China's campaign to redesign 'Arabic-style mosques' threatens Muslim identity
Controversy surrounding the Najiaying Mosque was met with confrontation in Nagu - a small town in the mountains of southwestern China - following plans to revamp the Islamic designs.
The incident highlights the Chinese Communist Party's campaign to exert control over religion through the targeting of lesser-known groups like the Hui ethnic minority, a report by The New York Times said on Thursday.
While the Hui have historically assimilated well with the majority Han population, the party has closed, demolished, or redesigned mosques in Hui enclaves, considering Arabic architectural features as "unwanted" foreign influence.
The mosques in Nagu and the nearby town of Shadian hold cultural significance and are among the last major ones with traditional Arabic-style architecture in China.
The government's plans to remove the domes and reshape the minarets in a more "Chinese" style sparked resistance from the locals in Nagu.
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They see the proposed changes as an infringement on their freedom and an attempt to erase their cultural identity.
"These mosques symbolize that the Chinese government accepted that they were wrong during the Cultural Revolution," Ruslan Yusupov, a scholar of China and Islam at Harvard University, told NYT.
The Shadian mosque in particular, he said, serves as a reminder "both about violence but also about state-sponsored recovery".
China's relationship with Islam has fluctuated between conflict and coexistence. Yunnan Province, where Nagu and Shadian are located, is ethnically diverse, and the Hui people have lived there for centuries.
However, the government has increasingly imposed restrictions on Islam, especially after a 2014 attack attributed to Uighur separatists.
Officials have promoted the Sinicization campaign to remove Arabic features, which has caused concerns among Hui residents that their way of life and religious practices are under threat.
"The first step is exterior renovations," a local woman in her 30s told NYT. "The second step will be telling you to erase the Arabic script that we have on every home."
Li Heng, an official from the local bureau of ethnic and religious affairs, "the Quran came from Saudi Arabia, but after arriving in China, it must adapt".
“When our imams give sermons, they must integrate the core socialist values the government is promoting,” he said. "Patriotism is the highest form of religious belief."
Climate of fear
Despite the recent clashes at the Najiaying Mosque and the residents' resistance, the authorities remain determined to proceed with the remodelling plans.
Islamophobic comments on Chinese social media platforms have surged and the authorities have issued notices denouncing the protest and promising a severe crackdown.
The tension and security measures created a climate of fear and surveillance, with plainclothes police officers monitoring and restricting access to the mosque.
The Hui residents of Nagu express concerns that compromising on the mosque's architecture could lead to further encroachments on their freedoms and cultural identity.
They fear that their rights to practice and pass on their religion to future generations may be undermined.
The clash in Nagu serves as a stark example of the challenges faced by religious minorities in China and the potential consequences of the government's campaign to control and reshape religious practices.