Indians know very little about the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China’s westernmost and predominantly Muslim province, which occupies a pivotal place along the ancient Silk Route. This ignorance is as baffling as it is unhelpful. It militates against India’s own vital national interests. Xinjiang shares a border ─ and close civilizational links ─ with India. Indeed, these links were so close during its Buddhist past that a Chinese government publication acknowledges that this region was known as a “Small India” in the first millennium.
In the modern era, as I have described in the first of this three-part article, this fast-prospering province is emerging as China’s new Shenzhen, a hi-tech gateway to Central Asia, West Asia, and South Asia (Afghanistan and Pakistan). India can ill afford to remain geographically and culturally unconnected to these vast regions, as well as to western China, which is becoming a new powerhouse of that country’s growth.
Yet, very few Indian journalists go and report first-hand from Xinjiang. Very few Indian scholars in our universities study the region and its neighbourhood. I do not know of a single important Indian politician who has visited that province. Indian movies and music are popular in Xinjiang. Yet, there has never been a major Indian cultural event in Xinjiang. Contrast this with the fact that our movie stars hold gala functions in many parts of the world.
What little we know about Xinjiang is almost entirely shaped by the Western media and the criticism of China by the United States and the European Union. Hence, whenever we think of Xinjiang, what comes uppermost in our minds is the “genocide of Muslims”, “Distortion of Islam” in China, “human rights violations”, and “forced labour of Uyghurs”.
The question arises: Should a large, independent, and self-respecting nation such as India, which aspires to have its own rightful place in Asia and the world, view Xinjiang ─ and China in general ─ through western glasses? Should we accept the West’s agenda as our own? Shouldn’t we develop our own perspective, based on our own needs and our own wisdom?
My extensive travels in Xinjiang in June this year ─ to Urumqi, Turpan, Kucha, Khotan and Kashgar ─ helped me gain an understanding of its past, present and future that significantly differs from what is projected by the western media. There is much in common between the problems India and China have been facing ─ especially, the problems of extremism, terrorism and separatism inspired by bigoted interpretations of Islam. Also common are the factors that have caused the historical phenomena of “Indianisation of Islam in India” and “Sinicisation or Localization of Islam in China”.
An examination of this subject inevitably invites the risk of being called Islamophobic. Yet, the truth must be told as one sees and understands it.
Islamic History ─ Its Positives and Negatives
Islam, like all the great religions of the world, came to restate the principles of peace, human brotherhood, truthfulness, compassion, justice and voluntary surrender before an all-knowing higher power, the creator and sustainer of the universe. Prophet Mohammed, like all other prophets, was one of the foremost teachers and transformers of the human race.
Swami Vivekananda, the great Hindu monk in the modern era, praised the principle of equality in Islam. “Prophet Mohammed by his life showed that amongst Mohammedans there should be perfect equality and brotherhood. There was no question of race, caste, creed, colour, or sex.”
Hence, Islam revitalized extant civilizations, produced new bonds of social equality and solidarity, created dynamic new cultural patterns, catalyzed new and bold forms of creativity in art and architecture, and set in motion new discoveries in science and new inventions in technology. Overall, it came as a great helper of humanity.
Nevertheless, as Islam’s rapid spread to lands near and far shows, it also came with several negative features that have not entirely disappeared even 1400 years after its birth in the Arabian peninsula.
First, in many places, it gained new coverts through coercive and violent jihad (“religious war”). True, its simplicity, its promise of social equality, and the piety of many of its (mainly Sufi) preachers also played a major role in the voluntary acceptance of Islam. However, voluntary acceptance of other faiths after renunciation of Islam is strictly barred for Muslims, and those who do so face severe social ostracization and even death. Even belief in atheism invites stern consequences.
Second, most interpretations of Islam affirm exclusive social unity and solidarity of Muslims, which is not extended to the whole of humanity. This naturally alienates non-Muslims.
Third, most interpretations of Islam claim for it not only a position of superiority and supremacy over all other religions but also finality of the religious truth, thereby altogether negating some religious beliefs and practices (this is the category of “infidels”) and relegating some other faith systems to an inferior and subservient status (this is the category of non-Islamic “Abrahmic religions”).
