Title

‘They Feel Like They Can’t Go Home’

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

  • A People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) flag flies over Nanguan Mosque, in the city of Kaiyuan, China’s southwestern Yunnan province, June 2016. Last year, state-sanctioned religious associations proposed that all religious venues in China should raise the P.R.C. flag.
    A People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) flag flies over Nanguan Mosque, in the city of Kaiyuan, China’s southwestern Yunnan province, June 2016. Last year, state-sanctioned religious associations proposed that all religious venues in China should raise the P.R.C. flag.
  • Congregants attend a funeral at Nanguan Mosque, June 2016.
    Congregants attend a funeral at Nanguan Mosque, June 2016.
  • Umar, a Hui student born in 1992, picks up a chapter of the Quran at the Grand Mosque of Shadian, Yunnan province, June 2016. About 90 percent of Shadian’s residents are Hui. The Grand Mosque of Shadian is one of the biggest mosques in China. During the Cultural Revolution, the People’s Liberation Army raided the town and killed about 1,600 Hui people during a crackdown. Later on, the central government apologized and issued reparations.
    Umar, a Hui student born in 1992, picks up a chapter of the Quran at the Grand Mosque of Shadian, Yunnan province, June 2016. About 90 percent of Shadian’s residents are Hui. The Grand Mosque of Shadian is one of the biggest mosques in China. During the Cultural Revolution, the People’s Liberation Army raided the town and killed about 1,600 Hui people during a crackdown. Later on, the central government apologized and issued reparations.
  • Umar sits in Nanguan Mosque, Kaiyuan, June 2016. Born in the city of Datong, in China’s northern Shanxi province, Umar moved to Kaiyuan in 2012 to attend the Arabic language school affiliated with Nanguan Mosque. A year later, the University of Jordan in Amman admitted him to study Islam. During the holy fasting month of Ramadan in 2016, Umar returned to Nanguan Mosque to visit his former teachers.
    Umar sits in Nanguan Mosque, Kaiyuan, June 2016. Born in the city of Datong, in China’s northern Shanxi province, Umar moved to Kaiyuan in 2012 to attend the Arabic language school affiliated with Nanguan Mosque. A year later, the University of Jordan in Amman admitted him to study Islam. During the holy fasting month of Ramadan in 2016, Umar returned to Nanguan Mosque to visit his former teachers.
  • A student’s desk at the Arabic school in Nanguan Mosque, June 2016. All textbooks are in Arabic, only a dictionary is in Chinese. After the 2014 knife attack in which several assailants from the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region stabbed 31 people to death at a train station in Kunming, Yunnan’s capital city, provincial authorities expelled Muslims who were not from Yunnan. Since then, only students from Yunnan have attended the school.
    A student’s desk at the Arabic school in Nanguan Mosque, June 2016. All textbooks are in Arabic, only a dictionary is in Chinese. After the 2014 knife attack in which several assailants from the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region stabbed 31 people to death at a train station in Kunming, Yunnan’s capital city, provincial authorities expelled Muslims who were not from Yunnan. Since then, only students from Yunnan have attended the school.
  • Students prepare for prayer at an Arabic school affiliated with the Grand Mosque of Shadian, June 2016. According to Umar, major mosques in China usually have Arabic-language schools, but the government has shut down more and more of them in recent years.
    Students prepare for prayer at an Arabic school affiliated with the Grand Mosque of Shadian, June 2016. According to Umar, major mosques in China usually have Arabic-language schools, but the government has shut down more and more of them in recent years.
  • Umar and his former schoolmate watch a cartoon about the Quran at the students’ dormitory in Nanguan Mosque, June 2016.
    Umar and his former schoolmate watch a cartoon about the Quran at the students’ dormitory in Nanguan Mosque, June 2016.
  • Students attend a class at the Arabic school in Nanguan Mosque, June 2016.
    Students attend a class at the Arabic school in Nanguan Mosque, June 2016.
  • Ahmed sits at his home in Kaiyuan, June 2016. Worried his grades were poor, Ahmed didn’t apply for any Islamic universities abroad. After graduating from the Arabic school in Nanguan Mosque, he started working for his parents’ halal food business.
    Ahmed sits at his home in Kaiyuan, June 2016. Worried his grades were poor, Ahmed didn’t apply for any Islamic universities abroad. After graduating from the Arabic school in Nanguan Mosque, he started working for his parents’ halal food business.
  • Men carry a coffin to a graveyard after a funeral at Nanguan Mosque, Kaiyuan, June 2016.  Burials are banned in many areas of China, but there are exceptions for 10 ethnic minorities, including the Hui.
    Men carry a coffin to a graveyard after a funeral at Nanguan Mosque, Kaiyuan, June 2016. Burials are banned in many areas of China, but there are exceptions for 10 ethnic minorities, including the Hui.
  • A pile of abandoned chairs and desks in Nanguan Mosque, June 2016. Since the expulsion of Muslims from outside of Yunnan in 2014, the number of students has declined significantly. Many classrooms have remained empty.
    A pile of abandoned chairs and desks in Nanguan Mosque, June 2016. Since the expulsion of Muslims from outside of Yunnan in 2014, the number of students has declined significantly. Many classrooms have remained empty.
  • Umar and his wife Sofia in their rented apartment near the University of Jordan, in Amman, September 2017. Sofia is Hui and was born in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. She moved to Amman to join Umar after they married in the summer of 2017. She didn’t let anyone but her parents know about her whereabouts out of fear of being reported to the local authorities in Xinjiang. She told people she was doing business in Guangzhou.
