When it comes to reviving moral values in China, most attention goes to Christianity. But in an interview for the New York Times with Matthew S. Erie, author of China and Islam: The Prophet, the Party, and Law journalist Ian Johnson hears the Islam is a similar emerging religious force. Ian Johnson is the author of the upcoming book The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao
Is this government-financed?
Almost none of it. Almost all comes from donations. Donors are businesspeople using the money they’ve saved to benefit their communities.
What about overseas donations? In the West, many big mosques are financed by the Saudis or Gulf states.
That rarely happens in China. The government keeps tight control over this. They don’t want to have these sorts of ties overseas.
Is there any international dimension to Islam’s revival?
The revival has two aspects. One is almost always personal: a marriage that didn’t work out, or interfamilial strife. And then they learn about larger phenomena through translated texts, social media or on-the-ground missionary activity. Saudi Arabia is a natural pole star. Egypt has major pull given its academic institutions and religious scholars. Missionary work increasingly comes from the Dawa movement. These activists are primarily from South Asia. The idea is that Muslims should return to the pious behavior of the Prophet Muhammad. This can mean a variety of things, from daily prayer to rejecting chopsticks in favor of eating with one’s hands. These people interact with the Hui trying to find themselves. That’s where the rekindling occurs.
Some of this seems to parallel Christianity’s rise in China. It also benefits from overseas missionary ties.
True, but Islam is different in that you have this global discourse on terrorism, which is oppressive and limits the capacity of Muslims inside China to interact with Muslims outside of China. Islam is so politicized that it’s quite different.
Does that hamper Islam’s ability to function as a force for soft power? China makes much of the fact that it is the world’s biggest Buddhist nation. Couldn’t it also win friends in Central Asia or the Middle East by pointing to its vibrant Muslim population?
There’s no doubt that the state looks at Islam in a different way than it does Taoism or Buddhism. It makes it hard for them to participate in even a nationalistic revival — even slogans of Xi Jinping, such as the Yidai Yilu [the One Belt, One Road initiative to link China to Central Asia and South Asia through overland and sea routes]. I was in China this summer and everyone was talking about it, but the question is if Muslims can participate in this. That would be good for the state, but the anxieties are great, too.
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