CAIRO – Though it is deemed a crime to operate Islamic schools or pray at mosques in many parts of China, Hui Muslims are practicing Islam freely in the open, getting the envy of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang who face suffocating security measures.
“Muslims from other parts of China who come here, especially from Xinjiang, can’t believe how free we are, and they don’t want to leave,” Liu Jun, 37, the chief imam at the Banqiao Daotang Islamic School, told New York Times, referring to the far-west borderlands that are home to China’s beleaguered Uighur ethnic minority.
“Life for the Hui is very good.”
China is home to an estimated Muslim population of 23 million.
Roughly half of Muslims live in Xinjiang, an oil-rich expanse of Central Asia where a cycle of violence and government repression has alarmed human rights advocates and unnerved Beijing over worries about the spread of Islamic extremism.
Living in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and the adjacent Gansu Province, mosques are rising even in the smallest villages where muezzins summon the faithful via loudspeakers.
Moreover, adolescent boys and girls spend their days studying the Qur’an at religious schools.
At these provinces, descendants of Persian and Arab traders, who settled along the Silk Road and took Chinese wives, form a minority of 10 million Hui Muslims.
Unlike the Uighurs, who speak a Turkic dialect and whose Eurasian features set them apart from the country’s Han Chinese majority, the Hui speak Chinese and are often indistinguishable from their non-Muslim neighbors.
Hui strongholds like Linxia, a city in Gansu known as China’s “Little Mecca [Makkah],” there are mosques on every other block and women can sometimes be seen with veils, a sartorial choice that can lead to detention in Xinjiang.
“It’s easy to live an intensely Muslim life here,” said Ma Habibu, 67, a retired truck driver, whose surname, Ma, with its phonetic resemblance to the name Mohammed, is common among the Hui.
“Even government officials here are very devout and study the Qur’an every day.”
Many believe that the light government touch on Hui Muslims is part of commercial plan, to win trade connections with Muslim countries.
In places like Wuzhong and Linxia, officials have created special “Muslim products” industrial parks that offer inexpensive land and low taxes.
Ma’s company, Yijia Ethnic Clothing, is among those that have benefited from favorable government policies.
Standing amid the rat-a-tat of computer-driven embroidery machines, Ma said Yijia Ethnic Clothing’s three factories now make 50 million hats a year and provide more than two-thirds of the world’s low-priced Islamic headwear.
The success encouraged the company to seek a Muslim-themed real estate venture in Linxia that will include 6,000 apartments, two mosques, museums and a Halal food exhibition center spread across 190 acres.
During a recent visit to the company’s offices, Ma Chunbo, a senior executive, said that the project sought to capitalize on the growing wealth of Hui entrepreneurs but that he also hoped to attract non-Muslims.
“We want to show the world that Islam is a tolerant, peace-loving religion, not the religion of bomb-throwing that people see on the news,” he said.
“We also want to show that in Linxia, we fully enjoy the lenient ethnic policies of the government,” he said.
According to official data, China has 20 million Muslims, most of them are concentrated in Xinjiang, Ningxia, Gansu, and Qinghai regions and provinces.
Unofficially, Muslim groups say the number is even higher, stating that there are from 65-100 million Muslims in China — up to 7.5 percent of the population.