China’s ruling Communist Party has hardened its rhetoric on Islam, with top officials making repeated warnings about the specter of global religious “extremism” seeping into the country, and the need to protect traditional Chinese identity.
Shaerheti Ahan, a top party official in Xinjiang, on Sunday became the latest official from a predominantly Muslim region to warn political leaders gathered in Beijing that the “international anti-terror situation” is destabilising China.
Officials from Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, which has an ethnic Hui population that is predominantly Muslim, warned similarly this past week about the perils of “Islamic extremism”.
Although some scholars question whether global armed networks have penetrated China, top Chinese officials are increasingly echoing calls to counter “extremism”.
Wu Shimin, a former ethnic affairs official from Ningxia, said that ideological work must be strengthened in the region to promote a Chinese identity among its Hui population, the descendants of Muslim traders plying the Silk Road centuries ago.
“The roots of the Hui are in China,” Wu said. “To discuss religious consciousness, we must first discuss Chinese consciousness. To discuss the feelings of minorities, we must first discuss the feelings of the Chinese people.”
Mohammed al-Sudairi, a doctoral student at the University of Hong Kong and an expert on Islam in China, said the comments by Ningxia party officials reflected the increasingly anti-Islamic rhetoric that has been rolled out over the past year by the top leadership in Beijing.
The plight of the Uighurs
“There’s a strengthening trend of viewing Islam as a problem in Chinese society,” al-Sudairi said.
“Xi Jinping has been quite anxious about what he saw as the loss of party-state control over the religious sphere when he entered power, which necessitated this intervention. I don’t think things will take a softer turn.”
In Xinjiang, where hundreds of people have died in recent years in violent attacks, the government’s rising rhetoric has coincided with new security measures that activists said exacerbate a cycle of repression, radicalisation and violence.
The government, meanwhile, said Xinjiang faces a grave separatist threat from Uighur fighters allegedly linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), though it provides little evidence for such claims.
On Friday, Xi met with Xinjiang officials, according to state media, and directed them to safeguard the region’s stability by erecting a metaphorical “great wall of iron”, a reference to the military response following the pro-democracy protest in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies