Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Religion, politics mix awkwardly for China's Muslims
By Ben Blanchard May 22, 2006

XINING, China (Reuters) - Ishmael is a big fan of Osama bin Laden.
"He is a hero," he said, stroking his beard. "He is a good Muslim."
Maybe not such a strange comment to hear from a Muslim in Iraq or Saudi Arabia, but Ishmael is a Chinese citizen who lives in the remote, northwestern province of Qinghai, in a country which is officially atheist and strictly controls religion.
With just over 20 million adherents, according to the government, there are as many Muslims in China as live in Syria, or Yemen, two predominantly Islamic countries.
And Islam is alive and well in western China.
Ishmael -- who, like many other Muslims in Qinghai, prefers using his Arabic name to the Chinese one stamped on his identity card -- is a student at an Islamic school attached to a mosque in Xining, the provincial capital.
There he learns Arabic and Persian, as well as studying the Koran and other Islamic teachings.
But politics is technically banned by law from being mentioned either in Ishmael's school or mosque.
A large blackboard near the entrance to the mosque, on the dusty outskirts of Xining, reminds worshippers of their duty to love the motherland and love the Communist Party as part of being a good Muslim, an admonition that riles some.
"The communists -- who are the Chinese -- are a godless people," said Ahmed, from eastern Qinghai, who like Ishmael belongs to the Hui minority, Chinese Muslims who trace their heritage back to the Middle East and central Asia.
That's a sentiment shared by Ishmael's hero, bin Laden, who in April slammed the Chinese as "pagan Buddhists" in an audiotape accusing the United Nations of being an "infidel" body.
Yet despite the official controls on religion and politics, the government allows the Hui a great deal of autonomy and freedom in sparsely populated Qinghai and neighboring Gansu.
Although there may be occasional tensions, there is little parallel with the far-western region of Xinjiang, where there have been riots and bomb attacks by pro-independence groups.
"In places like Qinghai and Gansu, where Islam is less politicized, the government is more open and more relaxed," said Dru Gladney, professor of Asian Studies and Anthropology at the University of Hawaii.
"Particularly in very poor areas, there is a lot more flexibility," he said.
In many parts of China the Hui have blended in almost seamlessly into the predominant Han culture, all but abandoning Islam except for some traditions such as circumcising male children and avoiding pork.
In Qinghai, where around a fifth of the 5 million population follow Islam, Muslim women cover their heads, many restaurants refuse to let alcohol be consumed, and the men wear white skull caps and greet each other in Arabic.
A government ban on children under 18 attending Islamic schools in mosques is, in reality, usually ignored, local Muslims say.
And they are well aware of what's going on in the wider Muslim world, even if they dare not risk the wrath of the Chinese security forces by protesting in the streets, and limit their political discussions to the home.
"We all listen to Voice of America and watch Al Jazeera here," said Noureddin, 23, recently returned from religious school in Saudi Arabia.
During the storm over the publishing of cartoons caricaturing the Prophet Mohammad, originally published by the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten last September, China's Muslims made barely a peep of protest.
"We knew about the cartoons and felt furious," said Mohammad, 26. "But how could we go and demonstrate?"
Other times, though, tensions do bubble over.
At least seven people were killed and 42 injured in the central province of Henan in 2004 after a car accident involving an ethnic Han Chinese and a Hui sparked rioting.
In 1993, a cartoon ridiculing Muslims led to paramilitary police storming a mosque taken over by Hui in northwest China.
Some Han in Qinghai say they resent the province's Muslims for their wealth, but in the same breath will accuse them of petty theft. The Muslims say they resent the Han for their ethnic chauvinism and political domination.
Even within the Muslim community, there is unease between different sects and different ethnic groups who also follow the same religion, such as Qinghai's Salar minority and the Uighurs of restive Xinjiang.
"The Uighurs dance too much," said Ali, who belongs to the more conservative Ihwani sect which often looks to Saudi Arabia for guidance. "We are different from them."
© Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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