Amid criticism of religious oppression, Islam thrives in Xinjiang

28 Sep 2023 03:04pm
This picture taken on July 15 shows children walking past a disused detention centre near Kashgar in China's northwestern Xinjiang region - AFP
This picture taken on July 15 shows children walking past a disused detention centre near Kashgar in China's northwestern Xinjiang region - AFP

URUMQI, CHINA - Abdureqip Tormurniyaz greeted the delegation that alighted from the vehicle at the main compound of the Islamic Institute with the universal greeting of Muslims around the world - "Assalaimualaikum.”

As he walked them through the 10-hectare campus, the Head of the Islamic Institute of Xinjiang explained to the six-member delegation - comprising Malaysian journalists and representatives of youth organisations - on the institute’s growing role in the development of Islam in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

"We used to have only 300 students, and now we have 1,000 students, pursuing various full time Islamic studies from short courses to degree programmes for about three to four years, depending on the programme,” he said.

Students learn compulsory Islamic subjects, Arabic and the Chinese language, and law and order, as well as culture and history. Classes are conducted in Chinese and the Uyghur language.

Upon graduation, they have good prospects in becoming imams, mosque officials or religious teachers. Besides providing Islamic education, Abdureqip said the institute now serves as a resource and reference centre especially to foreign scholars who are keen on deepening their understanding about Islam in Xinjiang.

"Every year, we receive hundreds of local and foreign groups visiting our Institute. We hope that through constructive interactions with more people from various backgrounds, we are able to promote peace and enhance better understanding among us,” he said.

He said the Institute also plays an important role in translating the al-Quran from Arabic as well as books and writings of prominent Muslim scholars into the Uyghur and Chinese languages.

Established in 1986 in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s Islamic Institute Urumqi was later relocated to the present larger and modern campus, a 30-minute drive from the city centre, in 2017.

A grand mosque with green dome and minarets that can accommodate a congregation of 1,000 also sits prominently in the compound of the campus.

"It is here at this mosque where our students will be taught to lead prayers and to perform various Islamic tasks such as on newborns, marriages and even funeral rites. They will gather here for discussions and prayers,” he said, adding that the Institute now has eight branches across the region.

"Islam in Xinjiang is dynamic. The people have the rights and freedom to practice the religion,” Abdureqip said.

This is in contrast to the general perception that Uyghur-Muslims are persecuted and not free to practice Islam.

This misplaced perception originates from the past - between 1990 and 2016 - when the predominantly Uyghur-Muslim northwest region with over 25.8 million people was plagued by terrorism and religious extremism, causing loss of lives and instability.

The Malaysian delegation also visited an exhibition at Xinjiang International Convention and Exhibition Centre themed "The Fight Against Terrorism and Extremism In Xinjiang”, where it showcased a timeline of the region’s history of multiple religions’ coexistence up to its period of turbulence and the government’s success of curbing terrorism.

According to the text at the exhibition, Islam was introduced into southern Xinjiang in the late 9th century and early 10th century. By early 11th century, the pattern of Islam and Buddhism’s coexistence - with each being the dominant belief in south and north Xinjiang, respectively - came into shape in Xinjiang.

"The history of Xinjiang shows that multiple religions have long coexisted side by side, with Islam predominantly existing alongside other religions including Buddhism, Christianity and orthodox religions”.

There are 24,000 mosques in Xinjiang, it added. At the exhibition, hundreds of seized weapons used in terrorist attacks and violent acts - such as guns, pistols, knives, axes, swords, hand grenades and various explosive devices - were displayed at the exhibition. Footages and pictures from the actual incidents were also exhibited as a grim reminder of its troubled past.

"Xinjiang is a key battlefield in the fight against terrorism and extremism in China. In the face of these real threats, Xinjiang has taken resolute action to fight terrorism and extremism in accordance with the law, effectively curbing the frequent occurrences of terrorist activities,” our guide Zhang Ning said.

Director of Press and Culture Division, Foreign Affairs Office of Xinjiang Autonomous Region, Gu Mei, assured that the Chinese government is not against any ethnic group or religion.

"The Chinese government is like any other government in the world when it comes to terrorism threats. We are against criminal activities, separatism and terrorism.

"If we are oppressing them (Uyghurs), how can the government still be providing them with social and economic benefits to improve their livelihood? Which country in the world is suppressing their people by providing them the benefits?” she said in reference to the bad press by the West on Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghurs and suppression of religion in the region.

She said instead of merely countering the war of perception, the Chinese government focuses on economic development as a key to uplift the well-being of the people. Official data indicated that Xinjiang’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew at an average annual rate of 5.1 per cent over the past five years. In 2022, the region’s GDP reached RMB1.774 billion (RM1.14 billion) - an increase of 3.2 per cent from 2021. It is expected to increase to about 7 per cent this year.

"Most important thing is to better believe your own eyes, not with your ears,” Gu added in dispelling the negative perception often associated with Xinjiang and the Uyghurs. -- BERNAMA