China's Muslim minority has recently been in the news on two separate counts. The first involves the recently renovated Hui Muslims' Weizhou Grand Mosque in Wuzhong city in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in north-central China. The second relates to discussions in the United Nations Committee against Racial Discrimination (CERD) regarding the treatment and rights of Uighur Muslims. As usual China has maintained that it is sensitive to the concerns of its Muslim minorities. The international community, including the Muslim ummah, on this occasion, as in the past, has either ignored these developments or been very circumspect in its reaction.
China's Muslim population at around twenty-one million consists of ten distinct groups. The Hui Muslim community, a little under ten million, is the most numerous; the Uighurs who are over eight million are a close second. The two groups are ethnically distinct. The former is Chinese speaking and a part of the larger Han ethnicity. The latter is a part of the greater Turkic ethnicity. The Hui wish to maintain their cultural distinctiveness but are integrated with the Chinese polity. The Uighur, on the other hand, have always exhibited separatist tendencies. There are Uighur groups such as the Eastern Turkistan Independence Movement (ETIM) that have struggled against the Chinese state. Consequently, while the Hui have only faced some cultural and religious difficulties, China has comprehensively targeted Uighur groups.
According to a report in the Global Times which presents China's official views the Weizhou mosque problem arose from city officials realising "after the renovation" that the "scale of construction was bigger than what was originally declared". It appears that lower level officials had not objected to the reconstructed mosque. The mosque with its domes and minarets has followed Arab architectural practice and not the traditional patterns of mosque architecture found in some parts of China. The Ningxia Hui demonstrated against the demolition decision and occupied the mosque premises. The news of the unrest spread in the international media. While noting that action against the mosque would anger the Hui Muslims the Global Times report also noted, "if the local government does not react to the illegal act, it will fuel the idea that religions are superior over China's laws. Thus, it may set up a dangerous precedence…".
The latest news is that the authorities asked the demonstrators to focus on the forthcoming Eid-ud-Adha celebrations. They have been assured that the community will be consulted to resolve how the mosque will be reconstructed. The demonstrations have ended and internet services that were interrupted have resumed. It will be interesting to see how China proceeds in this case especially as President Xi Jinping had in his report to the 19th Party Conference in 2017 assured to "uphold the principle that religions in China must be Chinese in orientation and provide active guidance to religions so that they can adapt themselves to socialist society". Thus, will the mosque now have to be reconstructed according to traditional Chinese architecture?
Now to CERD's questions on the Uighur.
CERD Vice-chairperson told a hearing on China that the committee was deeply disturbed by reports that massive internment of Uighurs had taken place to re-educate them. The Global Times angrily denied the allegation but the Chinese authorities have not specifically dwelt on it. The fact is that some Uighur groups have indulged in wide-scale violence against the Chinese officials and, in some cases, Xan people in Xinjiang and other parts of China too. On their part the Chinese government has heavily cracked down on the Uighur groups. There are also repeated reports that some religious observances including during Ramzan are disallowed. There is no sign of an early resolution of the Uighur issue.
As the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) is the largest intergovernmental Islamic organisation its views on China's approach to its Muslim minorities are instructive. The OIC Secretary-General visited China in 2010. An official Chinese document regarding the visit dwelt on the 'historical' ties between China and the Muslim-World and noted the desire of the two sides to promote ties in "political, economic, trade and cultural fields". The document also noted that "Both sides underscored that they are opposed to terrorism, separatism and extremism in any form". This naturally impinges on the Uighurs.
During a visit to Saudi Arabia in 2016 President Xi Jinping received the OIC Secretary-General. He told the Secretary-General that "China and the OIC have found a way for different cultures, different religions and different social systems to get along". It would seem that this "getting along is on the basis that the OIC does not make any comment on China's treatment of its Muslim minorities. This is borne out by OIC's reticence in commenting on the Uighur situation. The OIC Foreign Ministers declaration during their meeting in Dhaka this year bears witness. While making substantive comments on their perception of Muslim minorities condition in different countries the foreign ministers "expressed satisfaction" on growing relations between OIC and China and requested the Secretary-General to continue to engage China for "an exchange of views on issues related to Muslim minorities in China".
While the OIC and Islamic countries are unlikely to move beyond exchanging views some in the Islamic world are not so restrained. The Pakistani newspaper Dawn called the treatment of Uighurs as "harsh" and called on China to find an "amicable" solution to the mosque issue. Will China listen? It seems unlikely.