without a trial. In addition to the demographic subordination of the Uiguri population (who number about nine million), there is an authentic military occupation by the Chinese army as well as a spy network to control schools, companies and markets.
This control became even more asphyxiating after 11 September 2001. The fear that Osama Bin Laden had followers amongst the Uiguri as well led Peking to impose a heavy hand and passed endless laws for security and arrests. To impede the wave of fundamentalism in 2001 China even established the Shanghai Organisation for Security, to which also belong Russia and five countries of Central Asia, which are also having to deal with Islamic terrorism. Given that the region is rich in oil, China for years has been proposing a 'March towards the Far West' to foreign and Chinese investors in order to suffocate the rise of terrorism through economic development.
On 12 April 2005 the organisation Human Rights Watch published a dossier condemning the guerrilla methods employed by Peking to repress the expressions of religion and the demands for democracy of the Uiguri [cf. Devastating Blows. Religious Repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang] which was justified on the grounds that it is a part of the fight against terrorism. This dossier is based upon official documents of the Chinese Communist Party and on reports and papers drawn up by the security forces of the region which had hitherto been kept secret. The facts brought together I this dossier show that the state authorities prevent all Imams from engaging in regular preaching and also force them to hold 'self-criticism sessions'. The police monitor the mosques, remove teachers who profess a religious faith from the schools, and censor poets and writers who address subjects connected with religion, even in a vague way. According to an official newspaper of Xinjiang, in 2005 China arrested 18,227 Uiguri because of 'threats to national security' [cf. AsiaNews.it, 23 January 2006].
However this asphyxiating control is almost impossible because of the huge size of the territory (it is about seven times larger than Italy), the low population density (there are 19.5 million people in all), and the almost non-existent frontiers with the countries of Central Asia. Indeed, dangerous fundamentalist preachers as well as weapons for the nationalist rebellion come to Xianjiang from nearby Kirghizistan and Uzbekistan.
Economic development and the open invitation to foreign companies to come to Xinjiang is becoming a double-edged sword. Indeed, as a result of economic links, the Muslim Uiguri are able to enter into contact with other Muslims in Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Until last year they even went to Pakistan to obtain a visa for Saudi Arabia and the hajj. A pilgrimage to Mecca was also an opportunity to establish international links and solidarity with other Muslims in the world and to discover a more fundamentalist faith.
In an attempt to control this flow, from this year China has obliged Saudi Arabia to grant visas for pilgrimages only to those Chinese citizens who go to the Saudi consulate in Peking and only to those people who furnish a permit from the Islamic Patriotic Association. This new rule also applies to the Uiguri and the Hui. Indeed, the Chinese government is worried that amongst the Hui, who are usually 'calm', an increasingly strong fundamentalism will advance, with the risk that social tensions will be created. In many Hui zones, which at one time were famous for their liberal Islam, there is increasingly a massive turnout at prayers, women with veils, and an increasing number of young people who want to study Arabic and the Koran.
Peking is divided between a 'liberal' policy, which puts it in a good light with all Islamic countries, and iron control. But China cultivates the friendship of the two countries that most export fundamentalism, namely Saudi Arabia and Iran. China has increasingly sizeable economic relations with these two countries thanks to its increasing oil needs. In exchange, China has become their advocate within the international community, working against motions in favour of an embargo against Teheran and willingly closing its eyes to international criticisms of Saudi Arabia at the level of human rights.