Integrating Islam The Key To “Modern Culture” In Xinjiang – OpEd

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By Dr. Liang Zheng

July 5, 2009, was a watershed to the history of contemporary Xinjiang, which locates in China’s far west frontier region. That black Sunday witnessed the worst inter-ethnic violence in the history of the PRC, and as a result, 197 people were killed and thousands were injured. In the aftermath of the deadly riot, the Chinese Communist Party’s central committee appointed Zhang Chunxian as the new Party secretary in charge of the region in 2010. One year after his arrival, Zhang proposes, “modern culture leads the development in Xinjiang” as his policy statement and has convened a series of conferences to discuss his notion of “modern culture.”

Location of Xinjiang in China

Location of Xinjiang in China

According to Zhang, modern culture must conducive to “social production, social justice, and personal development,” and the aim of building a modern culture is to promote “modern rationality, national identity, and civil rights.” Zhang’s notion hits the spot in many ways, but he failed to include one key element of the region’s culture: Islam. The modern culture in Xinjiang must be, on top of other features of modernity, a culture fully integrates Islam, which is expected to play a positive and progressive role in social and economic development.

Traditionally, modernization was generally considered as equal to Westernization. However, in the last thirty years, the emerging economies in Asia have successfully localized modernization and built their own unique form of modernity. China’s quest for modernity started with “self-strengthening movement” in the 1860s. This long journey of “trial-and-error” pursuit for modernity reached its new height in the 1980s when the CCP initiated “reform and opening-up” policy, which eventually and completely embraced the capitalism and modernization. Today, modernity is still a debatable idea, and the CCP, for instance, labels its modernity as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

In the Islamic world, the exploration for a model that integrates modernization into Islam/tradition has never been stopped. While the Arab world is stagnating in their on-and-off trial for modernity, the non-Arab Turkey offers a great example of non-Western modernity in the Middle East. The Turkish model features a secular and modern state, while the religion, rather than being purely spiritualized, plays an essential role in society. Islam in Turkey has integrated into its economic and social life. Turkish Prime Minister, for this, rides high popularity among Turks and in the Middle East.

Different from other parts of China, where the modernization doesn’t have the spiritual dimension, Islam has been a dominating force in Xinjiang since the 14th century. More than half of the population in Xinjiang is Muslim, and the percentage was considerably higher than that as late as the 1990s. Therefore, modernity in Xinjiang has to include Islam as an integral part. Given the cultural and linguistic affinity between Turkey and the Uyghurs, the largest Muslim population in Xinjiang, Turkish experience can be studied and borrowed. Turkey, on the other hand, seems to be well prepared in sharing its experience with China.

In 2010, Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Dawutoglu visited Xinjiang, which was followed by the visit of the Prime Minister, Recep Tayip Erdogan in 2012. In addition to economic cooperation, Turkey agreed to train a certain number of religious scholars for Xinjiang.

Domestically, Shenzhen model (special economic zone) can be applied in Xinjiang. Given the unbalanced development in the region, where cities in the north have realized basic modernization while the south still lags behind. One or two northern Xinjiang cities can be selected and designated as “modern cultural trial cities (or other titles)” for others to emulate.

The key to modern culture is modern education, which in Xinjiang must include the religious education. Muslims parents in Xinjiang need to see their children study basic religious knowledge as a way to sustain their culture and heritage. Meeting this demand and having adequate educational institutions and qualified faculty members are crucial to integrating Islam into modernity and persevering local culture and tradition.

As part of China, Xinjiang shares the pressure of China’s push toward modernity and the pain of transitioning from a traditional society to modernity. Xinjiang’s unique cultural and religious history sometimes aggravates this pain of transformation, as reflected by sporadic violence across the region. The modernization is inevitable, and a modern culture that reconciles modernity with Islam will not only benefits Xinjiang, but also sets up an example of peaceful co-existence between Islamic and Confucius cultures, which will in turn boost China’s soft power in Central and South Asia.

The new Xinjiang Party secretary Zhang Chunxian has given people reasons to be cautiously optimistic, but whether he is going to be able to make an appreciable difference in the long run and if his vision of a “modern culture” can be realized in Xinjiang remain to be seen.

Dr. Liang Zheng is a scholar with the School of Journalism and Communication at Xinjiang University.

The views expressed are the author’s own

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2 thoughts on “Integrating Islam The Key To “Modern Culture” In Xinjiang – OpEd”

  1. Firstly, Islam is not the root of the violence in Xinjiang – its Han Chinese economic policies which alienate many Uyghurs. Most of the Uyghurs killing Han were not overtly religious. Until the CCP understands this, its mis-guided policies are doomed to failure (and it will have to continue blaming outsiders like Rebiya Kadir – who, note, is also not particularly Islamic in her tone). Secondly, as a Han Chinese living in Xinjaing, you should know that the Uyghurs have a tradition of modernizing Islam dating back to the turn of the Century. Its known as Jadidism – and it was achieved without the help of the Chinese. In fact, that modernization helped fuel attempts at part of Xinjiang to break away from China in the 1940s in Ili, Tacheng and Altay. So be careful what you wish for. While I agree that Islam should be taught in schools, I can’t help but think that the CCP will heavily interfere in this teaching.

  2. Dr. Liang, While I agree with some of the sentiments expressed by Dixon, overall I’m much more sanguine regarding the effect of the policy shift you propose. My sense is that Uyghurs (and other minorities in Xinjiang) would like to have more control over their life-paths. One of the ways this could be enabled would be by validating Uyghur traditions, literature and culture rather than treating it as ‘backward’ or ‘premodern.’ What you propose would go a long way in that process. I also would like to say that, I’ve been following your writing (in English at least) over the past few years and I’ve enjoyed see your perspective on minority issues in Xinjiang become more nuanced and attentive to minority perspectives. Bravo.

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