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Beijings crackdown on religious minorities takes aim at 10,000 Muslim Utsuls

While Chinas oppressive measures against Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region has garnered international attention, Beijing has begun expanding its surveillance of another Muslim minority: the Utsuls of Hainan Island. But efforts to crack down on the peaceful religious minority could backfire and push it to radicalisation, experts warn.

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Uighurs are no longer the only Muslim minority falling under Beijings watchful eye. Even as the international community continues to condemn human rights violations in the western region of Xinjiang province, Chinese authorities are now launching a similar crackdown on another Muslim community, according to a report in the Hong Kong-based daily South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Expanded surveillance, bans on Arabic scripts and limits on the size of mosques are now being applied also to a little-known minority of around 10,000 Utsuls living on the southernmost island of Hainan.

The United Nations has said it has credible information indicating that a million ethnic Uighurs are being held in China, a policy on Muslim groups in Xinjiang the Chinese government has justified by citing terrorist attacks.

Earlier this month a ban was announced on the Islamic veil, or hijab, in schools and government offices, sparking fierce protests from pupils and their families at schools and in Utsul neighbourhoods, a community worker told the SCMP.

In addition to the hijab ban, mosques must now have a member of the Chinese Communist Party sitting on their management committees. Any use of Arabic words, such as “Halal” signs at food stalls, are also banned.

Expanded surveillance for social order

According to official documents obtained by the SCMP, Beijing has deemed the surveillance of Utsul residents a key priority, in the interests of maintaining “social order”. Even local members of the Communist Party will now be subject to investigations to ensure they are not practicing Muslims, and could face punishment in case of religious observance.

But the restrictive measures affect the Utsul community specifically, sparing other Muslim minorities living on Hainan Island such as the Hui, Chinas most populous Muslim ethnic minority. According to the four-page report obtained by the SCMP, the measures target two specific neighbourhoods in Sanya, Hainans regional capital, where most residents are Utsuls.

Beijings decision to target the Utsuls in Sanya is an astonishing one, experts say. The community never made any claims of independence and never presented any security threat, and their religious practices are similar to those of the Hui: primarily peaceful.

Dru Gladney, an anthropologist who has studied the Utsuls and is president of the Pacific Basin Institute for research in California, told FRANCE 24 that the Sunni Muslim Utsuls have never exhibited any signs of having been influenced by stricter branches of Islam such as Salafism.

According to Gladney, the Utsuls main difference from the Hui community is their language, Tsat, which is close to Malay and is not spoken anywhere else in China.

They are also the oldest active Muslim community in the country. “Utsul cemeteries are probably the most ancient Muslim burial sites in China and date back to the 12th century,” Gladney noted.

General suspicion of religion

The authorities did not cite security reasons for this crackdown, as they had for the Uighurs, who were behind sporadic attacks over the years.

No reason was offered for the latest ban on traditional dress for Sanyas Utsuls. Gladney noted that the veil was not really a religious symbol for the community members as much as a cultural one.

For some, Beijings adopted stance on the Utsul community is part of a larger pattern. “This is a textbook case of the evolution of the Chinese Communist Party's policies towards minorities under Xi Jinping," Katja Drinhausen, an expert on governance issues at the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies, told FRANCE 24.

According to Drinhausen, President Xi Jinping has cultivated a climate of “general suspicion” regarding religious beliefs – even when it comes to peaceful, tiny and centuries-old communities such as the Utsuls. Other minorities, which were relatively safe from the Communist Partys scrutiny until now, are also being targeted by this mistrust, including Catholics.

The situation in Hainan “proves how mentalities have changed”, Drinhausen said. These measures are actually “similar to other ones imposed at a national level for every religious minority, like in Inner Mongolia or in Gansu province or in Tibet, where many Muslims live,” she added.

Under Xis leadership, Beijing wants to bring every religious belief into the partys control and achieve a “unified national identitRead More – Source