Islamic domes and signs in Arabic are being pulled down and no new ‘Arab style’ mosques can be built under campaign that has Hui communities worried
Just after midday, men in white prayer caps file into the mosque and disappear behind a gate adorned with gold Islamic motifs and three green domes, each topped with a silver crescent moon that gleams in the sun. It was one of the country’s first Middle Eastern-style mosques, built in 1981 to replace a Chinese one that fell victim to the Cultural Revolution – a decade of mayhem from 1966 that saw thousands of temples, churches, mosques and monasteries defaced or destroyed across the country.
But now, its onion-shaped domes, elaborate motifs and Arabic script could be next in the cross hairs of a government campaign to rid the northwestern Ningxia Hui autonomous region of what it sees as a worrying trend of Islamisation and Arabisation, as the ruling Communist Party tries to “Sinicise religion”.
Throughout Ningxia, Islamic decor and Arabic signs are being taken off the streets. They only went up a decade ago, when the authorities were highlighting the Hui ethnic minority culture to lure tourists. Driving south from Yinchuan along the dusty plains of the Yellow River, the roadside is now littered with onion domes – green, gold and white – freshly removed from market buildings, hotels and parks.
Secular buildings were the first target, but the government has also banned new “Arab style” mosques, and there are plans to convert some of the existing ones to look like Chinese temples.
“The whole thing started towards the end of last year … It’s making everyone here apprehensive,” said a female staff member at the Nanguan mosque, who watched in dismay as the dome-shaped features of her home were smashed to pieces by the authorities a few months ago.
As the demolition and removals gather pace in Ningxia, there is growing unease among its Hui communities, who for decades have been largely left in peace to practice their faith. Descended from Arab and Central Asian Silk Road traders, there are more than 10 million Hui in China. Most of them speak Mandarin, live in peace with the majority Han population, and even look much the same as them – apart from the white caps and headscarves worn by the more traditional Hui. But as the government deepens its crackdown on Uygurs – another mostly Muslim group living in the western frontier of Xinjiang – as part of a heavy-handed fight against terrorism and Islamic extremism, the Hui in Ningxia are now also being targeted.
Calls to prayer are now banned in Yinchuan on the grounds of noise pollution – Nanguan has replaced its melodious call with a piercing alarm. Books on Islam and copies of the Koran have been taken off the shelves in souvenir shops. Some mosques have meanwhile been ordered to cancel public Arabic classes and a number of private Arabic schools have been told to shut down, either temporarily for “rectification” or for good.