The situation about the Uighur Muslims has attracted widespread media coverage in the past year. In light of the West after 9-11 and India under Modi, it may be easy for observers to assume that this is a case of Islamophobia in China.
China’s human rights abuses, while they should be condemned unequivocally, do not constitute a case of Islamophobia as they do in the case of India and China.
First of all, Islam in China has a very different history compared to its history in the West and in India.
In China, Islam came through trade. During the cosmopolitan empire of the Tang Dynasty (618-906 CE). Arab and Central Asian merchants brought Islam to Turkestan (now north-western China) and to Chinese cities like Chang’an, Kaifeng and Luoyan. Islam has long been associated with trade in China’s history and the most famous Muslim in China’s history, Zheng He (1371-1433), was a mariner and explorer.
China’s Han majority population also accepted Islam through conversion. Although a minority within the larger Han population, Han Chinese Muslims (known as the ‘Hui’) are virtually indistinguishable from their Han brethren except in their avoidance of pork.
Islam thus has a comparatively peaceful history in China. Compare this to the West where Islam was branded a Christian heresy from its inception and associated with the Crusades or in India where Islam has been associated (especially by Hindu Nationalists) with the looting of Hindu temples by Turkish mercenaries like Mahmud of Ghazni.
Secondly, the human rights abuses suffered by China’s Muslims have been confined to Xinjiang. They do not envelop the entire Chinese Muslim population the way they have Muslims in the West after 9-11 or in India under Modi.
If Islamophobia were rampant in China, it would’ve been all over the Western media by now. Instead, what has been making cover stories in the West (besides the Corona Virus scare and the crackdown on the Uighurs) is China’s ability to digitally monitor the activities of its citizens, Uighur, Han or otherwise.
Third, and most crucially, the crackdown on Muslims in Xinjiang should be understood in light of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) obsession with maintaining state power and control. This obsession extends to suppressing any religious fervour which threatens or is suspected of threatening the CCP’s grip on power.
The CCP has a long history of penetrating and monitoring religious establishments, ensuring they are subordinate to the party-state. This is due in part to the official atheism of the CCP, but it owes far more to a long history in China of regulating religion and suppressing religious fervour as a political threat.
There’s plenty of historical precedents to make the CCP nervous. A Daoist sect called the Yellow Turbans undermined the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). The Red Turbans, a Buddhist sect, led to the fall of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) had to contend with the White Lotus Rebellion (1794-1804), another Buddhist sect. The Taiping rebellion (1850-1864), a Christian millenarian movement, fatally wounded the Qing and killed upwards of twenty million people.
The CCP most notoriously suppressed the Falun Gong sect in the late 1990s and into the new millennium. Besides branding it an “evil cult,” the National People’s Congress amended article 300 of the Criminal Code on October 30, 1999, enabling the CCP to suppress spiritual groups deemed “dangerous to the state” (the Falun Gong claimed millions of members across China).
The oppression of China’s Uighurs is about the Chinese state maintaining its state power and control over the country and its citizens. It should be understood in light of China’s long history of regulating and suppressing any religious fervour (real or imagined) and not as a projection of the West’s own Islamophobia on to other societies.
Darren Byler, “China’s hi-tech war on its Muslim minority,” The Guardian, April 11, 2019 (online): https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/apr/11/china-hi-tech-war-on-muslim-minority-xinjiang-uighurs-surveillance-face-recognition.
André Laliberté, The Legal-Formal Status of Religions in China in In Dirk Ehlers and Henning Glaser, ed., Political and Religious Communities: Partners, Competitors, or Aliens? Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2019 (forthcoming).
Lipman, Jonathan Newman (1997), Familiar Strangers, a history of Muslims in Northwest China, Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.
 Lipman, Jonathan Newman (1997), Familiar Strangers, a history of Muslims in Northwest China, Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 25.
 Darren Byler, “China’s hi-tech war on its Muslim minority,” The Guardian, April 11, 2019 (online): https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/apr/11/china-hi-tech-war-on-muslim-minority-xinjiang-uighurs-surveillance-face-recognition. Byler reports how the Chinese state has grown anxious over the growing sense of Uighur religious and cultural identity (fostered and disseminated through social media including Uighur Muslims praying five times a day, Muslim women veiling themselves and the import of food, movies, music and clothing from Turkey and Dubai) and in growing Uighur social and political activism.
 André Laliberté, The Legal-Formal Status of Religions in China in In Dirk Ehlers and Henning Glaser, ed., Political and Religious Communities: Partners, Competitors, or Aliens? Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2019 (forthcoming).
 The following historical examples are cited by Laliberté in The Legal-Formal Status of Religions in China.
 The Qing Dynasty also suppressed Muslim rebellions in the north-west during its expansion into Turkestan in the 18th century.