What does China want to achieve by 'modifying' Islam?

The Chinese government's plan to make Islam compatible with Chinese culture and society has attracted widespread criticism. But can Beijing achieve this goal in today's globalized world? William Yang reports.

On Sunday, Chinese authorities announced their plan to Sinicize Islam through a five-year plan. According to a report published in the state-run Global Times newspaper, on January 4, representatives of Islamic associations from eight Chinese provinces participated in a Beijing seminar and discussed the outline for how to align Islam with Chinese norms. A government official said it was important for China's Muslim community to "improve their political stance and follow the [Communist] Party's lead."

The announcement came just days after police reportedly raided three unregistered mosques in the southwestern Yunnan province, injuring dozens of worshippers and arresting more than 40 people.

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David Stroup, a China expert at the University of Oklahoma, told DW that the Chinese government wants to tighten control over Islamic groups and take measures to remove overly foreign features from public places.

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"This could mean continued efforts to remove public signs in Arabic or make changes to Arab-style mosques," Stroup said. "At the same time, the government may try to assert more direct control over the practice of faith, especially over the clerics' weekly sermons," he added.

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'The Muslim isolation'

Haiyun Ma, a history professor at the US-based Frostburg State University, says that the Chinese government's Sinicization drive borders on xenophobic. Ma believes that by emphasizing the need to remove foreign influences, the Communist Party wants to create a Chinese version of Islam that is guided by atheism.

"Beijing considers the Arab influence as dangerous and believes it should be totally eliminated from the lives of Chinese Muslims," Ma underlined.

"Also, it wants to cut off Chinese Muslims from other Muslim countries. In other words, China is trying to isolate its Muslim community while claiming it is embracing globalization," Ma added.

Many analysts see the increased efforts to Sinicize Islam as part of a large-scale crackdown on Muslims, especially in the Xinjiang region. The authorities have reportedly put at least one million Xinjiang Muslims in internment camps. These measures have raised concerns among Muslims in other parts of China that Beijing wants to implement the Sinicization model across the country.

In November last year, Global Times reported that officials in regions with sizable Muslim populations are "learning" from the Xinjiang experience, which, according to the government, is aimed at curbing terrorism.

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External influences

Analyst Stroup says the international community needs to increase pressure on Beijing to force it to alter its treatment of the Muslim community.

"So far, the international community has not taken up the issue in a serious manner," said Stroup.

Ma is of the view that it won't be easy for Beijing to Sinicize Islam as its multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is inviting influences from a number of Muslim-majority countries like Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Turkey.

But the expert believes the US could use its influence to pressure China.

"It is possible that the US and other Western countries can work with the Muslim nations to tackle this issue," suggested Ma. "In other words, the US can win the hearts and minds of key Islamic countries."

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A precursor to a major conflict?

Ma believes that local authorities are likely to play a major role in the Sinicization drive, but warns that it comes with some risks.

Violent conflicts between local authorities and Muslim communities have erupted in Ningxia and Yunnan in the past few years. Cui Haoxin, a Hui Muslim poet, told DW that the Sinicization measures will not be easily accepted by the Muslim communities.

Cui says that such acts could have a snowball effect and are likely to transform into a major conflict in the future.

"It is hard to rationalize these measures," Cui said, adding that the situation for Muslims in China is getting worse.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

China's far western Xinjiang region ramps up security

Three times a day, alarms ring out through the streets of China's ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar, and shopkeepers rush out of their stores swinging government-issued wooden clubs. In mandatory anti-terror drills conducted under police supervision, they fight off imaginary knife-wielding assailants.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

One Belt, One Road Initiative

An ethnic Uighur man walks down the path leading to the tomb of Imam Asim in the Taklamakan Desert. A historic trading post, the city of Kashgar is central to China's "One Belt, One Road Initiative", which is President Xi Jinping's signature foreign and economic policy involving massive infrastructure spending linking China to Asia, the Middle East and beyond.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

China fears disruption of "One Belt, One Road" summit

A man herds sheep in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. China's worst fears are that a large-scale attack would blight this year's diplomatic setpiece, an OBOR summit attended by world leaders planned for Beijing. Since ethnic riots in the regional capital Urumqi in 2009, Xinjiang has been plagued by bouts of deadly violence.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

Ethnic minority in China

A woman prays at a grave near the tomb of Imam Asim in the Taklamankan Desert. Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking distinct and mostly Sunni Muslim community and one of the 55 recognized ethnic minorities in China. Although Uighurs have traditionally practiced a moderate version of Islam, experts believe that some of them have been joining Islamic militias in the Middle East.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

Communist Party vows to continue war on terror

Chinese state media say the threat remains high, so the Communist Party has vowed to continue its "war on terror" against Islamist extremism. For example, Chinese authorities have passed measures banning many typically Muslim customs. The initiative makes it illegal to "reject or refuse" state propaganda, although it was not immediately clear how the authorities would enforce this regulation.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

CCTV cameras are being installed

Many residents say the anti-terror drills are just part of an oppressive security operation that has been ramped up in Kashgar and other cities in Xinjiang's Uighur heartland in recent months. For many Uighurs it is not about security, but mass surveillance. "We have no privacy. They want to see what you're up to," says a shop owner in Kashgar.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

Ban on many typically Muslim customs

The most visible change is likely to come from the ban on "abnormal growing of beards," and the restriction on wearing veils. Specifically, workers in public spaces, including stations and airports, will be required to "dissuade" people with veils on their faces from entering and report them to the police.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

Security personnel keep watch

Authorities offer rewards for those who report "youth with long beards or other popular religious customs that have been radicalized", as part of a wider incentive system that rewards actionable intelligence on imminent attacks. Human rights activists have been critical of the tactics used by the government in combatting the alleged extremists, accusing it of human rights abuses.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

Economy or security?

China routinely denies pursuing repressive policies in Xinjiang and points to the vast sums it spends on economic development in the resource-rich region. James Leibold, an expert on Chinese ethnic policy says the focus on security runs counter to Beijing's goal of using the OBOR initiative to boost Xinjiang's economy, because it would disrupt the flow of people and ideas.