Every Friday, the Nanguan Grand Mosque springs to life as Chinese Hui Muslims gather for the most important prayer of the week.
Communism and Islam collide in China’s Muslim heartland
Just after midday, men in white prayer caps file into the mosque In Yinchuan, capital of their official heartland of Ningxia in northwest China. They disappear behind a gate adorned with gold Islamic motifs and three green domes, each topped with a silver crescent moon that gleams in the sun.
This was one of the country’s first Middle Eastern-style mosques, built in 1981 to replace a Chinese-style one that had fallen victim to the Cultural Revolution – a decade of mayhem from 1966 that saw thousands of temples, churches, mosques and monasteries defaced or destroyed across the country.
But now, its onion-shaped domes, elaborate motifs and Arabic script could be next in the crosshairs of a government campaign to rid the Ningxia Hui autonomous region of what it sees as a worrying trend of Islamization and Arabization, as the ruling Communist Party tries to “Sinicize religion.”
Throughout Ningxia, Islamic decor and Arabic signs are being taken off the streets. Driving south from Yinchuan along the dusty plains of the Yellow River, the roadside is now littered with onion domes – green, gold and white – freshly removed from market buildings, hotels and parks.
As the demolition and removals gather pace in Ningxia, there is growing unease among its ethnic minority Hui communities, who for decades have been largely left in peace to practice their faith. Descended from Arab and Central Asian Silk Road traders, there are more than 10 million Hui in China.
Most of them speak the national language of Mandarin, live in peace with the majority Han population, and even look much the same as them – apart from the white caps and headscarves worn by the more traditional Hui.
But as the government deepens its crackdown on Uygurs – another mostly Muslim group living in the western frontier of Xinjiang – as part of a heavy-handed fight against terrorism and Islamic extremism, the Hui in Ningxia are now also being targeted.
Calls to prayer are now banned in Yinchuan on the grounds of noise pollution – Nanguan has replaced its melodious call with a piercing alarm. Books on Islam and copies of the Koran have been taken off the shelves in souvenir shops. Some mosques have meanwhile been ordered to cancel public Arabic classes and a number of private Arabic schools have been told to shut down, either temporarily for “rectification” or for good.
The clampdown is part of a push to “Sinicize religion” – a policy introduced by President Xi Jinping in 2015 to bring religions into line with Chinese culture and the absolute authority of the party.
“[We] should adhere to the direction of Sinicizing religion in our country, and actively guide religion to adapt to a socialist society,” he said in a report to the party congress last autumn.
For Islam, that translates into making Muslims practice their faith in a more Chinese way – or at least in a more Chinese place.
In March, the head of the state-run China Islamic Association called for Chinese Muslims to guard against creeping Islamization, criticizing some mosques for “blindly imitating the construction style of foreign models.” “Religious rites, culture and buildings should all reflect Chinese characteristics, style and manner,” Yang Faming told the parliament’s advisory body in Beijing.
Imams and sources close to the government in Ningxia said new Arab-style mosques with large onion domes had been banned.
That meant a change of plan for one mosque in the west of Yinchuan. The mosque, with its traditional Chinese gateway and weathered green domes, is in the way of a road-widening project so it has to be rebuilt on an adjoining lot. Originally it was to be a Middle Eastern-style compound, with a prayer hall topped by a big white dome and flanked by two imposing minarets. People close to the mosque said the blueprint alone cost US$37,700.
But it all went down the drain when the city’s urban planning bureau rejected the design last year – no more Arab-style mosques could be approved, they were told, and it would have to be built in a traditional Chinese style.
Ransacked and destroyed
One of the big reasons for the original change in style is that many of the older mosques from the Qing, Ming and earlier dynasties, which looked like traditional Chinese temples, had to be rebuilt after they were ransacked and destroyed during the Cultural Revolution set off by Mao Zedong.
Compared with the traditional wooden structures, “Arab style” mosques made from reinforced concrete are a lot quicker and cheaper to build and can accommodate more people, adding to their popularity, Hui scholars said.
But for some, its design is not important.
“It doesn’t really matter if the mosque is in Arab or Chinese style, as long as we’re allowed a place to pray and worship,” said a Hui man among a small crowd gathered for evening prayer.
The government’s tighter grip on religious practice is a bigger worry and has caused far more disaffection, particularly the ban on party members visiting Mecca. Known as the Hajj, it is one of the five pillars of Islam and all Muslims are expected to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lives if they are physically and financially able to do so.
“I told them I would quit the party after I retire [to get around the Mecca ban], but they said that wouldn’t work,” said one party member in the crowd.
“There is certainly a sense among [some Chinese Muslims] that the way you ought to build a mosque should mirror the styles of mosques that are being built in Saudi Arabia – that’s the truer, more real, more accurate version,” said David Stroup, an expert on Hui Muslims at the University of Oklahoma, citing conversations with Hui during his research in China. “In a contemporary sense, it is also a way to connect with the larger Islamic world.”
That connection is exactly what Beijing is worried about. Alarmed by jihadist terror attacks in Europe and the spread of Islamic State militants from the Middle East to other parts of the world, China is watching anxiously for any sign of extremist influence among its population of 23 million Muslims – mainly Hui and Uygurs.
In Xinjiang province, its answer was a sweeping crackdown on religious practice that has turned the restive region into what critics say is a “massive police state,” with thousands of Uygurs deemed prone to extremist influence detained in “re-education camps.”
As the authorities tighten their grip in Ningxia, Hui scholars are concerned that the region could soon be subject to the same repressive measures as Xinjiang. Some fear Beijing could be using Ningxia as a testing ground for its Xinjiang policies before they are rolled out elsewhere.
Will mosques be next?
But Ningxia has long been portrayed as a model of “ethnic unity” by the government, a success story where the Hui and Han live a peaceful coexistence. That is why many Hui – who make up about a third of the region’s 6.3 million population – are now wondering why they have been targeted.
After the Sunday noon prayer at an “Arab style” mosque in Yinchuan, one worshipper raised his concerns with the imam.
Dressed in a white turban and robes, the imam said government officials had consulted him on the feasibility of changing the style of some existing mosques. He told the man that he was sure the policy would only apply to new mosques being built.
“There is no way the party will go after the [existing] mosques ... We Muslims have always loved the country – look at our red flag,” he said, pointing at a Chinese flag fluttering from a pole between the front gate and the prayer hall, an official requirement increasingly seen in mosques in China.
But the man was unconvinced. In the past week, photos and videos of domes being taken down from two mosques had been circulating among Hui on chat groups.
Local newspaper the Guyuan Daily reported that a municipal government meeting was held last month on the progress of a “rectification campaign” against “Arabization, Islamization and pan-Halal” tendencies. “We should continue to reduce the number of mosques, ban unregistered religious sites, halt the progress of new mosques that are being built and put a stop to newly approved mosques,” the authorities concluded, adding that architectural styles would be “carefully classified and rectified.”
With the holy fasting month of Ramadan starting on Tuesday, there is a sense of foreboding hanging over Ningxia.
“This was taken during Ramadan five years ago,” a woman working in Nanguan mosque’s the mosque’s exhibition room said, pointing to a framed photograph of a sea of white prayer caps, as hundreds of Hui spill out of the courtyard and onto the street outside. “But who knows what Ramadan will be like in the future?”