No Tolerance for ‘Wild Imams’ in China – But ‘Weibo Imams’ are Thriving
In November 2014, Chinese media and Reuters reported that China was targeting ‘wild imams’, jailing almost two dozen people who preached illegally in the western region of Xinjiang, where the government is countering violent campaigns by Islamist Uighur militants who want to establish a separate state, also referred to as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).
This week, Weibo netizens voice their anger about the trial procedures for one imam case. According to one netizen‘s post, the convicted imam’s lawyer did not show up in the Xinjiang district court for the appeal as he would not “defend the guilty”.
China’s Campaign against Religious Extremism
China has implemented several measures the past few years to keep religious expressions to a minimum after a string of attacks allegedly committed by Chinese Muslim extremists. Xinjiang authorities became extra strict about the ‘promotion of religious extremist ideology’. The wearing of the burqa was banned in February 2015, along with the wearing or using of religious badges, artifacts, memorabilia and symbols. This also meant no niqabs, hijabs or large beards in buses.
As part of China’s crackdown on ‘terrorist criminals’ and campaign against ‘religious extremism’, 22 people from Xinjiang were sentenced to jail in November 2014. They were sentenced from 5 to up to 16 years in prison for three different types of religious crimes. The first crime category was that of people engaging in ‘illegal preaching’ – also referred to as ‘wild imams’. The second type was that of people who were still engaged in illegal religious work after being removed from their post, and the third was that of people committing illegal acts while working as a religious person (China News 2014).
The ‘mass sentencing’ of ‘religious offenders’ in 2014, image via China News.
The case that received attention on Sina Weibo this week was referred to as the “imam teaching Koran case”, and involved an imam from Xinjiang who was reportedly arrested for illegally teaching the Koran to 17 students in the mosque.
This Weibo post, by a user nicknamed Nuh Zam Zam, was first spotted by PhD researcher Tricia Kehoe (see tweet below). She also tweeted the court case document that was uploaded by the original Weibo poster. The document states that the Yili court is reexamining the case because of “inappropriate original punishment” (“原判量刑
On Weibo: Much anger among Uyghur netizens about blatantly unfair trial of Iman arrested for teaching Koran pic.twitter.com/eQEXw4R2aY
— Tricia Kehoe (@triciamkehoe) March 14, 2016
Netizen Nuh Zam Zam, who describes himself as a Muslim “fighting for constitutional rights, defending freedom of religion”, writes on his Weibo page:
“[Yili Prefecture in Xinjiang reinvestigates the ‘teaching-Koran case’:] When one imam in Huocheng County taught Koran lessons to 17 citizens in the mosque, he and the mosque Rector were sentenced to five and four years in prison for ‘gathering a crowd and disturbing public order’. The Yili middle court already rejected their appeal before, and affirmed the original sentence. The other day, Yili court hurriedly re-examined the case again because of “inappropriate sentencing”, but the lawyer did not show up because he would “not defend the guilty”. Yili has more similar ‘trials’.“
This post was shared over 60 times and attracted dozens of comments that were filtered by Weibo censors. “It’s not like they were lecturing about stoning or whipping, that would’ve really deserved punishment,” one Weibo user responds.
Another netizen says: “If you’re guilty, you’re guilty – that’s the law.” One Weibo user responds: “This is a typical case of policies exceeding the constitution. What a disgrace!”
Islam is permitted in China, as long as it conforms to state-approved principles. Instead of guaranteeing free exercise of religion, the Chinese constitution only guarantees freedom of religious belief. In other words; you can believe what you want, but how you engage with your religion in everyday life has to comply with what the state deems right (also read How Chinese are China’s Muslims?, 2015).
Amnesty International has reported harsh measures taken by Chinese authorities to suppress unrest in the northwest, including unfair trials. “The fight against terrorism is no excuse for repression,” says Amnesty.
Will the ‘Real’ Imam Please Stand Up?
A ‘wild imam‘ (野阿訇) is an ‘imam’ without an official position as a religious person. These imams are thus not appointed or approved by the government.
According to Wang Hong, director of China’s Research Center for National Security, there can be no place in China for ‘wild imams’ and their illegal preaching activities. The root cause of terrorism, Wang writes in Chinese media outlet Global Times, is its nature as an ideology. Wang suggests that Muslim separatist group ETIM uses “distortions of Islam” ideology to gain their followers, and that this is mostly done by ‘wild imams’. This explains China’s zero tolerance policy towards imams preaching in communities and ‘influencing people’ without the consent of (local) authorities.
