Mosque Schools in Yunnan

Twenty minutes before K960 left the Mengzi North train station, Yunnan, a young Chinese Muslim was cornered by three SWAT police at the ticket-counter. “It was like a movie,” Habiballah said. “I was scared, but I don’t even know why I should feel that way.”

In the middle of the crowd, Habiballah was asked to open his suitcase and hand in his ID card and passport. Ten minutes later, he packed up the mess on his own. “We are just doing routine inspection, ” one of the police said to him. “You know you ethnic minorities are troublesome.”

Habiballah gave him a smile, said nothing, and rushed to catch the train.

Since last September, he has been studying the Koran in Xinji Mosque in Shadian, a Muslim town in Yunnan, near the border of China and Vietnam. The class should be over in June, but as “the current situation is too critical” as his teacher said to them, the class has to be put to an end immediately. After four Uygur attacked a police checkpoint in Kaiyuan, a city thirty kilometers north to Shadian, on 26, March, all Muslim students and teachers came from other provinces were asked to go back home. The “double-cleaning” project in Yunnan has been restarted.

‘’I just want to study Islam. Why is it so difficult in my country,” he asked.

Habiballah is not the only one.

According the latest nation-wide census of population in 2010, there are 23 million Muslims in China. But in the atheist communist China, there are only ten officially recognized legal Muslim colleges, where the Chinese Communist Party controls what to teach. Most of young Muslims cannot receive proper religious education outside home. To meet that gap, many mosques are “secretly” teaching Islam and local governments sometimes turn a blind eye. The Taiji game between Muslim students and the Chinese authorities has been on for years, but recently the Taiji game has escalated into a guerrilla war.

Habiballah is a Salar, one of the 55 ethnic minority groups in China, believing in Islam. His name means someone who is loved by Allah, but the name on his ID card is Ma Jinfu, meaning a good wish to have more luck. He does not understand why Ma is his family name and finds Jinfu sound tacky.

Last July, after a graduation at the Minzu University of China, the best university designated for ethnic minorities, Habiballah was not busy finding jobs like his friends. Under the guide of an Imam in his hometown Qinghai, a northwest province between Xinjiang and Tibet, he went to study the Koran in Shadian, a small town generally regarded as the freest place for Muslims in China for the reason of atonement.

Shadian had one of the largest Muslim populations. During the Cultural Revolution, the People’s Liberation Army closed mosques and burned religious books. The conflicts led to a military attack in July 1975, leaving about 1000 Muslims dead. When the Cultural Revolution was ended, the Yunnan Communist Party Committee officially rectified their wrong doing in the incident and apologized in February 1979. To make up for the tragedy, the implementation of policies to ethnic groups and religions has been quite loose. Around this small town, there are nearly 40 mosques, filled with Muslim students from Yunnan and other parts of China.

However, changes have been quietly blowing across Shadian. Habiballah found since January many mosques started to display the national flags and new posters of the CCP were put up on the most obvious spots inside mosques.

“Anti-extremists, be united; religions should be mild and submissive” and “Religions are children; the government is Dad and Mom, to look after you, to guide you” are two slogans that Habiballah found most offensive.

“It sounds like the CCP is the master and we have to listen to it,” he said. “It can neither control the Islamic civilization, nor the 5000 years of Chinese history. What if it guides us to a wrong direction?”

Like many Muslims, Habiballah had a mixed feeling towards the CCP. He was born in a hereditary Imam family, where his Imam grandfather was killed by the PLA during the Cultural Revolution, and his Imam father, though thinking negatively about the CCP, was selected by locals to be a member of the National Committee of the Political Consultative Conference, so that he can still find opportunities to promote Islam.

“My father told me if we do not cooperate with them (the CCP), there is no way out for us,” he said. And with some of his closest Muslim friends having joined the Party, Habiballah knows well what “cooperate” and “compromise” mean.

Though he carefully maintains his subtly relationship with the CCP as a Muslim, pressure from the other side is increasing. On 29, March, Habiballah, representing the mosque he studied at, attended a speech contest, Knowing and Action Should go Hand in Hand, organized by the Honghe Prefecture Islam Committee. When the leader of the Committee, also a Muslim Party member, gave his highest score 98 to an Imam who said, “There will be no Chinese Muslims, if there is no the CCP”, Habiballah was shocked.

“I texted to that Imam, asking why he said that. He deleted my Wechat account,” he said. Disappointed as he was, Habiballah never thought a month later he would be the only student, kneeling in the mosque, reciting the Koran.

As several mosque schools nearby were closed, Habiballah and his classmates felt something was going wrong. In the morning of 22, April, without any previous warning, their teacher told them the administrator of the mosque had signed on a “double cleaning” agreement with the government days before. The class was over.

After the 2014 Kunming railway station terrorist attack, leaving 29 dead, 140 injured, the Yunnan government started a “double cleaning” project, asking Muslims from other provinces, specially Uygur, to go back home. Mosques were major targets. Advice on Strengthening Arabic Schools’ and Islamic Schools’ Management, released by Yunnan United Front Work Department and Religion Department last November, worked immediately. The two four-stores teaching building of the Shadian Mosque has been half empty, only having 300 local Muslims now. As the first mosque to sign the agreement, the Shadian Mosque was awarded to become a branch campus of Kunming Muslim College, one of the ten legal Muslim Colleges.

Smaller mosques were trying to take the pressure, but the Kaiyuan attack, just two days after criminals of the Kunming terrorist attack were executed, and rumors that some Uygur tried to passe China’s south border to join ISIS, made their efforts in vain.

When his classmates were packing, Habiballah spent his last afternoon in Xinji Mosque finishing to recite the 12th volume of the Koran.

Though Yunnan was lost, half of the students decided to follow their teacher to finish their class. “There are many mosques in Xining, Lanzhou, Lingxia……” Habiballah and his classmates are thinking about their next spot.

“I’m racing on a highway. If I stop here, I will never be as fast as now again.”

Habiballah plans to recite the whole 30 volumes of the Koran in his 24.

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