The grand mosque in the isolated Chinese city of Khotan symbolizes the Communist country’s overt efforts to contain Islam (as well as most other religions), but it does so with greater force now as the Chinese government fears terrorism connected to Islam. I returned this weekend from Beijing to find a story in the New York Times about how concerns over restive Muslim populations are provoking the worst the efforts by official China to squelch freedom of religion. China has seen a recent spate of attacks, including one in August that left at least 22 security officers and one civilian dead.
If there is one thing we have learned since 9/11, however, is that the unintended consequences of confronting religion can be worse than what we seek to avoid in the first place.
The Times story describes how Chinese government officials dictate that the imam’s sermon at the Khotan mosque is limited to a half-hour, that prayer in public areas outside the mosque is strictly forbidden, and that residents of Khotan are not allowed to worship at mosques outside of the town.
Other edicts permit only the use of official versions of the Koran and imams may not teach the Koran in private. Students and government workers are compelled to eat during the fasting period of Ramadan, which ran from September to early October, and only government-run hajj tours are sanctioned. Moreover, government workers are not permitted to practice Islam.
In an effort to control what the Chinese government calls the “three forces” of separatism, terrorism and religious extremism, such harsh restrictions on Islam pose an equal if not greater risk of radicalizing this Chinese population.
According to the Chinese government and the Times report, there are 24,000 mosques and 29,000 religious leaders in Xinjiang, with concentrations among towns in the south like Kashgar, Yarkand and Khotan.