In the past few years, Islamophobia or anti-Islamic rhetoric, especially in the western world, has tended to become a global discourse along with the Middle Eastern and Islamic world. In China, which has more than 23 million Muslim population according to official figures, and several times more than that according to unofficial ones, such tendencies have begun to find their place.
One of the most important social issues of the Chinese agenda over the past two weeks was the anti-Islamic rhetoric and the controversial debate over the Weibo, a micro-blogging site known as China’s Twitter, with more than 300 million active users. First of all, we need to open a separate parenthesis for the Weibo micro blog platform. In China, where the media have not been able to fully develop in the private sector, social media, which the people mostly attend, have a very important and distinct place in order to find out how busy the social agenda is. Among them, Weibo is an instrument where people can reflect their opinions, thoughts and criticisms more comfortably and freely than other platforms.
The recent debate in China on anti-Islamic rhetoric is based on the proposal of the “Halal Food Law”, which was originally drafted in 2002. For the first time in 2002, the Chinese State Council authorized the Chinese Ethnic Affairs Commission to conduct its “Halal Food Act”. The draft law shaped by the Commission in 2006 was finalized in 2007 with the assessments of states and institutes throughout the country. The draft, which is long waiting for legislation, entered the Chinese agenda again in 2015, when Ma Xiangyou, a Muslim member of the Chinese National People’s Assembly, presented the idea that the draft should be enacted as soon as possible. In 2016, the Muslim member of the Chinese National Political Committee, Ma Guoquan, sparked discussions by bringing the bill proposals back on parliamentary talks. In March 2016, following the recent discussions, the Chinese State Council removed the “Halal Food Law” from the legislative work and put it in the position of a research project.
In the debates around the “Halal Food Act”, among the opposing sides of argument, supporters of the law indicates that the proposed law is in favor of Chinese constitution in terms of the fundamental rights of Muslim minorities in China. Those who advocate the opposition viewpoints that the halal food law will make the Islamic law infiltrate into the Chinese constitution, that the Chinese constitution is superior to the Islamic law and that the addition of the law will destroy the inclusiveness of the Chinese constitution.
Initially, the discussions took place in the context of the above background, but the issue emerged into an anti-Islamic structure from the law of halal food. Of course, during the time when all these developments are taking place, the concrete events happened between Chinese Muslims and Hans (Chinese) that cause the dimension of argument to shift in a different direction. For instance, in 2015, Chinese Muslims in Xining, Qinghai province, were found non-halal food such as pork in a service car that belong to a halal certified pastry shop and heavily damaged it. In the same year, Muslims in Xian city protested the sale of alcoholic beverages in halal restaurants by performing street walks. Even if they are not reflected in the media, this kind of events, especially events that related to mosque construction or demolition, have frequently happened in China over the past few years.
At the last point, Islam and Muslims, who existed in China for more than 1000 years, are seen as the “fifth arm” activities that constitute a hidden danger to the national security of China. Main reason that gives this idea to the Chinese people is that the massive misinterpretation that binds all Muslims and Islam religion and radical actions of so-called Muslims together. Another factor is the negative effect of Chinese nationalism on the controversial issue. In China where usually “Internet Nationalism” shape mainstream topics, anti-Islam campaigns on social media are directly affecting the negative attitude of the people of the country to Islam and Muslims. These and other issues that cause the people’s intense reactions lead Chinese decision-makers to take tougher and sharper decisions after a certain level.
In this process, which started with halal food law, some legal demands of Chinese Muslims are now seen as the initial stage of radicalization in the state, and government tend to combat against this situation with different policies. On December 24, 2016, the statements made by Li Jianhua, Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party of China’s Ningxia Muslim Autonomous Region, on the topic were quite noteworthy. The party secretary reported that Chinese Muslims had a tendency to ‘Arabization’ in areas where they lived broadly and that foreign Islamic movements were trying to infiltrate the Chinese borders,thus subject evolved into political matter rather than religious one. As a matter of fact, he argued that the removal of the halal certificate except animal meat and oil, the removal of Arabic lessons at the primary school level in areas where Chinese Muslims live intensely, also stated that Arabic should not be a language of Chinese Muslims. In line with these developments, China’s first Halal Industry Bureau was closed down in the Ningxia region, and the annual meeting of the Muslim Chinese Businessmen held in the same region was decided not to be held from 2017 onwards. Another example, the Arabic language was removed from services such as street signs, which recently have three languages (Chinese, English and Arabic) in the Ningxia region.
Some terrorist organizations involving separatist activities in territory were in a struggle with China for a long time. Increasing radicalistic trends in the Middle East and the abilities of terrorist organizations such as acquiring sympathizers and increased capacity for terrorist activities overseas have made China more unsettled over the last few years, and lead them to taking sharp measures. With a steady and growing economic growth of more than 30 years, China is working hard to ensure that radical groups and their terrorist activities do not break this stability, or the unity of the country. It is correct to think that the new “Anti-Terrorism Act” that entered into force in 2015 is relevant to this issue as it is content.
But there are other deductions to be drawn from anti-Islamic rhetoric on social media. First of all, in China, where the majority of people are unbelievers, the effort of putting the administration’s religious policy into its own ideological patterns is counterproductive by believers. Another issue is that how China should pursue a secularism policy in the social field. In the present situation, China’s secularism policy is more inclined towards exclusivist secularism. Especially in the region where Chinese Muslims live intensively, it would be a more appropriate method to solve the problems by bringing the passive secularism model to the forefront. Education level of Chinese Muslims, different groupings within Muslim community and even some radical tendencies in the Muslims are the other side of the problem.
It is uncertain that how recent days’ anti-Islamic campaign and rhetoric conducted via social media will change the situation in future. But China’s religious policy, secular practices and Chinese Muslims’ reactions to these practices will be important elements to the course of events. It can be seen as a good development that the Chinese state has taken a positive step towards this controversy over the past few days as that it wants to take it to more controllable levels. Also in the pro-government daily Global Times, Arab world expert Prof. Ding Long’s article entitled ‘Anti-Islamic discourse breaking our national unity’ was a positive step in the name of softening the debate.