Opposition to the planned Nangang Mosque in the central Chinese city of Hefei has shown how a surge in anti-Muslim sentiment online is spreading into communities across the country, exacerbating simmering ethnic and religious tensions that have led to bloodshed in the past.
It is also posing a dilemma for the ruling Communist Party, which has allowed Islamophobia to fester online for years as part of its campaign to justify security crackdowns in its restive region of Xinjiang.
In the fierce opposition to the proposed Mosque development, a pig’s head was buried at the site and the mosque’s Imam received a threatening text which read,
“In case someone in your family dies, I have a coffin for you – and more than one, if necessary.”
A stone inscription outside its gate shows the original Nangang mosque was established in the 1780s by members of the Hui minority, the descendants of Silk Road traders who settled across China centuries ago. In its present form, the mosque has served the area’s 4,500 Hui for decades.
The mosque dispute is just the latest flashpoint for an increasingly active anti-Muslim social media movement in China.
Han Chinese, who make up 95 per cent of the population, have long grumbled about the dozens of China’s officially recognised minority groups receiving advantages on the hyper-competitive college entrance exams or exemptions from state limits on family size, but online abuse has increasingly targeted Muslims.
The rise in Islamophobia comes as Chinese have been buffeted by news of militant attacks in Europe, while at home, violence in Xinjiang and elsewhere has been blamed on Muslim separatists. Beijing has responded to the bloody, years-long insurgency from Muslim Uighur minorities in Xinjiang with further restrictions on Islamic expression, a move rights groups warn could radicalise moderate Muslims. Such policies have also drawn vows of retaliation from ISIL and Al Qaeda.
Ethnic hostility can only deepen when the government stops discussion of the plight of Muslims or ethnic policies while allowing anti-Muslim rhetoric and hate speech to go unchecked.
Political observers say the recent rise of a faction within the Communist Party advocating for a hardline approach on religious affairs has coincided with the rise of government-linked commentators who openly warn about the danger of Islam.
“Interest groups have actively promoted Islamophobia in interior regions in order to create a nationwide environment that justifies Xinjiang’s antiterrorism campaign,” said Ma Haiyun, a history professor specialising in China’s Muslims at Frostburg State University in Maryland. “There’s an Islamophobic movement that aims at creating chaos and even conflicts at the local level.”
The Hui community in Hefei are on the defensive after the mosque protest, with many eager to emphasise their desire to coexist peacefully with their Han neighbours as well as their confidence in the government’s handling of the situation.
But Imam Tao acknowledges a hardening of attitudes toward Muslims in recent years.
“I want them to know Muslims are virtuous people. We are peaceful. We are reasonable. We are tolerant. And we are good Chinese.”
Source: Associated Press