The “Ground Zero Mosque”: The View from China

I spent about an hour yesterday at China’s biggest mosque, which is located not in Beijing or Urumuqi, but in Xi’an, the hub of Shaanxi province and the gateway to the West.  I had been thinking over in my amateur way a few issues relating to Islam recently and, after gathering in the preparation for a call to prayer near one side of the mosque whose wall was, like so many other locations in Xi’an, partially smashed in the process of reconstruction, I thought it might be good to share this op-ed here.  If by chance it appears in print in a modified form, I’ll be sure to post the information. I was fortunate to get some feedback on an earlier version of this piece from Chuck Kraus, a young Xinjiang expert/China hand at George Washington University.  The New York Times, in the meanwhile, has a new blog post up about global views of the same debate, a post which includes some decent links to new animated videos from Taiwan about Islamophobia in the U.S.

The “Ground Zero Mosque”: The View from China

The recent furor over the proposal of a mosque and Muslim community center two blocks from the site of the 9/11 attacks in New York has attracted global attention, but few commentators seem to understand the potential potency of the issue in our relationship with China.  Like the United States and our European partners, China continues to deal with questions about the relation of Islam to the body politic and the proper role of that religion in public life.  In the wake of an uprising in Xinjiang, the Muslim region of China’s northwest among angry Uighurs last July, in China the answer has become, simply, repression towards and oversight of Muslims.  The Chinese government absolutely regulates the construction of new mosques.  The Uighur umma (religious community) is beholden to the edicts of Han-ethnicity bureaucrats from Beijing.  Uighur students and government officials are even not allowed to worship in mosques.

This is not a model which the United States should seek to emulate.

Moreover, to the extent that the US injects government control where it does not constitutionally belong, offering a mistrustful profile toward Muslim-Americans, we greatly weaken our ability to speak directly and forthrightly to China about its aggressive atheism, institutional racism, and human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Do Chinese really care about the “Ground Zero Mosque”?  Certainly Chinese elites are appraised of the issue.  If recent press reports are any indication, they are devoting particular analysis of late to the area that George W. Bush used to call “the broader Middle East.”  The withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq has elicited scepticism from the favourite newspaper of liberal intellectuals here, Southern Weekend, which yesterday opined that the American pledges to “build democracy” in Iraq had given way to a kind of cynical neo-Vietnam withdrawal, if not outright defeat of American principles.  U.S. commitment to democracy in Iraq may be perceived in China as a wash – in spite of the fact that it has yielded lucrative contracts for Chinese oil companies – and steady Chinese news coverage of the U.S. in Afghanistan does not seem to be favourable in the least in its emphasis on institution-building.  Recent US military drills in Kazakhstan garnered criticism as well.  If anything, scepticism toward American intentions in countries with Muslim populations seems to be rising.

When it comes to China’s perceptions of the US relations with the Muslim world, the appearance of Barack Obama and the President’s early speeches in places like Cairo have has hardly made a dent.  This is unfortunate, because, in the past, American policy toward human rights and democracy has served as a rallying cry for Chinese intellectuals and posed a clear theoretical alternative to a Chinese dictatorship that has no problem stating that “our policy towards ethnic minorities is 100% correct.”  In the wake of the Iraq fiasco and while prosecuting a war in Afghanistan, the United States should remain committed to repairing relations with Muslims around the world, particularly those in China.

The mosque issue – and the questions of some misguided Americans about Barack Obama’s alleged zeal for Islam – represent an opportunity for the United States to enjoy a “teaching moment” with China.

In a recent prominent full-page article in China’s top foreign-affairs newspaper, the Huanqiu Shibao (also known as the Global Times), Chinese journalists explained in great detail the attacks which the Republicans were levying on Obama over the Manhattan mosque issue.   In a keen choice of words, the article explains that the mosque question is “torturing the United States” and that it represents part of “the Muslim problem” in the U.S.  Amazingly, detractors of the mosque get most of the column inches.  Translated into Chinese, people like Rep. Peter King of New York State, a frequent guest on CNN, sound even more dogmatic about bringing Muslims under control than Hu Jintao, China’s General Secretary.  Fortunately, President Obama’s remarks at the Ramadan dinner at the White House are excerpted briefly, allowing for a discussion about the role of religion in the American constitution and Islam’s place in American culture.  Such allusions are the best that Chinese state media can do to lay out alternative models to China’s method of dealing with its Muslim population in the northwest.

We should not underestimate the power of American debates in providing fodder, if not some proscriptive road map, for Chinese elites in their own discussions about Islam and public life.  When FOX News commentators assert that every mosque is a terrorist feeding ground or make linkages between anti-state violence and practicing Muslims, these assertions are echoed in China.  In the Chinese context, views voiced by Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin and Peter King allow the Chinese Communist Party to point to American hypocrisy while tacitly spreading the idea that surveillance and government regulation of mosques is both necessary and constitutes a global norm.