Fourth, Islam, despite its spread to distant countries and continents, continues to carry a strong imprint of Arab history, language, customs, and culture. Therefore, many Muslim religious leaders regard other faiths, languages, and cultures as inferior. They also tend to prohibit Muslims from cultural intermingling and social integration with non-Muslims. In nations where Muslims are a minority, this creates social and cultural separatism. If Muslims happen to be living in significant numbers in a contiguous region, social and cultural separatism gives rise to demands for political and even national separatism.
Fifth, in multi-religious nations where Muslims are a majority, religious, cultural, and even citizenship rights of minorities are generally curtailed. Many Muslim rulers in the past legitimised the use of political and state power to impose Islam’s hegemony over other religions. This made coercive application of unequal laws for non-Muslim citizens of the same land possible. The principle that all religions are equal before the law continues to be rejected in many Muslim countries even in the 21st century. This is evident from the fact that very few Muslim-majority nations have constitutionally embraced the principle of secularism, which mandates equal respect for all religions irrespective of whether their adherents are in a majority or a minority.
Sixth, dogmatism and triumphalism, which are the hallmarks of all faith systems to a lesser or greater extent, rose to extreme levels in Islam. The resultant attitude of intolerance towards and disrespect for other religions, cultures, and customs led not only to their suppression but also, in many places, violent destruction of their icons, monuments and places of worship. Wherever I travelled in Xinjiang, I saw that the Buddhist heritage now lives only in mute ruins, molested and maimed.
Seventh, intolerance towards dissent and differences even within Muslim societies, often manifesting in violent forms, has characterized the rise of Islam since its infancy. Three of the four ‘Rightly Guided Caliphs’ were assassinated in the first century of Islam after the demise of Prophet Mohammed in 632. Hence, intra-religious strife is more common among Muslims than in any other faith-based society.
Lastly, because some Muslims regard their faith as superior and exclusive and because their idea of human unity and solidarity is limited to the unity and solidarity of Muslims, they propagate the idea of “Pan-Islamism”. They claim that all Muslims of the world constitute one single global family, transcending their national, cultural, and linguistic identities, and must support one another to achieve their common goals. The ultimate common goal of Pan-Islamists is to establish the supremacy of Islam all over the globe. Some Pan-Islamists even envision a global Caliphate, a single Muslim rule worldwide.
The three evils of “extremism”, “terrorism” and “separatism”, which have raised their heads in many countries around the world, are the outcome of these negative features. Without taking these into account, it is impossible to properly understand the phenomenon of the localization of Islam in China.
Islamism ─ that is, the political instrumentalization of Islam ─ inspired separatist movements in many multi-religious countries where Muslims were a minority. This is how India was partitioned in 1947 when the British colonial rule was about to end. The demand for “a separate homeland for Muslims” was based on the flawed and toxic “Two Nations Theory”, triggering a horrendous communal bloodbath and the largest transborder migration of hapless people.
This theory, propounded by the Muslim League, insisted that Hindus and Muslims are two separate nations, and cannot live together under a united nation. The same mindset has continued to fuel the secessionist movement in Jammu & Kashmir.
If this claim that Muslims and non-Muslims cannot co-exist peacefully in a single nation by adhering to some common non-discriminatory laws is accepted as valid, sooner or later there will be legitimate separatist movements even in Europe and America where Muslims now reside in significant numbers. American and European politicians who are conspiring to dismember China by supporting the separatists in Xinjiang do not seem to realise that the dismemberment of their own multi-religious countries would be an inevitable denouement of their short-sighted politics.
Like India, China has always been a multi-religious country. Xinjiang, too, has a long history of coexistence of multiple religions. Zoroastrianism proliferated throughout Xinjiang over two thousand years ago. Around the 1st century BC, Buddhism arrived here from India. It reached its peak from the 4th to 10th centuries. It coexisted with Taoism, Confucianism, Manichaeism, and Nestorian Christianity. Islam came in the 10th century and changed the religious landscape of Xinjiang. Thereafter, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, and Nestorianism disappeared. Buddhism and Taoism barely survived.