Through social media, the Public Security Office of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region warns netizens for the dangers of underground lecture classes run by ‘wild imams’ who could potentially harm children both mentally, by influencing them with extremist ideas, and physically, such as the wild imam who allegedly beat a 4-year-old pupil to death for not knowing the scriptures (see featured image and image below, both by Xjgat.gov.cn).
On the Xinjiang Review blog, Professor Ma Haiyun, specialised in Islam and Muslims of China, writes that China’s definition of ‘wild imams’ asks for new basic definitions of what an imam is, and calls for further investigation into the legal processes for becoming an official imam in China.
According to Ma, an imam basically is a Muslim religious worker and/or a Muslim theological intellectual. Although the “ideal imam” has both the career and the knowledge, an imam could also be a Muslim intellectual without the official post. But in China, Ma writes, this definition does not hold, as only those imams who have been officially appointed count as the ‘real’ ones. The so-called ‘wild imam’ arguably does have the knowledge and community leadership that can potentially influence people, but has no official job as religious worker.
Ma writes that the distinction between real imams and wild imams is problematic, as many Uighur Muslims might have more trust in so-called ‘wild imams’ than in the ‘real’ ones that are approved and appointed by government authorities.
But it is very likely that Chinese authorities, in their turn, have no trust in those powerful imams who are most respected by local communities. This triggers the question of who the ‘real’ imam is actually is.
Preaching Online: ‘Weibo Imams’
Although ‘wild imams’ are generally not tolerated in the PRC, ‘Weibo imams’ are. There are quite some imams who have verified Weibo accounts from which they post videos or microblogs about Islamic teachings.
One of Weibo’s imams is Imam Mu Huaidong, a Beijing-based imam from the Deshengmen Mosque with over 8100 followers. Mu Huaidong uses his Weibo page to share different news items and to talk about the mosque’s charity work.
Li Haiyang from Henan has nearly 8000 followers. One of his most popular recent posts is about Islamic diet, titled “Raising some Awareness about Islamic Dietary Law” (“关于清真食品立法的几点认识“). The blog, that was posted on March 10, talks about imposing national standards on halal food in China. Li Haiyang writes that all Muslims should follow the classic rules and abide by their beliefs, of which Islamic dietary laws are an important part, and that the PRC cannot discriminate against Muslim ethnic groups by refusing to legally protect Muslim halal food.
The imam’s post was shared over 460 times and attracted many comments, also of many netizens who strongly oppose the imam’s views: “China is a secular country ruled by an atheist Party, and firmly boycotts Islamic laws!”, some netizens say. But others support the imam saying: “Please don’t let the nonsense here get to you, imam, just stand firm.”
Another example of a Weibo imam is Imam Ma Guangyue from Gansu, who has over 15400 fans on his Weibo account. His most recent post, that was shared 413 times, is a video where he addresses the question ‘is it allowed for Muslims to marry Han Chinese?’. In the video, he explains how Chinese Muslims are only allowed to marry other Muslims and should not marry Han Chinese who have not converted to Islam.
“Stoning people, beheading people and oppressing children and women – such an evil cult,” one netizen responds on the imam’s page. “No matter what religion or ethnicity,” another Weibo user responds: “There will be good and bad people everywhere.” The imam’s Weibo page is a collection of hundreds of comments of netizens discussing and arguing over Muslim religion, with many attacking it and others supporting it. The imam’s posts, nevertheless, are well-read and shared collectively by Weibo’s netizens.
All of Weibo’s popular verified imams are from outside China’s muslim region Xinjiang. This is possibly because China’s strict religious policies are mainly aimed at the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, while there are softer approaches to religion in other provinces of China (Ma & Chang 2014). This status quo means that it’s uncommon to see news of ‘wild imams’ outside Xinjiang, just as it will be less likely to see a ‘Weibo imam’ from Xinjiang.
Except for ‘Weibo imams’, there are a myriad of Weibo accounts that support them and propagate Islam. Meanwhile, on the Weibo page of Nuh Zam Zam, the discussion on the trial of the Xinjiang imam continues. There may be no place for ‘wild imams’ in China, but these ‘Weibo muslims’ make the religion alive and kicking on China’s social media.
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