    Umar and his wife Sofia in their rented apartment near the University of Jordan, in Amman, September 2017. Sofia is Hui and was born in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. She moved to Amman to join Umar after they married in the summer of 2017. She didn’t let anyone but her parents know about her whereabouts out of fear of being reported to the local authorities in Xinjiang. She told people she was doing business in Guangzhou.
  • Umar and other Chinese Muslim students pray on a soccer field during a game, in Amman, September 2017.
    Umar and other Chinese Muslim students pray on a soccer field during a game, in Amman, September 2017.
  • A mosque in Cairo, Egypt, May 2017. Egypt used to be a popular destination for Chinese Muslims seeking Islamic higher education. However, since 2017, the Egyptian government, in cooperation with the Chinese government, has been deporting Chinese Muslim students, mostly of Uighur ethnicity, back to China.
    A mosque in Cairo, Egypt, May 2017. Egypt used to be a popular destination for Chinese Muslims seeking Islamic higher education. However, since 2017, the Egyptian government, in cooperation with the Chinese government, has been deporting Chinese Muslim students, mostly of Uighur ethnicity, back to China.
  • Ibrahim, who is Hui and was born in Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture of Gansu province, puts on a thobe before a prayer in his dormitory, in Cairo, Egypt, May 2017. Ibrahim traveled to Cairo in the beginning of 2017 and started Arabic language classes in preparation for applying to college. His goal was to attend the famed Al-Azhar University in Cairo. However, he never managed to return to Cairo after a trip back home during Ramadan in the same year.
    Ibrahim, who is Hui and was born in Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture of Gansu province, puts on a thobe before a prayer in his dormitory, in Cairo, Egypt, May 2017. Ibrahim traveled to Cairo in the beginning of 2017 and started Arabic language classes in preparation for applying to college. His goal was to attend the famed Al-Azhar University in Cairo. However, he never managed to return to Cairo after a trip back home during Ramadan in the same year.
  • Mohammed, a Hui student born in 1989, takes a walk in Medina, Saudi Arabia, January 2018. He is also from Linxia. Due to his excellent academic record, Mohammed was admitted to the Islamic University of Madinah in Medina. He says the school offers generous benefits, including waiving tuition, providing a stipend, and reimbursing his flights to and from China.
    Mohammed, a Hui student born in 1989, takes a walk in Medina, Saudi Arabia, January 2018. He is also from Linxia. Due to his excellent academic record, Mohammed was admitted to the Islamic University of Madinah in Medina. He says the school offers generous benefits, including waiving tuition, providing a stipend, and reimbursing his flights to and from China.
  • A Quran sits on a desk in a classroom at the Islamic University of Madinah, in Medina, January 2018.
    A Quran sits on a desk in a classroom at the Islamic University of Madinah, in Medina, January 2018.
  • Pilgrims circle the Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, January 2018.
    Pilgrims circle the Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, January 2018.
  • The Quba Mosque in Medina, one of the largest mosques in the world, January 2018. Saudi Arabia began operation of the Haramain high-speed railway that connects Medina and Mecca in 2018. Two Chinese state-owned enterprises worked on parts of its construction.
    The Quba Mosque in Medina, one of the largest mosques in the world, January 2018. Saudi Arabia began operation of the Haramain high-speed railway that connects Medina and Mecca in 2018. Two Chinese state-owned enterprises worked on parts of its construction.
  • A photo poster of Umar and Sofia at their wedding ceremony in the city of Taiyuan, in Shanxi province, August 2017.
    A photo poster of Umar and Sofia at their wedding ceremony in the city of Taiyuan, in Shanxi province, August 2017.
  • Kashim, Mohammed’s younger brother, looks out over his hometown, in Guanghe, Gansu province, September 2018. He was born in 1992 and attended the University of Jordan from 2013 until he graduated in 2018. He and Umar met during school and became friends. Guanghe county has a large Muslim population, and its residents have encountered increased restrictions on religious practice in recent years.
    Kashim, Mohammed’s younger brother, looks out over his hometown, in Guanghe, Gansu province, September 2018. He was born in 1992 and attended the University of Jordan from 2013 until he graduated in 2018. He and Umar met during school and became friends. Guanghe county has a large Muslim population, and its residents have encountered increased restrictions on religious practice in recent years.
  • Umar (front) and Kashim (rear) pray at their rented apartment in Beijing, March 2019. After graduating from the University of Jordan, both of them started working at ByteDance, one of the highest valued private tech companies in the world,  as Arabic-language content moderators for the Chinese startup’s popular video app TikTok. Their daily work includes reviewing religious and politically-themed Arabic-language videos.
    Umar (front) and Kashim (rear) pray at their rented apartment in Beijing, March 2019. After graduating from the University of Jordan, both of them started working at ByteDance, one of the highest valued private tech companies in the world, as Arabic-language content moderators for the Chinese startup’s popular video app TikTok. Their daily work includes reviewing religious and politically-themed Arabic-language videos.
  • A map of the People’s Republic of China hangs on the wall of an abandoned classroom in Nanguan Mosque’s Arabic school, June, 2016.
    A map of the People’s Republic of China hangs on the wall of an abandoned classroom in Nanguan Mosque’s Arabic school, June, 2016.