Unlike Indian communists, the Communist Party of China does not hide or whitewash the violent and coercive ways of the spread of Islam. Two years ago, the Chinese government put out a comprehensive official document titled ‘Xinjiang Islam and Localization ─ Historical Matters Concerning Xinjiang’. Incidentally, one can read it even on the website of the Chinese embassy in Pakistan.
Here are some important affirmations it makes.
“Religion can exert an influence on culture in two ways: willing acceptance, and forced acceptance through cultural conflict or even religious wars. In the case of Xinjiang, Islam entered mainly through the latter. This caused serious damage to the cultures and arts of the various ethnic groups in Xinjiang created in earlier periods when Buddhism was popular in the region. As to the incoming Islamic culture, the ethnic cultures in Xinjiang both resisted and assimilated it in a selective manner, and adapted it to China’s realities.”
“In the late 9th century and early 10th century, the Kara-Khanid Khanate accepted Islam. It started a 40-year-long religious war in the mid-10th century against the Buddhist Kingdom of Khotan, conquered it in the early 11th century, and imposed Islam there, putting an end to the thousand-year history of Buddhism in that region.”
This point about conversions through jihad is further reinforced. “The introduction of Islam into Xinjiang was related to the emergence of the Arab Empire and the eastward expansion of Islam. The Uyghur conversion to Islam was not a voluntary choice made by the common people, but a result of religious wars and imposition by the ruling class, though this fact does not undermine our respect for the Muslims’ right to their beliefs.”
Such was the fury of jihad in Xinjiang, and such was the unbridled exultation over the destruction of Buddhist religion and heritage that, when the Turkic Kara-Khanid ruler Yusuf Kadir Khan of Kashgar conquered Khotan, Mahmud al-Kashgari, a writer, penned this poem:
We came down on them like a flood,
We went out among their cities,
We tore down the idol-temples,
We shat on the Buddha's head!
Such accounts are not an exception. Historiography and literature of that period in Xinjiang are replete with expressions of bigotry. Indeed, idol-breaking in Islamic history became synonymous with the breaking of Buddha’s idols. Hence, the Arabic word for a destroyer of idols is but-shikan, a destroyer of but, which is derived from Buddha.
Extremism, Terrorism and Separatism in Xinjiang
Today, the People’s Republic of China is one of the nations facing the threat of Islamist separatism in its Xinjiang, just as India is facing a similar threat in Kashmir. Uyghurs, one of the 56 ethnic groups in China, are mostly adherents of Islam. They form nearly half of Xinjiang’s 25 million population. They are the largest among several Muslim ethnic groups in the province, others being Kazak, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Uzbek and Hui. China has about 25 million Muslims. Hui Muslims, who are spread out in different parts of the country, number over 10 million. They have their own mosques and follow Islamic dietary laws, but mostly speak Chinese and have adopted names similar to those of their Han neighbours. The example of Hui Muslims shows how the localisation of Islam in China, over a period of several centuries, is already a fact of history.
In contrast, some Uyghur Muslims and their foreign backers claim Xinjiang does not belong to China and constitutes a separate nation called East Turkistan. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), founded in Pakistan by Hasan Mahsum, has the stated goal of establishing an Islamic state in Xinjiang, and eventually making it a part of the Islamic caliphate. The ETIM is designated by the United Nations as a terrorist organisation. ISIS in the past has recruited from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement/Turkistan Islamic Party to participate in jihad in different places.
Separatists in Xinjiang (as also in Kashmir) were emboldened after the defeat of the Soviet Union in neighbouring Afghanistan, which led to the rapid collapse of the communist regime in Moscow and the disintegration of the mighty USSR itself in 1991. Subsequently, in Xinjiang, as also in Kashmir, there was a sudden resurgence of Islamist ideology. Mosques were built in large numbers. A white paper issued by the Chinese government in 2018 stated that there are more mosques in China (35,000) than Buddhist temples (33,500).
