[Note: The following is a Tea Leaf Nation op-ed, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of the editors.]
Ever since the 2009 Urumqi riots, when ethnic tension between Uyghurs and Han Chinese boiled over in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province, Han-Uyghur relations has been an increasingly hot topic. Former journalist and current head of the editorial department of the Hong Kong-based magazine Phoenix Weekly, Huang Zhangjin, frequently comments on Xinjiang news. A Han Chinese who has lived in Xinjiang since birth, Huang was also formerly the editor of the online forum Uighur Online. While Huang’s understanding of the issues is more nuanced than most, his prejudice against Islam, the traditional religion of Uyghurs since the late Medieval times, has resulted in an inability accurately to explain the issues facing the residents of the ethnically diverse western province.
In two of his articles, Huang calls attention to several serious problems that concern the region and Uyghurs, the largest ethnic group in that region. In the first, Xinjiang’s Uyghur Society Facing a Serious Crisis, published in the Hong Kong magazine iSunaffairs last year, he addresses an incident in which Uyghur street vendors became embroiled in a confrontation with Han Chinese customers, resulting in the damage of some of the sweet cakes they were selling. In the aftermath, police compensated the vendors an enormous sum of money, presumably to prevent the incident from becoming the catalyst for further violence. Huang published the second article, Xinjiang at a Crossroads, on his blog this July, addressing the role of Islam in the issues facing the Uyghur population; the article has since attracted thousands of readers.
In his first article, Huang points out that both the Uyghurs and the Yi minority彝族 of Sichuan province have been experiencing trouble transitioning from their “traditional society” to Han-dominated “modern society” due to employment discrimination and cultural differences. He also expresses worry that lenient “ethnic policies” and the special treatment of Uyghurs that exonerate them from crimes such as theft have led to the stereotyping of Uyghurs as thieves.
Huang also advises readers to pay more attention to the real issues, such as high rates of HIV among Uyghurs, rather than issues often touted by China’s state-run media, such as the “East Turkistan” separatist movement. In a “traditional society,” he argues, the imams are the figures that provide moral guidance for Uyghurs, and the recent decline in their authority has contributed to some of the societal problems Uyghurs currently face.
In Huang’s second article, Xinjiang at a Crossroads, he mischaracterizes the relationship between social problems and religious fundamentalism. While the Chinese government focuses solely on improving their economic situation, Huang believes that they should also promote secularization.
Huang argues that Chinese authorities should pay more attention to social issues in Uyghur society and promote more cultural productions that speak to Uyghur-related issues. He understands that violence and discontent among ethnic minorities has many roots, such as high unemployment among young Uyghurs, and he questions many negative stereotypes of Uyghurs, most of which relate to their social status, such as a lack of education and high unemployment. But while Huang argues against these stereotypes, he also stereotypes some of them as violent Islamists. In order to make his point, he portrays Islam as a religion of uneducated, rural people who are out of touch with the secular, urban elite.
Huang accurately outlines the historical origins of Islamic fundamentalism, but shows a superficial understanding of the role of Islam in Uyghur society. Uyghurs seem to be more “religious” in his eyes, because they go to mosques and wear veils. His article does not note that most Uyghurs in Xinjiang are Sunni Muslims or followers of Sufi mystics. Furthermore, Huang equates religious conservatism with religious violence. He argued that the 1997 Ghulja (Yining) Incident was due to the rapid rise of Islam in that region, even though the government’s anti-crime movement targeting religious leaders provoked the protest. He also states that the Arabic word “talib” is the same word as “Taliban,” and thus that Uyghurs in Xinjiang respect the Taliban. Yet talib more commonly means “student of Islam” in Xinjiang as well as other Muslim communities. While “talib” and “Taliban” do share the same linguistic root, the conflation of the two is inaccurate and misleading.
Finally, Huang also associates the act of wearing a headscarf* with fundamentalism and backwardness. “Even though officially people ban women from wearing headscarves (at school), everyone still wears a headscarf after they leave school. Teachers who have the responsibility to ask students to take them off are become dejected [in correcting them],” he writes. Wearing the headscarf sometimes serves as a vessel of patriarchy and conservative values, but it also can be a form of unique cultural identity. Organizations such as Muslim Women Against Femen argue that refusing to allow women to wear clothing that expresses their religious belief is another way that organizations strip women of the freedom to choose.
Like staunch French secularists who do not understand the nuances of hijab, Huang seems to be only concerned with how to decrease the number of women who wear the headscarf. He cautions that wearing the headscarf has become a fad and is due to social pressure, and that one day every woman on the streets of Xinjiang may wear one. He suggests that this represents religious fundamentalism taking over Xinjiang.
Western conceptions of modernity are often based on similarly problematic assumptions. Huang’s promotion of the secular as “modern” is problematic: by creating a false binary of religious and enlightened, backward and developed, Huang’s framework does not allow for the possibility that Uyghurs might want to move into the future without abandoning their traditions and values. Acknowledging the issues facing Uyghur society and pushing for change is good, but it is not enough: for true change to occur, acceptance and understanding must occur alongside political and economic development.
* The original version of this article refers to the practice with the general term “veiling” — the religious dress worn by most Uighur women are more accurately described as a headscarf, which should not be confused with more conservative forms of hijab, such as niqab or burqa.