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.”

Video

09.18.12

Last Call to Prayer

Kathleen McLaughlin & Sharron Lovell
China’s Hui Muslims are unique in many respects. The country’s second-largest ethnic minority share linguistic and cultural ties with the majority in China that have allowed them to practice their religion with less interference and fewer...

Ali, who is Han, sensed this shift over his five years following the students he had met in Jordan, as well as friends of theirs studying in other Muslim countries. During Ramadan in 2015, one of the students, Kashim, invited Ali to his hometown in the Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture of Gansu, a center of Hui cultural life known as China’s “Little Mecca.” “It was all fine back then,” Ali says, “I could still go to mosques with him and wander around.” A year later, he visited the city of Kaiyuan in Yunnan province with Kashim’s friend Umar, who studies in Jordan. There, he noticed mosque-based Islamic schools were starting to get shut down. In 2017, another friend of Kashim’s, Ibrahim, who studied in Egypt, chose to stay in China after he came back during Ramadan because he feared deportation if he returned to school. That year, at Beijing’s request, Egypt rounded up dozens of Uighurs and deported them to China.

Uighurs who had studied, traveled, or worked abroad were among the first to be detained in Xinjiang’s sprawling network of internment camps. Recent reports suggest the campaign has reached beyond Xinjiang into other regions of China. Ali says the Hui students he knows have been required to check in at local police stations when they return to China. “They’re anxious when they’re at school. And when they have holidays, they feel like they can’t go home.”

Ali believes the students he photographed may be the last group of Chinese Muslims able to receive an Islamic education growing up in China and then continue their studies abroad.

Ali had limited knowledge of Islam or of the situation of Hui people before he began the project. He says he now views most Han people as “blindly Islamophobic.” He believes persecution of Chinese Muslims will continue to intensify and that its victims are too few in number to effectively resist. “They will die out slowly,” Ali says, “and the way Han people are acting, maybe that’s what the authorities want.”