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Muslims in Xinjiang: Three unique perspectives

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By Talibeh Hydara

For nearly a decade, Xinjiang has dominated headlines across mainstream western media over allegations that Chinese government is persecuting Muslims.

The coverage attracted widespread condemnations from human rights organisations who accused the Chinese government of targeting the minority Uyghur Muslims.

The Xinjiang case has since been an issue on the plate of the UN Human Rights Office.

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In August 2021, the OHCHR issued an assessment of what it described as “human rights concerns in Xinjiang” which stated that serious violations have been committed in the region through China’s counter-terrorism and counter extremism strategies.

However, in a reply to this assessment, China’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations Office in Geneva said the assessment was based on “disinformation and lies by anti-China forces” and that the report runs contrary to the mandate of OHCHR.    

24,000 mosques

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Li Jingjing, a prominent Chinese journalist and political commentator, said the diversity of Xinjiang in both ethnicity and religion is remarkably rich but western media weirdly focuses on Muslims and ignored other minority groups.

“First, I think it’s important to tell the whole picture of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region to readers outside of China. Xinjiang is a very diverse region. China has 56 different ethnic groups and about 47 are residents of Xinjiang. That means the region is very diverse in cultures, languages and religions.
There are five main religions in Xinjiang; Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox.

I’m explaining this because I hope people can understand not everyone in Xinjiang is Muslim; there are different religions, and also those who just choose to not follow a religion. Western media excessively only focusing on one group of people in Xinjiang and neglecting other cultures,” she said.

The CGTN reporter, who visited mosques and interviewed imams in Xinjiang, said despite the negative reports on western media about Muslims being persecuted, Islam is flourishing in the region with thousands of mosques and other Islamic institutes, more than many majority Muslim countries.

“In terms of the true picture of Muslims in Xinjiang, I was very lucky that I had the chance to interview several Uygur Imams from Xinjiang. I also visited some mosques after being permitted by the Imams, even though I’m not a Muslim.
They are very kind, intelligent, and explained to me what life is really like for them. If you want to see footage and pictures, feel free to check out my vlogs on YouTube. There are over 24,000 mosques across Xinjiang, more than in many Muslim-majority countries. Islam-related institutions have been renovated in the past few years. Several mosques have been updated, expanded and equipped with better facilities for ablution, heating and fire control, including Masjid Yanghang in Urumqi and Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar. The China Islamic Institute, which provides education for anyone interested in becoming faculty or staff for Islamic institutes in China, built eight new compounds across Xinjiang in 2017, with 200 million yuan from the government. Does that sound like a ‘persecution’?” she quizzed.

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Left-right: Jingjing, imam at Kazihana Mosque in Turpan, and
translator. Xinjiang 2021

In less than half a decade, China managed to lift at least 800 million people out of poverty, an impossible feat to match in human history. The poverty alleviation measures were indiscriminate, with Xinjiang bursting into life and becoming a major tourist hotspot in the past few years.

“By 2020, villages in Xinjiang were lifted out of extreme poverty. Ethnic minority women are working in every industry, often as the breadwinners of the family. More minority kids are going to high schools and colleges. Average household incomes have increased. More tourists are traveling to Xinjiang every year. People of all religions are able to celebrate their religious festivals. The Uyghurs are shining in their professions, as movie stars, singers, professors and government officials.

Muslim tourists from other countries, religious figures of Muslim countries all have visited Xinjiang and believed there was no ‘genocide’ or ‘persecution’ like the West accused. They saw Muslims are living well, celebrating their culture, doing their religious traditions,” Jingjing added.

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Jingjing with Muslim women in Bayannur City in Inner Mongolia who
just finished their class at the mosque for women. June 2021

Earlier this year, there was an historic delegation to Xinjiang comprising more than 30 Islamic figures and scholars from 14 countries, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Tunisia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Jingjing said Dr Ali Rashid al-Nuaimi, who headed the delegation, was impressed with the way extremism was handled in the region.

“Ali spoke highly of the region’s measures on countering terrorism and extremism, and also of the people who have contributed to the stability and development in the region.
He said: ‘The world needs a secure, stable and well-developed China’ and ‘don’t engage or listen to those who want to undermine the development of China’ in an interview with Global Times.
So, it looks like all the Muslims from different countries are fine with the situation of Muslims in China, only some Western politicians, who have horrible records of treating Muslims worldwide, are ‘crying’ for Chinese Muslims.
They don’t care about Muslims in other parts of the world, they don’t care about those Muslims that their wars killed and displaced, and they only care about the Uygur Muslims in China. Isn’t that weird?” she inquired.

Propaganda rooted in distortion

Zhang Xiyue

Zhang Xiyue, attaché at the Department of African Affairs of China’s foreign ministry, described as “propaganda rooted in distortion” western media claims that China is persecuting Muslims in Xinjiang.

Ms Xiyue, who was speaking in front visiting African youths and foreign journalists at the China-Africa friendship event on Wednesday, 19th April 2023, said everyone is free to worship any religion in China and that the security measures distorted in western media were only meant to prevent radicalism and terrorism.

She argued there is no deprivation of language and persecution as everyone harmoniously lives in Xinjiang as opposed to reports carried by western news organisations.  

