‘They Feel Like They Can’t Go Home’

‘They Feel Like They Can’t Go Home’

  • For Hui Students of Islam in China and Abroad, Growing Restrictions and Rising Fear

In September 2014, while waiting for access to photograph Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, a Chinese photographer who calls himself “Ali” came upon a large group of students from his home country at a local restaurant. He knew that many young Chinese people study in countries like the U.S. and Australia, but he wondered why they’d choose to study in Jordan. The students explained that they were Hui, members of a group of roughly 10.5 million Chinese Muslims the People’s Republic of China designates as a distinct ethnicity. They were there to study Islam.

While Uighurs, members of a separate, Turkik-speaking, predominantly Muslim ethnic minority, have long faced discrimination and persecution, the Hui have until recently enjoyed a comparatively more comfortable place in majority Han society. They have had the latitude to practice their religion. As recently as a few years ago, the Chinese government showcased their culture and religion as a lure for investment and tourism. Today, Hui people face mounting restrictions and surveillance which, writes Emily Feng for National Public Radio, many fear may be a prelude to more draconian measures like those employed in Xinjiang. Meanwhile, an increasing number of individual testimonies suggest that Hui in Xinjiang, particularly those who have studied Islam abroad, have also been victims of mass incarceration.

Kelly Hammond, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas who studies Islam in East Asia, says “the state wants to assert more control” over what Hui learn and prefers they learn Arabic “purely for commercial and economic connections with the Middle East and North Africa” instead of for studying “the Quran or other theological texts.”