SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
There's been much reporting about China's brutal repression of Muslim Uyghurs in the northwest Xinjiang region. Religious shrines have been razed, families separated, hundreds of thousands of people sent to detention centers. Less well-known is how China has also clamped down on non-Uyghur Muslims outside of that province. Government is targeting Muslim intellectuals across the country. NPR's Emily Feng has some of their stories.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Vocalizing).
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: The call to prayer sounds out one recent Friday afternoon in Yiwu, a city along China's wealthy east coast. It's an international commercial hub and home to a growing community of Muslims who pour into mosques for Friday prayers. Yiwu is also where 14 people were detained this year for buying books about Islamic history and scripture. Here is a friend of one of them.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) Police interrogated them about their relationship with several Muslim intellectuals and overseas writers. They even printed out the conversation records everyone had on WeChat with these people.
FENG: We agreed to keep this source anonymous. And we are distorting their voice because several people NPR interviewed have been detained and threatened with prison for speaking with a foreign reporter. Chinese security forces now closely surveil religious figures and their families.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) Now the police say, every time they travel, they have to report to the police beforehand when they are leaving and where they are going.
FENG: The detentions signal a new phase in China's crackdown on Islam. After economic and political reforms in the 1980s, Islam saw a revival. But now the government wants to rein religion back in. And it has turned its attention to Muslim intellectuals outside Xinjiang, many from an ethnic group called the Hui.
MA JU: (Through interpreter) Every part of society, not just the Communist Party, is being tasked with making religions, including Islam, more Chinese, which really means getting rid of religion.
FENG: This is Ma Ju, a prominent Hui Muslim who now lives in the U.S. He explains the creeping restrictions on religious communities across China.
MA: (Through interpreter) Imams are prohibited from traveling to work. And the work permits of many imams have been cancelled. The state has closed Arabic schools and has put Communist officials in classes as monitors. By 2017, they were demolishing the domes of mosques.
FENG: Now they're singling out writers and publishers. Rian Thum, an historian who studies Islam in China at the University of Nottingham, explains why.
RIAN THUM: Intellectuals are, in some ways, the bearers of the tradition. They're looked up to as the arbiters, the judges of what is the real Islam. And so they make an attractive target.
FENG: And one of these targets was the Qingzhen Shuju bookstore in Beijing, which for years was the place to buy not just the Quran but also virtually any Islamic or Arabic work. Now the store is padlocked. Piles of books lie untouched inside. I ask, in a neighboring shop, what happened.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Chinese).
FENG: An employee there tells me he thinks the bookstore was closed three or four years ago because it was selling some kind of religious texts. The bookstore owner was arrested for illegal publishing and terrorism. His friends tell NPR he remains in detention.
A prominent Muslim writer I spoke with remembers what it was like trying to buy books on religion.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Through interpreter) They would take me to a discreet third location. It was like they were selling pornography. I said, how did Chinese Muslims reach such a low point that we have to hide the sale of books?
FENG: But they did reach that low point. So the writers and others moved discussions of scripture and Islamic philosophy online. By 2016, these online forums, too, had been shut down or censored. Last year, the writer fled China, fearing arrest. He, too, requested anonymity because his immediate family remains in China. His exile pains him.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Through interpreter) I'm a Chinese person who had been made an ethnic minority and given the identity of Hui Muslim. But we are actually Chinese. We are compatriots with Han Chinese, the ethnic majority.
FENG: The current atmosphere reminds a Chinese Muslim publisher I spoke to of the stories his parents told him of repression during the Cultural Revolution 50 years ago.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Through interpreter) Every household would burn their religious books in case they were searched. Shredders were sold out. People would flush the book ashes down the toilet, sometimes clogging the pipes. The persecution now is even worse than that time.
FENG: We're keeping the publisher anonymous because at least 40 of his relatives have been detained or sentenced to prison in Xinjiang. He says alternative visions for what it means to be Chinese have narrowed to one aligned with the Communist Party.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Through interpreter) It's like the state only wants its garden to have one type of flower, the red ones. Green, blue or white flowers - if they aren't red, they'll be cut down.
FENG: And Chinese Muslims are not the right kind of flower in Beijing's eyes, despite their insistence that they are, at their core, Chinese citizens who happen to have faith. Emily Feng, NPR News, Yiwu, China.
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