Under the guise of religion, religious extremism called for a “holy war” against “Godless communists”. Uyghurs, whose cultural traditions and spiritual practices carried a strong stamp of syncretism and moderation due to their Buddhist past, were urged to abandon them as these were regarded as “anti-Islamic”. Women were forced to wear burqa. The concept of ‘Halal’ was sought to be generalised beyond food to other aspects of social life. This created friction between Muslims and the non-Muslim Han community, which is the majority ethnic group in China. Music and dance are inseparable from the culture of Uyghurs. But extremists tried to impose a ban by declaring them “unIslamic”. Parents were discouraged from sending their children to public school, and, instead, were told to send them to religious schools.
As a result of radicalisation, religiosity rose to irrational levels in society. Alimjan, my local Uyghur guide and interpreter, narrated a personal experience to illustrate this. “Once I had taken a group of tourists from Xinjiang to Turkey. I asked an elderly Muslim woman to carry the hotel address card with her when she was going out. ‘This will help you to find the hotel. Otherwise, you might get lost,’ I told her. She refused, saying, ‘No, I won’t. Allah will show me the way.’ She indeed lost her way, and we found her only after many hours of frantic search. I then told her, ‘Allah helps only those who help themselves.’”
In furtherance of their goal, separatists in Xinjiang committed a spate of terrorist acts, mainly targeting the Han community. On 25 February 1997, coinciding with the day of Deng Xiaoping's funeral in Beijing, a series of bombs exploded in buses in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. Nine people were killed. In August 2008, terrorists drove a truck into a group of policemen, killing 16 of them. In July 2009, riots erupted in Urumqi, killing 197 people, most of them Han residents of the city. In May 2014, two car bombings in Urumqi killed 43 people. At a coal mine in Aksu in September 2015, a terror attack resulted in 50 deaths.
Terrorists also struck in other parts of China, far away from Xinjiang. In 2013, five people died in a suicide attack in Beijing. In 2014, eight knife-wielding terrorists went on a killing spree at the main railway station in Kunming in Yunnan province, killing 31 people.
These are just a few of the scores of terrorist acts carried out by the separatists in Xinjiang between 1990 and 2016. Since 2017, there have been no incidents of terrorism.
India too has experienced such terrorist attacks ─ indeed, more numerous and far deadlier than the ones China has. India has all along maintained that terrorism cannot be justified or condoned by making a distinction between “bad” terrorists and “good” terrorists. We in India cannot therefore categorise terrorists in Xinjiang as “good” terrorists. Once we Indians recognize this truth, it helps us better understand why China has launched a systematic campaign for making Islam acquire local Chinese characteristics.
So how is China trying to reform Islam to make it exhibit Chinese characteristics? How is it dealing with religious radicalisation? What mistakes is it committing in this process? And is there something China can learn from the Indianisation of Islam?
‘United Like the Seeds of a Pomegranate’ ─ My Visit To Idgah Mosque in Kashgar
It was a pleasant summer morning in the ancient and exotic city of Kashgar, and I was at the historic Idgah Masjid. Built in 1468, it is the largest mosque in Xinjiang and receives over 10,000 worshippers for prayers every Friday. Sadly, in July 2014, Jume Tahir, the Uyghur Imam of this mosque, was stabbed to death by extremists soon after he had led morning prayers.
I was received by Abbas Mehmet, the current Uyghur Imam of the mosque. He took me to a smaller prayer hall behind a beautiful garden. The place impressed me with its cleanliness, simplicity, and tranquility.
Hanging on the wall in front of the Imam’s pulpit was a large, intricately woven carpet. “What is this?” I asked the Imam. “This carpet is gifted by the Xinjiang provincial committee of the Communist Party of China. You can see 56 pomegranate flowers in it. They signify the 56 ethnic communities in China, Uyghurs being one of them.”
“Why pomegranate flowers?” was my next question. “This is because our government calls upon all the ethnic groups to stick together like the seeds of a pomegranate and live harmoniously as one family.” He then added, “You can also see a three-flower design on the carpet. It conveys a triple message ─ ‘The majority Han community cannot live without minorities’; ‘Minority communities cannot live without the majority Han community’; and ‘The minority communities cannot live without each other’. When we preach in the mosque, we emphasise this message.”
