In response to the rising international criticism regarding the detainment of more than a million Uighur Muslims in so-called “re-education camps”, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi defended the country’s actions, stating, “the efforts are completely in line with the direction the international community has taken to combat terrorism … if we can take care of prevention, then it will be impossible for terrorism to spread and take root.”
Other Chinese officials defended their country’s actions, claiming that Islam is an “ideological illness,” positioning the concentration camps as “hospitals” needed to “cure” people from this sickness. China’s ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai stated that the country is trying to turn the Uighurs into “normal people,” and a pro-government newspaper tweeted: “The West should be consistent over its own value system. How can it be fine to kill terrorists with missiles, but a humanitarian crisis when Xinjiang attempts to turn them into normal people?” Such statements describe the faith of over 1.7 billion people as an illness from which they need to be cured.
Viewing Islam as an abnormality and the cause of “extremism,” is not exclusive to China, rather it finds its home in the West’s Countering Violence Extremism (CVE) programs, which view expressions of Muslim identity as uniquely associated with “extremism” and “radicalisation.” Programs aimed at “preventing extremism,” have resulted in the stigmatisation and criminalisation of Muslim communities.
Today’s public discourse on terrorism consists of a fixation on Islam and the expression of Muslim identity as indicators of “extremism,” “radicalisation,” and “terrorism”. It is not a line of thought constrained to the People’s Republic of China, rather this viewpoint permeates much of Western academic research and policies. Termed “new terrorism” studies, this field of work arose post-9/11 in an effort to explain, not understand, 21st-century political violence and argued that Islam was the root cause for individuals choosing to engage in violence. In the US, this framework led to destructive wars abroad, surveillanceof Muslim communities at home, and broad violations of human rights.
In 2011, a US government white paper likened the hijab to “passive terrorism.” The author viewed an article of clothing – a headscarf worn by many Muslim women who feel it is part of their religion – as an indicator of support for violence. This same cultural racist argument underpins the hijab and veil bans that are sprouting up across Europe. Politicians and activists who support such measures argue that a piece of cloth is equal to violence and thus pass legislation that forces women to undress, resulting in the gross violation of individuals’ human rights. Such policies are built on a false and unfounded premise that identifies markers attributed to Muslim identity (growing a beard, attending mosque, wearing a hijab, etc) as indicators of “radicalisation” and “extremism.” China too has adopted this framework as veils and “abnormal” beards are forbidden in the Xinjiang region.
Chinese officials’ dangerous claim that Islam is an “illness” can also find precedent in the comments made by western politicians who have long used anti-Muslim claims to promote their hostile agendas. In 2014, Oklahoma state representative, John Bennett, described Islam as a “cancer in our nation that needs to be cut out.” Donald Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn described Islam as a “malignant cancer,” and asserted that “fear of Muslims is RATIONAL”. A 2016 tweet from Flynn shares eery similarities to China’s current claims, as he declares “Islamic ideology [is] sick and must B healed”. In 2015 on The Kelly File, conservative political commentator Glenn Beck argued that there is a “disease in Islam” and it must be addressed.
Such dangerous claims pathologising a belief system are not restricted to the United States. In March 2017, far-right Australian politician, Pauline Hanson, stated: “Islam is a disease; we need to vaccinate ourselves against that.” In 2017, Caroline Santos, a candidate for United Kingdom’s right-wing UKIP, described Islam as a “cancer” in a tweet praising far-right figure Tommy Robinson.
Noted anti-Muslim figures like Ayan Hirsi Ali and Asra Nomani have also attributed common Muslim phrases of “Allahu Akbar,” (God is Great), and ‘inshAllah” (God willing) as being associated with extremism and terrorism. Nomani and Hirsi Ali are known right-wing figures who have made a career out of promoting dangerous and discriminatory views about Muslims, but their claims that Arabic terminology is a “red flag” for extremism and/or terrorism is not relegated to a niche political view. In 2018, Swiss officials fined a man for saying “Allahu Akbar” in public, and defended their actions arguing that a “passersby could have mistaken him for a terrorist.” Today in China, Muslims who have been heard greeting one another with the common phrase, “As-Salam Alaikum,” (peace be upon you) have found themselves detained in the ever-expanding networkof concentration camps.
China is instituting the very calls made by western politicians to “cut out” Islam, by criminalising any expression of Muslim identity, including removing Qurans from people’s homes, restricting fasting during the month of Ramadan, and forbidding Muslim parents from giving their children Muslim names. In an effort to “heal” Muslims from this “dangerous ideology,” the government has established 28 detention camps, described by Amnesty International as comparable to “wartime concentration camps,” aimed at mass scale eradication of Uighur Muslim identity. Detainees in the camps are forced to endure psychological and physical torture, renounce their faith, and pledge allegiance to the Chinese communist party.
Under the guise of preventing terrorism, governments have been able to institute discriminatory and deadly policies targeting Muslim communities. Proponents of such measures justify their actions with the demonstrably false and discriminatory argument that identifies Islam as an explanatory factor in political violence.
What we’re currently witnessing in China is the product of a framework that points to Islam and the expression of Muslim identity as the root cause of terrorism, a viewpoint that finds its roots in, and is a staple of, Western political discourse.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.