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Beijing's response to the 'globalization of Islam'

Chinese Communist Party's concerns about an expanding Muslim culture has resulted in tough new legislation

Shih Chien-yu, Hong Kong

Shih Chien-yu, Hong Kong

Published: April 20, 2017 04:29 AM GMT

Updated: April 20, 2017 04:36 AM GMT

Beijing's response to the 'globalization of Islam'

Muslims sell Halal food in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region where ethnic Han Chinese people worry that "halalization" has gone too far. (ucanews.com photo) 

The concept of halal usually refers to Islamic eating rules but, in Muslim-dominated countries, the scope of halal now covers behavior, conversation, interpersonal relations and even a glare or gesture.

As the world's Muslim population has grown, the concept of halal has seen dynamic changes.

Several years ago, some Muslims, especially in China's northwest, began to do likewise and expanded the concept of halal. Now drugs, clothes, government-funded housing, or even things that have been touched by non-Muslims are regarded as "non-halal." In that extreme, mosques arise as the living center of Muslim society. Social autonomous organizations developed to encourage this interpretation and were formed under instruction of imams, becoming another government in the country.

For a communist state like China, "halalization" has turned into an accusation. If the non-Muslim Han Chinese feel inconvenienced they will get angry with the government for letting a religion expand recklessly.

Media reports that Wang Zhengwei, former director of China's National Committee for Ethnic Affairs, was removed in 2016 due to allegations that he allowed halalization to spin out of control from the northwest to other parts of China. Public opinion overwhelmingly accused Wang, a Hui ethnic himself, of strengthening ethnic identification, building mosques across the country and vigorously promoting halal food legislation while in office. The Hui ethnic minority are predominantly Muslim.

Since Wang was former secretary of Ningxia, a small autonomous region in north-central China, he was also criticized for building Arabic language schools and letting religion infiltrate campuses, violating the principle of separation of politics and religion.

Halal food legislation in mainland China was originally intended to fight counterfeiting. In the past, some halal restaurants were found selling wine and halal food processing plants were found processing pork. The intent of the law was to implement norms through a national regulation.

But the question then becomes who is eligible to determine what is halal food? It must be Muslim religious or institutions. Paradoxically, once the regulation for halal food is legislated does that mean that Sharia is recognized by the secular state?

Halal food certification is usually carried out by civil religious institutions authorized by the Chinese authorities. As an economic act that takes account of religion and commercial profit-taking, the certification needs guarantee from the authority to obtain trust from the Muslims in China and recognition from the Islamic world if it intends to gain profits through exports to the Middle East.


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'Arabization' and 'Turkishization'

In recent years, the globalization of Islam has set off a trend to imitate the Middle East's lifestyle that has developed into what some people around the world are calling "Arabization" and "Turkishization."

The criterion for halal food is thus filled with economic and political considerations; it leaves Chinese officials open to the charge of letting "external forces" infiltrate China.

From the government's perspective halal food could be an act of symbolic resistance by a Muslim population who are at best reluctant members of the Chinese state.

Halalization comes with deep levels of imagination and interpretation when connected to ethnic minorities in northwestern China and it can be interpreted endlessly to politicize ethnic relations. Who has the power to define what food and acts are halal can distinguish between Muslims and non-Muslims and reconstruct the power of autonomy or affiliation among ethnicities. The state certainly does not permit any imam monopolizing the right in interpreting halal in China.

With power reconstruction intruding on the autonomy of ethnic minorities, friction between the state and Muslim grassroots society increases. Both are differentiated and isolated from each other and even despise each other.

 But the Chinese government, facing such dilemmas, should not doubt or distrust Muslims, seeing them full of ulterior motives. Practically, it needs to think further about how to eliminate suspicion between groups.

However, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region has just enacted a law against extremism filled with prohibitions not based on criminology or anti-terrorism studies but psychological profiling. It is de-radicalizing the population through reconstructing people's behavioral values, social networks and lifestyle.

Religious belief and ethnicity in Xinjiang have a mingled relationship. The purpose for the law against extremism is to establish an accepted norm both for the Muslims and non-Muslims. But if the Muslim community perceives the legal regulation as unfair, nor clarifies the doubts in its practice, it will definitely bring more confusion in the governance.

Most non-Muslim Han people online have applauded the de-extremism regulation so far while Uyghur Muslims overseas have condemned it.

It is quite impossible for the Chinese government to tolerate a religion challenging its power. Thus, it must draw a red line to stop the expansion of religious power. Public opinion began to see such expansion as a tool for religious extremists to split the country.

It is true that admiration and imitation of the Middle East's religious culture has brought certain degree of "Arabization" and "Turkishization" to some Muslims in China. Will it lead to anti-Chinese sentiments? Will it turn the Muslims into extremist?

The latest de-extremism regulation is the best example of how the authority creates the feeling of pushing religious believers to the opposite front. After all, most Muslims care only about their daily life, not the political dimension.

The National Religious Work Conference held in Beijing in 2016 did not pinpoint Islam directly but the conclusion was clear. The basic policy is that religions are to be led by the Communist Party.

Religious groups cannot act independently or take the lead in the management their officials. They are not allowed to interfere in the government's administration, judiciary and education.

China's strategy of governance and regulation of Islamic affairs is based on restricting halalization. But it could bring unintended consequences, even a vicious confrontation.  

Shih Chien-yu is Professor of Department of Journalism and Communication of Hong Kong Chu Hai College of Higher Education.

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