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  • Introduction
  • Matthew S. Erie (bio) and Allen Carlson (bio)

the islamic renaissance in china

There are over twenty-three million Muslims in the People’s Republic of China (PRC),1 more than in Malaysia, Tunisia, Russia, Jordan, Libya, or Kazakhstan and slightly fewer than the number in Saudi Arabia or Yemen. China’s Muslims, including those who are ethnically Chinese, Mongolian, and Turkic, have historically had a major impact on Chinese affairs, both domestic and across the border (Bellér-Hann, Harris, Cesaro, and Finley 2007; Fletcher 1975; Forbes 1986; Han 2013; Kim 2004; Millward 2007). In light of China’s ascendance in international relations over the past thirty years and, specifically, its (re)engagement with the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa (Carlson 2011; Kemp 2012; Olimat 2012; Simpfendorfer 2009), China’s Muslim population is poised to play a significant role in the evolving relationship between China and the rest of the developing world, as well as in the resurgence of global Islam in state politics.

Following interethnic riots in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, in 2009, a series of violent anti-state incidents have taken place in Xinjiang, home to a number of Muslim minorities, including the Uyghur, of whom there are about ten million. Most recently, violence has spilled out of Xinjiang, affecting Beijing in October 2013 and Kunming in 2014. In the first eight months of 2014 alone, suicide bombs and knife attacks have resulted in some 120 deaths and 332 injuries, according to [End Page 443] PRC reports. The state has responded by labeling such events “terrorism” (kongbu zhuyi) and has launched a yearlong crackdown on Islamic radicalism in Xinjiang.

While the state-run media has been careful not to presume that Uyghurs are behind the recent attacks, popular discourse on the Internet commonly conflates Muslim minorities, especially Uyghurs, with terrorists. Uyghurs complain of facing discrimination in hotels, restaurants, schools, and even mosques throughout China. The condition of Muslim minority-state relations would seem to confirm the political scientist Samuel Huntington’s thesis that there has been a “clash of civilizations” between the Chinese and Islamic spheres. Huntington’s world view, which has become popular in Chinese academia, suggests an inevitable confrontation between China and Islam.

Rather than China versus Islam, the overarching theme of this special issue is “Islam in China/China in Islam.” In thinking through “Islam in China,” we argue that the relationship between China and Islam is not one of opposition, but rather one of cultural, linguistic, and economic imbrication. Indeed, it is difficult to describe Islam and China as two separate or essentialized entities. For some Muslim minorities in certain regions of China, there is no distinction between neo-Confucianism and Islam or between the nation-state and the global umma (community of Muslims). Through intellectual labor, modes of prayer and worship, art, calligraphy, architecture, cuisine, linguistic creoles, and legal pluralism, these Muslims embody multiple cultural referents. For other Muslim minorities in other regions in China, political and economic circumstances present challenges to living in accordance with Islam while also being a citizen of the PRC. In other words, the Muslim experience in China encompasses a complex mosaic of accommodation, adjustment, preservation, and, at times, resistance. Thus, generalizations about this incredibly diverse population are unhelpful, and careful attention must be paid to history, politics, and place.

Similarly, the perspective of “China in Islam” notes that, following China’s remarkable economic reform, state policy has begun to integrate China into the larger Muslim world. Perhaps the most visible facet of this development since the late 1970s has been the rebuilding of mosques and centers of Islamic learning within the country. This has been accompanied by a resurgence throughout China of halal (Ch. qingzhen) restaurants. This development has been so extensive that in most of China’s cities it is possible [End Page 444] to find Chinese Muslim cuisine, bookstores, clothing and grocery stores, cemeteries, monuments, and places of worship. In addition, Sufi pilgrimage routes have been reestablished within the country. Outside China, the hajj to Mecca has been performed, educational and scholarly networks have been reconstituted, and ties through trade and investment with Arab nations have...


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Print ISSN
pp. 443-457
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2020
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