Muslims in Xinjiang more resolute than restive

Like most young people, all Raheimu wants is to live a comfortable life, earning enough to pay off the mortgage for his apartment and other living expenses, and enjoy life with his wife without having to worry about anything else.

He holds a full-time job but when the opportunity arises, he moonlights as a taxi driver for an app-based taxi service.

"It is very important that I earn more now because my wife and I are expecting a baby in five months' time," he said with a smile.

But generally, life is okay, he added.

"When we have free time, my wife and I go to the cinema or a shopping complex. If it's a long holiday, we might go back to our hometown."

Raheimu, 26, lives in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in the far west of China, which has been making headlines in the international media for the wrong reasons over the past few years.

If you look for news in the Western media about Xinjiang, you will often see words like "restive", "troubled" and "violence-stricken" associated with this region which, in size, is as big as Iran. It has a population of 22,643,000, of which the majority at 46.6 per cent are Uyghurs who are mainly Muslims. The conflict mainly involves the Uyghur population as there are factions within it that are seeking to break away from China.

Xinjiang began to make attention-grabbing headlines in July 2009 when bloody clashes broke out between a group of Uyghur nationalists and Han Chinese in Urumqi, leaving more than 200 people dead.

Today, these so-called Uyghur nationalists are said to be radicalised by extremist religious views and are therefore viewed as a threat to the region in general and the country as a whole.

Violent confrontations between them and the Chinese authorities have occurred sporadically, giving the region its moniker of "restive", "troubled", etc. Muslims are also becoming victims of the conflict, among them Jume Tahir, the chief imam of a mosque in the southern city of Kashgar, who was stabbed to death last year.

More recently, news that civil servants, teachers and students in Xinjiang were not allowed to fast during Ramadan caused outrage among Muslims all over the world, Malaysians included. Fact is, fasting was not banned except in government buildings for employees.

It is stated matter-of-factly in The Facts and Figures on Xinjiang, China, 2014, a government publication, that "For the convenience of production and life, many Islamic people do not fast during the Ramadan but still take the Eid as a traditional festival."

During a meeting with officials of the Foreign Affairs Office of the People's Government of XUAR in Urumqi recently, Wu Guangrong stressed to members of the press from Malaysia and Indonesia, including this writer, that people's right to religious beliefs and practices were highly respected and protected by law, and that all religious bodies independently carry out their activities within the scope prescribed by the law.

Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and people of other religions also enjoy full rights to participate in the management of state affairs, it was pointed out.

To date, more than 1,800 people from various faiths in Xinjiang have been elected to political positions in the People's Congresses and Committees of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

To expand on the existence of religious communities amid the largely atheist backdrop of China, XUAR Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau chief Aigebeier said there are over 24,400 religious venues of which 24,200 are mosques, and over 29,000 clergy for Muslim communities throughout Xinjiang.

All towns and townships with Islamic residents have mosques, and every year, the Government sets aside funds for the maintenance and repair of key mosques.

For example, in 1999 alone, RMB7.6mil (RM4.85mil) was allocated by the central government for the reconstruction of the Yanghang Mosque in Urumqi, and the Baytulla Mosque in Yining in Hotan.

"Even though the budget is tight, the local administration also gives money to religious organisations," said Aigebeier.

According to The Facts and Figures on Xinjiang, there are more than 11.6 million religious believers, of which 10 million are Muslims who follow various sects. Uyghur, Kazakh, Hui, Uzbek and Tartar are Sunnis while the Tajiks and Kyrgyz are Shia. There is also a sprinkling of Sufis among the Uyghur and Uzbek.

To address the issues afflicting the Muslim majority, an Islamic college was set up in 1987 to specialise on training senior clergymen to work in mosques and other Islamic venues in prefectures and prefectural-level cities, Aigebeier said.

It is the first and only Islamic educational institute that uses the Uyghur language as a medium of instruction.

"Since the founding of the institute 28 years ago, we have just around 700 graduates so far," said deputy principal Alimu Abdul Rahman.

The institute teaches seven courses, six at bachelor degree level and one at college level.

Students are all men aged 18 to 22. The courses offered are a mix of cultural and religious studies, including the learning of the Arabic, Uyghur and Chinese languages, history, politics and reading and understanding of the Quran.

After graduating, they will be sent to mosques and other Islamic venues throughout the region, Alimu said.

The role of the institute is seen to be more important now as the Government tries to counter the tide of religious extremism. It was allocated 300 million yuan last year to build a new campus three times larger than the present one.

"When completed in 2017," Alimu said, "we will be able to teach 1,000 students, giving them a deeper knowledge of Islam and they can share their knowledge with their local communities."

And what does he think about the "restive" situation in Xinjiang? An Uyghur himself, Alimu said: "The common enemy we face today all over the world are extremists, and people in Xinjiang hate them. Islam promotes peace, and everyone is against terrorism and violence."

When asked how he felt about the extremists, Raheimu, a Muslim whose father is Hui and mother is Uzbek, said they are bad people who are disturbing the peace and are also killing fellow Muslims. We should not have them to worry about, he added.

The central and local governments are now stimulating the region's economy through various agricultural, construction and high-tech industrial development projects spearheaded by state-owned enterprises.

Seeking to recall the region's glory days as the centre of the ancient Silk Route, Xinjiang holds the pivotal role in the One Belt One Road initiative, President Xi Jinping's vision of regional and international economic co-operation.

Whether all these investments in religious and business activities will benefit every community in Xinjiang, only time will tell. But on a hot Sunday evening in Urumqi, there was no threat to be felt. The international bazaar in the city where the confrontation occurred in 2009 was abuzz with customers and traders, and commuters were spewing out of the metro in a never-ending stream.