China has ordered hotels that serve halal food in Beijing to remove any Arabic or Islamic symbols if they wish to continue operating in the city. The new order is part of a broader policy for Islamic sinicization in China.
Sinicization of Islamic culture
The owners of the restaurants were told by the local authorities that using Arabic language or symbols in the shop was not Chinese culture. About 11 hotels were forced to remove such signs. The move against Islamic culture in Beijing has surprised many, since the Chinese government has largely reserved such actions to regions like Xinjiang that have strong minority populations. To remove all symbols of Islam from the capital might be a sign that the state has decided on a nationwide crackdown on the religion.
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“Arabic is seen as a foreign language and knowledge of it is now seen as something outside of the control of the state… It is also seen as connected to international forms of piety, or in the eyes of state authorities, religious extremism. They want Islam in China to operate primarily through Chinese language,” Darren Byler, an anthropologist at the University of Washington who studies Xinjiang, said to Reuters.
The city is home to around 1,000 halal shops and many owners have admitted to having received instructions from the authorities to remove Islamic symbols. Some of them have put in orders for new signs while a few others have covered the existing Arabic signs with tape. The term “halal” has been replaced by its Chinese equivalent “qing zhen.” China has a long-term plan to sinicize Islam. The state wants to remove the cultural and ideological components that it finds “non-Chinese” and replace them with what the government thinks is “Chinese.”
Home to almost 20 million Muslims, China severely restricts Islamic cultural practices like growing a beard, not eating pork, wearing burqas, etc., among Muslim minorities like Uyghurs and Huis. In the U.S., lawmakers have asked the Trump administration to take strict action against Chinese officials who are known to be involved in the repression of Uyghurs by enacting the Magnitsky Act, which allows the U.S. to freeze the assets of such people.
The government is also claiming that the Uyghur minority, which considers itself Turkic in origin, has no relationship with Turkey. In a recent white paper, the state argues that there are ulterior motives behind assigning people who speak Turkic languages as having Turkic ancestry and that such propaganda is being spread by Pan-Turkism advocates.
“A language family and an ethnic group are two essentially different concepts. In China, ethnic groups speaking Turkic languages include the Uyghurs, Kazaks, Kirgiz, Uzbeks, Tatars, Yugurs, and Salars, each with its own history and unique culture. These peoples cannot be referred to as ‘Turks’… [Conversion to Islam by Uyghurs] was not a voluntary choice made by the common people, but a result of religious wars and imposition by the ruling class,” the white paper stated (Radio Free Asia).
By signaling that Uyghur Muslims were forced into Islam by invaders from Turkey, Beijing is able to justify its actions in Xinjiang by arguing that what they are doing will “help” the community embrace its “original” Chinese identity. State-run Global Times welcomed the white paper and said that it will enable people to distinguish between right and wrong. However, rights groups and academics have trashed the report, saying that it has been written with the intention to rob Uyghurs of their identity.