Most of the criticism China attracts in the Western media is about its treatment of Uyghurs and their Islamic faith. Therefore, I asked him: “Does it mean the Communist Party of China interferes in the functioning of mosques, as is alleged by western countries and as is believed by many Muslims around the world?”
The Imam replied: “There is no contradiction between this message of the communist party and the Muslim faith. There are many passages in the Holy Quran that teach us to respect and tolerate others. Islam also teaches Muslims to be patriotic and love the nation they belong to. We belong to China, just as many other communities in Xinjiang also belong to China. We have to live together in peace because the first principle of Islam is peace. This is what our Prophet demands of us.”
He continued: “I have been to Mecca three times to perform Hajj. I know what Islam stands for. Islam also has no sanction for terrorism. Our religion clearly says that killing innocent people is a crime against God. Therefore, we teach this to our people and tell them to stay away from radicalism.”
In China, all places of worship are registered under relevant law, and, unlike in India, all the preachers in mosques, churches, and Buddhist temples are nominated by the government. Imam Abbas Mehmet was trained in the government-established Islamic Institute in Urumqi. “There is an entrance exam to study at this institute. Communist party cadres visit the mosques and our homes to ask us if we have any problems, and help us solve them.”
Xi Jinping’s Call for Localizing Islam
In July 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is also the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, called for the intensification of efforts to uphold the principle that Islam in China must be Chinese in orientation and all religions in the country should promote the national commitment to socialism. In other words, ‘Building Socialism with Chinese characteristics’, which is the primary goal of the CPC, necessitates ‘Building Islam with Chinese Characteristics’. It must be noted here that Beijing also pursues the policy of “Buddhism with Chinese characteristics” (which is already a reality) and “Christianity with Chinese characteristics”.
Accordingly, the government, acting through the China Islamic Association, has formulated comprehensive regulations for the Localization of Islam. These lay stress on deepening patriotic education with the message “Love Your Country and Love Your Religion”. Islamic training institutes are asked to thoroughly scrutinise religious texts (especially the Hadith, which contains many controversial messages), while maintaining Islam’s core beliefs and ritual systems. The purpose of this exercise is to prevent the use of scriptures for inciting violence and social disharmony and to build a “firewall of resistance” that keeps believers away from extremist thought.
Incidentally, Saudi Arabia has also undertaken an exercise in correcting wrong scriptural interpretations of the Holy Quran and the Hadith, so that extremist forces do not use them for radicalisation of Muslims. Pakistan, which too is a victim of extremism and terrorism in the name of Islam, has initiated a similar campaign for religious de-radicalisation, albeit half-heartedly and ineffectively.
The regulations also call for greater communication and cooperation with Central Asia and other neighboring countries on "de-radicalisation" efforts, so that China can “draw lessons from the experience and practices of foreign countries in preventing the infiltration of extremist thought”. Diplomats and scholars from Muslim countries are regularly invited to visit Xinjiang.
Imams are required to preach in Uyghur or Chinese language, highlighting Islamic values that are convergent with core socialist ideals ─ common prosperity, equality, justice, civility, harmony, rule of law, and friendliness towards all. “Backward and outdated customs should be abandoned,” the directive says. Mosques are asked to publicise Chinese Muslims' contributions to China’s development and to popularise the works of Chinese Muslim sages. Notably, and this has relevance for India, a call has been given to stop “foreign infiltration” through “illegal” organizations such as the 'Tablighi Jamat’ missionary group'.
Other areas in which “Arabisation” is sought to be curtailed are the architecture of mosques, religious rituals, and male and female attire. “The mistaken practice of some groups deliberately imitating foreign dress should be stopped.”
The regulations call for active support to local Islamic associations and mosques in their charitable and social service activities, such as the 'Ramadan Acts of Kindness'. They also call upon “each local Islamic association and mosque to play an active role in social and public services such as improving people's livelihood, contributing student aid, building infrastructure, and alleviating poverty.”
