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Islamophobia and China

While their manifestations are varied, religious intolerance and religious violence remain major problems in the world today. Within our part of the world, Hindus in India have become increasingly intolerant of their religious minorities, especially Muslims. Pakistan has its own share of religious and sectarian intolerance. Sinhalese Buddhists have also become aggressive in Sri Lanka, and the recent terrorist attack in the country will probably make matters worse.

While one may not think of China, with its marvellous economic growth led by a strong government, as a place which could be susceptible to religious intolerance, recent evidence indicates that Chinese populace is not immune to this malice either. China has, of course, come a long way over the past couple of decades in terms of allowing religious freedom. However, analysts of Chinese social media have noted the disturbing growth of Islamophobia in the country. Such trends are significant given the rise of social media in China, which has profoundly affected how people acquire information, and express their opinions. While still restricted, social media trends do provide significant insight into what the public is thinking on issues which are not considered ‘sensitive’ topics by the Chinese state.

Consider, for instance, how mainstream coverage of the recent New Zealand attacks posted on Chinese social media (such as Weibo which has nearly 450 million users) was barraged with anti-Muslim comments. Hateful comments, describing Muslims as “cancer cells” for example, aren’t representative of the Chinese populace’s views in its entirety of course, many social users also posted rebuttals to these hateful assertions. Yet, many of the “most-liked” comments on several Chinese sites contained similar vitriol.

Al Jazeera has recently pointed out how the Christchurch shooting is not the only incident which reveals the prevalence of Islamophobia in Chinese cyberspace. Early last year, a Chinese actress of Kazakh descent posted on Weibo that she didn’t celebrate the lunar New Year and was bombarded with threats, which prompted her to leave the social website altogether.

The Chinese censorship mechanism has shown nowhere some level of scrutiny towards this online hate speech, which in part shows how the Chinese government does not consider anti-Muslim sentiments to be a serious problem.

Yet, Islamophobia in China is not confined to social media, of course. There are 20 million Muslims in China. Besides Uighur Muslims, who continue facing serious repression in Xinjiang, Hui and other Chinese Muslims, who are more integrated in China, are now also feeling some discomfort. Several Chinese provinces have removed halal food standards, a move heralded by government officials as fighting an alleged ‘pan-halal’ trend in the country.

China’s Foreign Ministry recently defended actions of mass detention of Muslims Uighurs by stating that such actions are in line with the international community’s attempts to combat terrorism and prevent it from spreading. Other Chinese officials have also issued problematic statements claiming that detention is meant to re-educate and “cure” Uighurs, and to turn them into “normal people”.

Viewing Islam as the cause of “extremism” is not exclusive to China, of course. Post-9/11, many other countries view Islamic identity with increasing suspicion and stigmatisation, aiming to surveil and curb religious expression in the attempt to combat ‘extremism’.

As China now enters the second phase of its Belt and Road initiative, for which it is partnering with several Muslim countries, one hopes that its policymakers will begin acknowledging this problem and aim to assess and address its underlying causes.

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