China's tiny Muslim community provokes giant anti-Islam backlash

Hannah Gardner
Special for USA TODAY
Published 6:30 a.m. ET Sept. 8, 2017

BEIJING — The flyer showed a restaurant takeout courier carrying two bags — one labeled "halal" for food prepared for Muslims and the other marked "majority food."

In the United States, the wording on the second bag could spark controversy as being discriminatory. In China, it's the first bag. 

A backlash against Islam is on the rise in this officially atheist country, and the lightning rod is halal.

One of China’s biggest restaurant delivery companies, Meituan Takeaway, launched a halal service in July to attract more of China's 23 million Muslims.

By pressing a small green button marked with a mosque on the Meitaun smartphone app, customers can request that halal dishes be kept separate from orders containing pork or alcohol, which are banned under Islamic law.

“We have a halal box and non-halal box, so you don’t need to worry,” the company's ad said.

The move has outraged members of China’s dominant ethnic group, the Han. “Why should Muslims get special treatment,” one asked anonymously online. “Aren’t we an atheist country?”

Many Han called for a boycott, and Meituan withdrew the service. The Han comprise 92% of China’s 1.38 billion population vs. less than 2% who are Muslims.

“Concerns about halal food have become an outlet for irrational fears and concerns about Muslims and the perceived growing influence of Islam in China,” said James Leibold, a professor of Chinese politics at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.

China’s Muslims generally are either Turkic-speaking Uighurs, who live in the autonomous and restive northwest region of Xinjiang, or Hui, who share the Han's ethnicity. Some Uighurs want independence from China, while the Hui are well integrated into Chinese society.

 

The communist central government, which censors any online comments it dislikes, has allowed the anti-Muslim hate speech to remain posted.

“It seems like it is turning a blind eye, which in China can only be interpreted as a deliberate refusal to interfere or restrict,” said Dru Gladney, an expert on Chinese Muslims at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.

The halal debate heated up in 2016, when the government said it might regulate the Muslim food industry. Proponents said it would help Muslim and non-Muslims by establishing guidelines for producing and labeling halal food.

Halal food is a growing industry in China, where companies, often run by Han Chinese, export to neighboring majority-Muslim countries such as Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Some oppose tolerance of halal food as causing division in Chinese society. “This will strengthen the identity of Muslim people and make the gap between Muslims (and) non-Muslims ever larger,” Xi Wuyi, a professor of Marxism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, wrote on Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter.

Many people who share that view and who identify themselves as mu hei — “Islamic haters” — campaign online against the “Islamificiation” of China with examples to prove their case.

In recent months, photos from airline flights where all the meals were labeled halal have caused an uproar, as have images of tissues, water and bread bearing halal logos.

Many say they don’t want symbols like that on their products, because they aren’t Muslim or religious. And some believe halal products fund Muslim terrorist groups. “You might as well buy bullets for the Islamic State,” someone going by the name Spicy Bean posted on Weibo.

Some experts say Islamophobia has been on the rise since 2009, when ethnic rioters killed 190 mainly Han people in Xinjiang’s provincial capital, Urmuqi.

The rise of the Islamic State, the global migrant crisis and President Trump's travel ban against certain majority-Muslim nations also has fueled anti-Islam attitudes and emboldened the mu hei.

“Suddenly it’s OK to be openly xenophobic,” said Ma Tianjie, a writer on Chinese public opinion.

Some Chinese Muslims who explained their beliefs and practices online only drew more condemnation. “We don’t want your evil cult,” wrote one person on the Hijab Channel, a social media account that tracks the lives of three Muslim girls in the southwestern city of Kunming.

At the heart of the problem is that most Han know nothing about Islam and have little contact with Muslims. Until recently all schools promoted atheism, and Islam is seen as foreign faith — even though it arrived in China in the seventh century.

Most people's impressions about Muslims come from the news and government reports about its massive security crackdown in Xinjiang against rebellious Uighurs.

In the past year, the government has placed 30,000 more security personnel on the streets in cities across the region and forced Uighurs to attend weekly flag-raising ceremonies where they swear loyalty to the Chinese state.

China has banned Uighur men from growing beards, women from wearing veils and children from attending mosques. It also has forced Uighurs to hand in their passports and return home from studying overseas.

Last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping even warned assimilated Hui Muslims to “uphold the law” and “promote social harmony.” He spoke about the need for non-Chinese religions to adopt “Chinese characteristics.”

"China’s political culture becomes more authoritarian under Xi Jinping," Australian professor Liebold said. "It is also becoming a more intolerant society, one with higher levels of mistrust and social anxiety and a reduced capacity to accept diversity and pluralism."

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