Responding to a question on the issue, Ms Xiyue said: “There are many Muslim countries in Africa. As you said, you are a Muslim yourself. China has been a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country since ancient times. In China, all ethnic groups live together in equality and harmony, with social stability, economic development and religious harmony. Meanwhile, the Chinese civilization and the Islamic civilization have always maintained the tradition of friendly exchanges. I think this is written in our cultural genes for thousands of years. It is a fact that cannot be tampered with by the lies of the US and the West.”

She revealed that a few months ago, some African diplomats visited the region, who found quite the opposite of what was largely reported and they were happy to see a bustling Xinjiang.

She narrated: “In February this year, we accompanied some African envoys and their wives on a tour of Xinjiang. They visited the homes of the Uygur and Russian ethnic groups, chatted with pedestrians on the roadside, and visited the Islamic Education Institute and the great Mosque in Shaanxi. The ambassadors were deeply impressed by the harmonious cultural coexistence of various ethnic groups in Xinjiang.

‘As a Muslim, I know very well that terrorism and extremism in Xinjiang does not come from Islam, but is the result of incitement from outside. I am glad to see that Xinjiang is stable, peaceful and thriving, and that religious believers enjoy full freedom’ the Senegalese ambassador said.”

Terrorism, not human rights

Terrorism has taken root in Africa and radical Islamist groups kill thousands of people annually.  According to Global Terrorism Index 2023, Sub-Saharan Africa recorded the largest increase in terrorism deaths, rising by eight per cent. Sixty per cent, or 4,023, of all terrorism deaths globally occurred in sub-Saharan Africa.     

According to Zhang Xiyue, the Xinjiang issue has never been an issue of human rights, ethnicity or religion. It is a fight against radical extremism which is a familiar territory for Africa.  

“The essence of Xinjiang-related issues is to counter violence, terrorism, radicalization and separatism. Terrorism and radicalization are common enemies of both China and Africa. Without security and stability, there can be no vigorous social development. I believe that African friends present here can relate to this.

Under the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC), guided by the path of Chinese-style modernization, Xinjiang has made remarkable changes and great achievements. China will also continue to strongly support African countries in their efforts to build peace and security, and work closely with Africa on major issues to achieve peace and development at an early date,” she said.

Quranic competition

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The Gambia’s foreign minister, Dr Mamadou Tangara, who flew into Beijing to address the Lanting Forum on Friday, said he had a quick visit to Xinjiang to gather first-hand information about the situation of Muslims. Honourable Tangara, who broke his Ramadan fast with the Muslim community in the mosque, shared his observations.

“Before coming to the Lanting Forum, I seized the opportunity to visit Xinjiang because Xinjiang is always on the agenda of the Human Rights Council and many a time, we will hear stories about Xinjiang. We wanted to go and see for ourselves. Even as a Muslim, it is said that you have to seek knowledge even if you have to go up to China. So we are in China; we went to Xinjiang. Even though it was a short visit but you could see how the people live. We visited mosques. We witnessed a Quranic recitation competition. We broke fast in a mosque and had iftar with the community. This is a region where you have 24,000 mosques, which means you have a mosque for every 500 people. Even in The Gambia where we are 95% Muslim, I don’t think we have this number of mosques. There are things that cannot be faked. We had to be there and witness first-hand what obtains in Xinjiang. A Quranic competition cannot be stage-managed because you have to know the verses, so I saw a lot of positive things there,” he observed.

Honourable Tangara said terrorism has been a cankerworm to peace in the world and such violent activities do not represent Islam.

“There is no perfect country, we must say that. Based on the reality, they tried to deal with certain situations. No one will allow extremism to flourish. Unfortunately, today many people make the confusion of thinking that the Islamists represent Islam. These are misrepresentations. Islam is a religion of peace. How can you kill people in the name of Islam? How can you bomb mosques in the name of Islam? That is contrary to the principles of Islam,” he stated.         

Western media obsession with Xinjiang

After 9/11, there was a sweeping change of public opinion toward Islam in the west. Some countries, especially in Europe, consider Muslims as inherent threats to their way of life and islamophobia has been on the rise.

Western media have been equally complicit, succumbing to reporting based on stereotypes and stigmatizing Muslim populations based on actions of Islamists.

But why are western media organisations focusing more on ostensibly fighting for Muslims in China while fighting against Muslims in their own backyard?

“First, it’s just another way to demonize China with lies that they intentionally fabricated.  Most of the West’s reports and investigations about Xinjiang were conducted by ‘scholars’ or ‘researchers’ from a self-proclaimed independent think-tank called the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). It is funded by multiple governments and weapon manufacturers, including the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Department of Defense, the UK Embassy in China and the government of Canada. Most of the Xinjiang separatists, or the ‘East Turkistan’ related activist groups, whose headquarters are in Washington, D.C. are receiving funding from the U.S organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
With a narrative they created, they accuse China of the most horrendous crimes, trying to depict China as some cruel, horrible country. This is a way of manufacturing consent for wars with China. Just think about the lies of Weapons of Mass Destruction, on that lie, the Western alliance waged war on Iraq. The consequences last till today.

Second, I think they were trying to drive a wedge between China and Muslim countries; make us all weak by dividing us. But apparently, that was just a wishful thinking of theirs.
Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to restore ties brokered by China a few months ago. Relations between China and Arab states and Gulf countries have entered a brand-new chapter after the first China-Arab State Summit and China-GCC Summit in 2022. The Western governments’ lies didn’t work. People are waking up to their lies,” Li Jingjing concluded.

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