Islam has a very long history in China. According to traditional accounts, it was one of the companions of Prophet Mohammed, the illustrious general Said ibn Abi Waqqas, who first introduced the faith to China and founded a mosque in AD 627 in Guangzhou.
Even historians who dispute this agree that Muslim traders and missions were arriving in China by the mid-to-late seventh century, and communities were soon established in different parts of the country. Over the centuries, countless important officials were Muslim, such as the famous admiral Zheng He. In the 15th century he led the greatest naval expedition in history at that time and whose name is still familiar in many of the countries he visited.
Fast forward to the present and the People’s Republic of China has for decades had friendly associations with Muslim-majority countries in Asia. In those with significant Chinese diaspora populations, it does little to interfere and in the case of Malaysia, it eventually played an important role in persuading the local Communist Party to cease its armed struggle.
As, on the whole, China didn’t interfere with its diaspora, Muslim-majority countries rarely comment on the status of Muslims in China, who might make up only 1.8 per cent of the population but, given its overall size, still translates into more than 23 million people.
Both China and Muslim countries in Asia adhere to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of others and it could be argued that for a state ruled by a party which is officially atheist, China has been largely tolerant of religion – at least since the end of the Cultural Revolution.
The State Council, for instance, issued a decree last September “with the goal of protecting citizens’ freedom of religious belief, maintaining religious and social harmony and regulating the management of religious affairs.” It further stated: “Governments at all levels are urged to strengthen religious work [and] should include the construction of venues for religious activities into their overall land-use plans and urban-rural development plans.”
But over the last few years, there have been increasing concerns about the rights of Muslims in the western autonomous region of Xinjiang. In June 2015, the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Conference issued a statement expressing concern local Muslims were being denied the right to fast during Ramadan. The OIC called on the Chinese government "to proceed expeditiously with an investigation of such abuses and to ensure the safety and security of the Muslim minority".
In April last year, the Xinjiang legislature introduced a ban on the “abnormal growing of beards” and the wearing of face veils in public spaces, supposedly in a bid to curb religious extremism.
In August this year the world was shocked by a report from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which stated it was "alarmed" by "numerous reports of detention of up to one million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities held incommunicado and often for long periods, without being charged or tried, under the pretext of countering terrorism and religious extremism".
It was claimed they “have been forced to spend varying periods in political ‘re-education camps’ for even non-threatening expressions of Muslim ethno-religious culture like daily greetings. Estimates about them range from tens of thousands to upwards of a million.”
Chinese officials denied the accusations and some observers urged caution about the reports. But documents issued by the UN do have a degree of credibility which is difficult to ignore.
Muslim populations can be highly sensitive to attacks on their faith or fellow members of the wider Islamic community wherever they take place – as the fury generated in Pakistan by the Dutch extremist Geert Wilders' competition to draw cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed (since cancelled) demonstrated. But it would seem that sooner or later this is an issue that Muslim-led governments will have to address.
China does have a problem in Xinjiang, both with separatists and with radical extremists. It is thought that between 3,000 to 5,000 Uighurs went to fight with ISIS in Syria and Iraq, while other groups have been linked over the years with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. And it is true that Uighurs have been involved in terrorist incidents in China.
The worry would be if, through the lens of what China call the “three evils” – terrorism, separatism and religious extremism – the above groups are being conflated and observant-but-non-violent moderate Muslims are being lumped in with them, coming under suspicion and being targeted. It is absurd, for example, to suggest beard lengths are reliable indicators of support for violence or extremism.
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Xinjiang is an exceptional case. The country’s 10 million Hui Muslims – another minority – are peacefully assimilated and have largely been unaffected by state interference but even among them there have been recent complaints about the forced “Sinicisation” of Arab-looking mosques, the removal of loudspeakers used to broadcast the call to prayer and localised bans on religious education.
The overall trend is disturbing. If further and indisputable evidence emerges that state authorities are mistreating Muslim Chinese, trying to force them to renounce their faith or disobey its rules and labelling them extremists just for practising their religion, the pressure will mount for China's Muslim allies to say something.
That would be a dispute no one wants. Muslim countries are just as opposed to terrorism and violent extremism as China and neither would they wish to encourage secessionist tendencies. Their own experiences could be helpful in tackling radicalisation and rooting out those whose viciousness gives the lie to their claim to be pious, in Xinjiang or anywhere else.
China should ask its friends for this advice. Otherwise, they could be forced to speak candidly – and more forcefully than Beijing either likes or is used to.
Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia