The communist government in Beijing seems to struggling with integrating minorities. In a recent drive to enforce building regulations, the authorities decided to demolish the grand mosque in the town of Weizhou in the northern Ningxia region of China. However, to the surprise of the Chinese state and many others, Muslims of the city and other areas of the country protested the possible demolition of the religious site. The large numbers of protesters forced the state to delay the demolition. The Chinese government, for the first time in recent history, has met a match on the domestic front, even if temporary, to its unlimited power.
The Chinese state’s recent attempt to integrate religious minorities and to “Sinicize” these communities –ignited by the desire to strengthen political ideology and a sense of national unity– has the potential to spark a damaging conflict if not handled correctly. So far the protestors have gone to great lengths to demonstrate their allegiance to the state; holding Chinese flags and simply sitting in front of the site instead of actively protesting. These are encouraging signs – perhaps a compromise over the building regulations can be achieved, where the government can enforce its rules and the community can keep an altered praying site.
Furthermore, ‘freedom of belief’ is an integral tenet of every government – a lesson that Pakistan is still learning. Attempts to supress or marginalise different faith groups in Pakistan has created a fractured and distrustful society. Instead of being victims of assumptions and generalisation – like several states in the West - that Islam as a religion is inherently extremist, China would be better served giving thought to the complicated scheme of socio-politico-economic reasons that nurture terrorism. Pakistan can attest from experience that a path of moderation is the success of an enlightened society; extremes bring unintended consequences.
While the larger policy that is being pursued in Xingjiang and elsewhere may be able to continue unabated, the Weizhou mosque has the potential to become a flashpoint. Completely tearing down a prominent place of worship is a physical act – a symbolic one that will resonate much more strongly than the by now standard practices employed by the Chinese to integrate these far flung regions.
Pakistan’s experience with the Red Mosque in Islamabad is a testament to the fact that despite the best intentions, these kinds of standoffs can spiral out of control.