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Monday, 30 April, 2001, 14:49 GMT 15:49 UK
China's Islamic concerns
The old mosques in Xian City in  central China
Many old mosques use Chinese architectural elements
By BBC Monitoring's Charis Dunn-Chan

Walk into the old mosques in China's heartland and you will find no minaret.

Respect for the emperor meant that China's Muslims heard their call to prayer from a small one-storey pavilion built in Chinese decorative style. The height of the minaret could not challenge the roof-line of the emperor's central palace.

Yet in the Central Asian reaches of the Chinese empire, where control from the centre has ebbed and flowed for more than 1,000 years, high Middle Eastern style minarets are everywhere.

A young Muslim boy sits outside a mosque
The government wants a "correct" interpretation of Islam
This architectural detail is important because it illustrates how China's Muslims seem to have accommodated their faith, and its outer manifestations, according to geographical proximity to the centre of state power.

The People's Republic of China today covers a territory that approximates the Chinese empire at near its greatest historical extent.

No traditional allegiance

China's Communist rulers have captured lands which previous dynasties have only held intermittently. Beijing rules many Muslims whose ancestors owed no traditional allegiance to Beijing.

In modern China there are 18 million followers of Islam scattered among 10 ethnic groups.

Ethnic separatist elements comprise the most menacing criminal groups in Xinjiang

Xinjiang party chairman
The Muslims of the traditional Chinese heartland are called the Hui and are often indistinguishable from their Han Chinese neighbours.

The Hui cause little anxiety to China's modern rulers. They have intermarried with non-Muslims, lost many of their customs and are frequently secular in their approach.

Ethnic separatism

It is the Muslim population of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region which exercises the minds of the Chinese leadership. Recent years have seen the mobilisation of Islam in the cause of their ethnic separatist struggle.

Map showing Xinjiang province
The Uighurs are a Turkic people who have their own language and distinct Islamic culture. Uighur separatists lay claim to the revival of a short-lived earlier political entity of Eastern Turkestan.

The western Uighur region of Xinjiang is rich in minerals, oil and gas - resources lacking in the Chinese heartland and essential for China's growth and stability.

Beijing has no interest in fostering greater self determination for its Uighur citizens.

Interpreting the Koran

This April, the government set up a China Islamic Association which was described as aiming to "help the spread of the Koran in China and oppose religious extremism".

The association, according to the China Daily, is to be run by 16 Islamic religious leaders who are charged with making "a correct and authoritative interpretation" of Islamic creed and canon.

The authorities are woried about the spread of separatism
Regonal leaders vow to "strike hard" against extremism
It will compile and spread inspirational speeches and help imams improve themselves, the paper said.

The committee of imams will also vet sermons made by clerics around the country.

This latter function is probably the key job as far as the central government is concerned. It is worried that devout, anti-secular clerics are using their sermons to spread sedition.

'Strike hard'

This moves comes at a time when Xinjiang is launching the latest security crackdown, known as "strike hard".

Xinjiang regional leaders have been open in their avowal to use it as a way of tackling religious extremism.

Xinjiang party chairman, Abulahat Abdurixit, said at a regional conference on public order work in early April that "ethnic separatist elements comprise the most prominent underworld and the most menacing criminal groups in Xinjiang".

The regional daily, Xinjiang Ribao, quoted Abdurixit as saying that although ethnic separatist elements are small in number, they have caused bombing and terrorist incidents for more than 10 years.

The decision to let politically trusted imams vet sermons and use Islam itself to combat ethnic separatism is the soft side of China's move in the struggle.

A hearts and minds campaign in Xinjiang is likely to fall on stony ground. Central Asia's Muslims never did build their mosques and minarets in Chinese style.

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See also:

26 Oct 00 | Asia-Pacific
Uighur leader dies in Chinese custody
29 May 00 | Asia-Pacific
China clampdown on Muslim region
11 Mar 00 | Asia-Pacific
Millionaire jailed in China
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