Localisation of Religions is a Universal Phenomenon
Anyone who reads these regulations without prejudice will find them unobjectionable. In fact, Indian, Pakistani, and other governments in South Asia would do well to emulate some of these so that Islam in our subcontinent can be further localised. None other than the great Urdu poet Allama Iqbal, whom many Pakistanis (wrongly) regard as a votary of the Partition Movement, had called for ridding Islam in India of the “stamp of Arab imperialism”.
After all, localisation of religions has happened throughout history and in all parts of the world. For example, Islam in Indonesia (the most populous Muslim country in the world) or in several African countries such Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal is very different from Islam in Arab countries. So is Christianity in Italy and South Africa, in America and Armenia, and in South Korea and Argentina. Within India, Hinduism displays immense social and geographical diversity ─ in the deities worshipped, rituals practised, languages used for preaching, festivals celebrated, the architecture of temples, and in dress and dietary habits.
In Xinjiang itself, even after Islam became the dominant religion, it continued to carry many influences of pre-Islamic local faiths and traditions. For example, orthodox Islam forbids the worship of anyone or anything other than Allah. Yet, Uyghurs, like most Muslims in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, still venerate Sufi Mazars.
Buddhism too has undergone localisation. Buddhism in Japan, Sri Lanka, and among neo-Buddhists in Europe and America are quite different. Almost since the time of its arrival in China, Buddhism has been localized, thereby transforming it from an Indian religion into a religion with Chinese characteristics.
As a result of such localisation, Islam has not ceased to be authentic Islam, nor have Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism become weaker and inauthentic versions of themselves. This being the case, why are Western countries making such a hue and cry about Localization of Islam in China?
The Chinese government must accept that there were some mistakes in trying to make Islam incorporate Chinese characteristics in Xinjiang. During the decade-long chaos of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), many mosques and other religious sites were destroyed. Religious beliefs are a highly sensitive and deeply personal matter for believers, especially Muslims. Therefore, if localization measures are mainly state-driven and fast-paced, they can alienate the people and prove counter-productive.
What also complicates this exercise is that the ruling Communist Party of China is officially atheist, and its members are not permitted to profess any religion.
Here China could learn a few useful lessons from the historical process of Indianisation of Islam in India and other parts of South Asia, including Pakistan. Indeed, so widespread was the influence of the Indianisation of Islam that it has changed the nature of Islam in Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia.
Even though this is an incomplete phenomenon, Islam in the past thousand-odd years in the Indian subcontinent has got significantly localised on account of its long interaction with Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism.
Similarly, non-Muslim social and cultural life was also influenced and enriched by many Islamic beliefs and practices. Highly venerated saints, gurus, pirs, and poets of the Bhakti, Sufi, and revolutionary traditions ─ such as Guru Nanak, Kabir, Lal Dedh Nooruddin Noorani (also known as Nund Rishi), Sankar Dev, Shishunal Sharif and Kazi Nazrul Islam ─ contributed immensely to inter-religious harmony. Furthermore, Mahatma Gandhi, the principal leader of India’s epic freedom struggle, strove to build it on the solid foundation of Hindu-Muslim unity. In short, the Indianisation of Islam has been a society-driven, and not a state-driven, project.
The tragic partition of India, growing Islamisation in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other parts of South Asia, and the current rise of aggressive Hindutva in India ─ have severely impeded the historical process of Indianisation of Islam. Nevertheless, a study of the Indian experience would greatly benefit China in its efforts to localize Islam.
Last words. The common thread of this three-part article on my recent visit to Xinjiang is a fervent wish that India and China come together, not in mutually destructive rivalry but in mutually beneficial cooperation, to transform the destiny of a large part of Asia where our two civilisations have marvellously interacted in the past. We can jointly create a bright future for Asia and the world that the likes of Kumarajiva, Xuan Zang, Tagore, and Gandhi had dreamt of.
(The writer, who served as an aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is the founder of the ‘Forum for a New South Asia – Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation’. He tweets @SudheenKulkarni and welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)