In a long epilogue to the Global Times analysis of the “Ground Zero Mosque,” an anonymous Chinese source actually goes so far as to point to the debate in the U.S. as being indicative of a “Western sickness” in dealing with Muslims, as opposed to the enlightened policies of the Chinese Communist Paryt.  The US is then explicitly linked to recent enactment of restrictive policies toward Muslims in France, where veils have been banned in public schools and the executive branch has been aggressive in removing public expressions of Islamic faith (apart from a huge mosque constructed in Marsailles).  American racism is likened to anti-Arab racism in Sweden, and so on.  But even within this discouraging discourse, the American constitution is discussed, and the possibility of the U.S. building the mosque and moving forward with a more “harmonious society,” to use a common phrase here, is raised.

It is doubtful that American conservatives and opponents of the “Ground Zero Mosque” recognize that the content of their critiques is so heartening to repressive elements in the Chinese government and demoralizing to liberalizing elements in the PRC who, more than ever since 2001, are looking to the U.S. for the possibility of an alternative in its relations with the Muslim world more broadly.  The extent to which Americans tacitly or explicitly agree that all Muslims could be terrorists is the extent to which they help China to justify its repression of the Uighurs.  Rather, we should firmly stand on the side of religious freedom in China – as well as the United States.

Chinese Mosque


  1. In talking about the relationship between the US and Islam or between China and Islam, some differences in dealing with Muslims and the Islamic world between the two countries have to be reminded:

    In the U.S., since discussing and discoursing on the Jewish problem–Jewish lobbying and influence–in this country is a taboo, nobody really mentions the Jewish and its pro-Israeli, fundamentalist Christian backing on attacking Islam and Muslims. the Sept 11 is just a case used by this powerful group to fabricate tension and even invent wars and invasions. Here the beneficiaries include both American war-industry (and its republican allies) and Israel who receives generous aids from the American government and uses that aid (esp military) occupying Palestine and deterring surrounding countries. Unfortunately, these surrounding countries are Islamic countries. I was wondering if the territory Israeli is occupying belongs to non-Muslim countries, will the US policy towards Islam and Muslims be better than now? Of course, what binds the Jewish interest and fundamentalist Christians in the US is not merely religious but also material. As I pointed out, American war-industry is basically centered on the tension either with the former Soviet or current China or the Middle East to make profit. when “Islam” and “Muslim” become a problem, then you begin to have excuse to enrich yourself by selling arms to the parties involved (the best example we can see recently is the US arm deal with the Saudi that about 60 M arm sell contract is undergoing).

    This does not say that the US is completely hostile to Islam and Muslims. After all, there is a constitution guiding America. The weird thing is that, on the one hand, democracy, freedom of religion, and others have been seen as the foundation of this country. on the other hand, Muslim legal rights have been undermined because of their cultural and religious practices, which are hated by certain religious and ethnic interest groups who control the resources (esp media) and lead the discourses on anything about Islam and Muslims, just like the ground zero Mosque and Obama’s religious belief.

    in China, Muslims have been unfortunate to live in NW close to Muslim central Asia where national movements have become prosperous after the fall of the Soviet. local XJ warlord, Han Chauvinist scholars or like, have enough reasons to attack Muslim populations and their religion. It seems common that when people attack their enemies, they starting attacking their culture and religion.

    What the US and China share is that they claim to be a modern nation and protect civil rights or human rights of each citizen. However, they never treat certain members of their society in the way they are supposed to do. Is a religious Muslim an American citizen enjoying full citizenship? Is a religious Muslim in China a Chinese citizen enjoying his basic rights? not at all, if you look at the debate on the ground zero Mosque or if you look at XJ.

  2. Adam,

    As much as I like your writings in general, I have to say I see a few problems with this piece. Below are my comments:

    (1) Once again you erroneously equate the Uighurs to potentially all Muslims in China. I don’t doubt after the riots of Urumqi the Uighurs suffered repression and discrimination in some shapes or forms, but to use their plight to suggest the current state of Muslims in China is simply absurd. How about the biggest Chinese Muslim group, the Hui? What’s their situation? What’s their place in this “Muslims in China” discussion? Why don’t you shed some light on them?

    (2) You asserted that “Uighur students and government officials are even not allowed to worship in mosques.”, I must wonder who then actually are worshipping in those mosques in Xinjiang now? Have all Uighurs been banned from worshipping in mosques? If I were a young Uighur in my 20’s would I be banned from entering a mosque these days?

    (3) I think it is a bit of a self-appreciation for you to say “… in the past, American policy toward human rights and democracy has served as a rallying cry for Chinese intellectuals and posed a clear theoretical alternative to a Chinese dictatorship”. Some Chinese intellectuals yes, but certainly not all by all means. And they tend to be a little naïve, a little unrealistic when it comes to seeing everything, especially the US. The US was built on some very nice ideals that do have universal appeals however the problem is the US rarely does what it preaches to others. I’d argue that the US is not that much better than China (not yet at least) to be constantly looked up to and most of us know that.

    (4) You wrote “When FOX News commentators assert that every mosque is a terrorist feeding ground or make linkages between anti-state violence and practicing Muslims, these assertions are echoed in China.” There certainly are hard-core conservatives and paranoid alarmists within the CCP and the Chinese government that may echo the views of folks at Fox News with regard to the Uighurs in Xinjiang, but again I don’t think it is fair or accurate to imply this is how the Chinese government sees Muslims and mosques in general. Previously I asked you if you have been to Niujie. Do you think to the Chinese government they are simply ticking bombs in the heart of Beijing??

    (5) While I think the US can certainly offer some “teaching moments” to China, I think when it comes to Muslim/ethnic relations in China the situation is unique enough for Chinese intellectuals to look for their own answers in stead of looking up to the US. Even if the US had perfect relations with the Muslims in America and the Muslim world the Chinese still have their homework to do in this regard.

    1. Just want to say thanks to Xinjiang Review and Juchechosunmanse and Chuck for the many comments and critiques. This post is one that represents an imperfect and evolving understanding of the entire situation, and they are appreciated.

    2. Juche, on the third point, just got to think in Ohioan for a moment; I don’t tend to use the phrase “Chinese dictatorship” (although the party theory called itself a dictatorship of the proletariat) often. There is a whole other set of essays to be written about how the Iraq War in particular has damaged American prestige in China and further enhanced skepticism toward the US; I mention this briefly in the piece, but there must be more thorough discussions of the problem. In other words, I don’t assume that there are legions of Chinese intellectuals who sit around fetishizing portraits of FDR or President Obama, but do note that my sentence is meant to evoke the late 1980s, not the late 1990s. Point taken!

  3. Juche,

    To my knowledge Uighur students and officials are not allowed to worship. When I was in Xinjiang for a brief trip I befriended some college students at Kashgar Normal University. We took a walk around Id Kah Mosque at around 5:00PM, right when the services were ending, and they graciously explained to me that students are not allowed to attend the services.

    The blog autonomous region had an extended post about this:

    Other Uyghurs are of course allowed to visit Mosques.

  4. some points:
    1. Hui Muslims. It is not so true to include Hui as China’s Muslim who suffer from Chinese governmental discrimination. You have to remember that the vice PM, Hui Liangyu, is a Hui in the central government (I used to study with his daughter at the same minzu university). several other provincial-level Hui officials are also eminent, not to mention local Hui cadres. my point is that Hui is different in that Hui has no problem of “separating” any regions including Ningxia from China. As a latest book illuminates, Hui actually helps China archive unification and stability.

    2. uyghur religious freedom. My uyghur cadre friends told me that they are openly asked to taste food during the Ramadan. going to mosque is not allowed as long as you are student or government employees.

    3. the Chinese government is not totally (mis)led by American media like Fox News for the Chinese government knows that each and every major medium in the US serve for a particular group, be it economic, social, ethnic, or religious. the Chinese even know that the mission of some media such as Washington Times is anti China. Then there is no surprise that the Chinese intellectuals pay attention to FOx news simply for the very simple reason that it is anti another group/region/religion (in this case, Muslim and Islam).

    4. what China may learn from the US regarding Islam and Muslim is probably to learn American policy change towards the Islamic world, esp under Obama Administration. The worse the US policy towards the Islamic world is, the more China benefits since China is building its own world order in which the Islamic world plays a key role.

    1. Thanks, particularly on the Hui front. While I have not spent time in Ningxia (as there are only so many places one can go in China and areas where a foreign scholar can lay claim to “expertise”), it is important to make distinctions between the “Uighur problem” and the general everyday life of Muslims in China. In the purpose of writing within constraints for a general audience in the US, this editorial obliterates that distinction.

      I don’t think that China is at all misled by FOX news, but it is certainly interesting that the network, along with CNN, leads the Chinese discussion of the New York mosque debate.

  5. Thanks Chuck for the information. How do they tell whether you are a non-adult/student or not? Do they demand to see some sort of ID? How is this being enforced? Thanks.

    1. I can’t really speak to that, but I would suspect that an ID is probably necessary to gain entry. (Here’s to hoping the fellow at autonomous region stops by and offers his input.) I’ve heard anecdotes about their being severe repercussions for Uyghur students caught attending mosque services or even worshiping on their own.

      If I recall correctly my own friends tried to explain the logic of the government policy, which was something like students aren’t mature enough to make a proper decision about their religious beliefs and therefore they should not be allowed to go to mosques, lest they be brainwashed, or something…

      This article, which I didn’t read all the way through, explains religion/student policies a bit in more in depth beginning on page 11.

  6. It is located in the Na Jia Hu Hui community close to Yinchuan, which Gladney did his research there many years ago.


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