Editor's Pick

Finding Niche: The Importance of Islamic Studies in Contemporary Politics and Governance

By: Andover International Review Graduate Advisor


Binding Knowledge for Domestic Stability and Prosperity

In the shadows of snow capped Tian-shan lies Urumqi, capital of China’s Muslim majority Xinjiang Province. In this modern metropolis, people of Han and Uyghur (mainly followers of Sunni Islam) ethnicities live and work and prosper in apparent harmony, acting as an exemplar for China’s ethnic unity. However, it doesn’t take long to find armored vehicles and patrolling troops at the city’s busy intersections. Urumqi, and Xinjiang in general, has been plagued by a number of terrorist activities, most notably in 2009, when riots in central Urumqi resulted in the death of 197 innocent civilians. To maintain stability in the region, the central government has reserved to repeatedly increasing military presence in the region and certain local authorities have suppressed selected aspects of Uighurs’ Muslim culture such as by limiting Ramadan activities. It has also been reported that some areas ban men from leaving long beards and women from wearing veils.


Uighurs increasingly mistrust the government and Han people in general. At the same time, the government and even a portion of the public often view Uighurs as potentially hostile forces. Companies, especially vital state owned enterprises, have even imposed discriminatory measures when hiring. This mutual mistrust, along with a relative lack of understanding of the Muslim Uighurs by the Han people and the government, serves as a contributing factor to the region’s restiveness. The government wants to speed up modernization of the province, but at the same time struggles to insert an authoritative voice in this Islam influenced region. Thus, it often turns to unconstructive measures generating more instability in region and inter-ethnic mistrust.


The situation in Xinjiang resembles the interactions between Muslim communities and governments in the West, especially Europe, where recent terrorist activities have unleashed a wave of anti-Islamic sentiments and even official religious suppression (mostly notably the banning of Burkini and face covering in France). These animosities reveal a lack of understanding of the Muslim tradition and culture among Western governments, as well as the general public, which often renders Muslim communities disintegrate from the mainstream society.


Meanwhile in Ningxia, a province to the south of Xinjiang, another Muslim group—the Hui (mainly practices of Hanafi School of Sunni Islam), are thriving. It has been reported that the number of Mosques in Ningxia, (where the majority of Hui is based) has increased from 1900 to 4000 since 1958.


More significantly, in the officially atheist country, many Hui communities are allowed to practice a certain degree of Sharia Law and police often seek the help of local Ahongs (Hui clerics) when resolving social disputes that do not involve criminal offenses. For instance, police would consult local Mosques during evidence gathering, and in cases where an amount of settlement is required, an Ahong often decides the amount. In some cases, when a case relates to family affairs, the police may not take charge at all until the Ahong fails to resolve the conflict. This is surprising especially considering in the U.S. states are gradually banning Sharia law and politicians are condemned for even connections to Muslim figures.


How could it be that in China, Sharia and state laws co-exist and Hui Muslims thrive? This is in part because the Hui have for centuries assimilated into the Chinese society, and being geographically secluded, have had little access to extremist thoughts originating from West Asia. This has made them less politically restive than the Uighurs, which has increased trust from the government and Han majority public. Most importantly, because of the relative trust towards Hui people, the central government has elected Hui for some key positions in the Communist Party. Most notably, the State Ethic Affairs Commission, which is the single most important body responsible for relations between the central government and ethnic minorities (including Hui and Uighurs) and advising policies towards different ethnic groups, was most recently headed by Wang Zhengwei, who is of Hui ethnicity. He is also currently the Vice Chairman of the vital political advisory organ—National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, which is a Vice-National rank position comparable to the rank of Vice Premier or Vice President.


Such political influence, along with those of other Hui leadership members, means that at the very core of China’s governing body, there is a very good understanding of Hui Muslims’ cultures, traditions, needs and worries. Thus, the policy toward Hui Muslims is much more humane, tolerant and respectful. This stands in stark comparison to the treatment received by Uighurs, who, even under the same administration, receives drastically different treatments. Furthermore, even though both Muslim groups are Sunni, they still have different traditions, ancestry and wants, and the same set of policies toward the Hui may not fit the situation of Uighurs.


The successful integration of Muslim traditions, laws and culture into the existing political body in Hui communities shows that with a deep understanding of a specific Muslim group’s culture at the core of governance, it is possible to create a harmonious society where different schools of Muslims and people of other ethnicities or races could prosper under the same institutional structure. This is a reason why Islamic studies is of the utmost importance in the modern world, since as the world becomes more diverse and interconnected, governments will need to know how to maintain relations with its Muslim populations and not just label all with one tag. Understanding the Islamic religion, with all its complexities, is key to maintaining the domestic stability and prosperity of any diverse country.


Upholding Global Harmony

Aside from maintaining a healthy domestic society, the study of Islam is also crucial to international order and peace. As potential regional and world superpowers begin to reemerge in the post-Cold War era, capable nations are competing to assert their powers on an international stage, often under the name of humanitarian intervention. These operations are especially common in the Middle East, where political instability is widespread and outside powers flock in to in support of their political allies. However, external powers almost exclusively focus on their political interests in an unscrupulous manner and forget to consider the balance of regional religious ecosystem. This is extremely dangerous especially since there has always been conflicts between Shia and Sunni Muslims in the Middle East, rooted from different views regarding the succession of Muhammad. Sunnis believe that Umar nominated Abu Bakr, a follower of Muhammad, as the first Rightly Guided Caliph, while Shiites believe Ali, the cousin of Muhammad was appointed as successor. In Islam, if one accepts a certain history, one accepts a certain theology, thus the conflict has for long persisted and now manifests itself in political strife. Not having thorough knowledge of the region and Islam’s history, the forceful entrance of outside forces has repeatedly shown to destabilize the already fragile political and religious atmosphere.


Most notably, with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the execution of Saddam Hussein in 2006, Iraq and the Middle East as whole have witnessed increasing levels of violent conflicts between Shia and Sunni groups. Only four years into the invasion, over 2 million Iraqis fled the nation. In the chaotic wartime Iraqi capital, death squads from both Sunni and Shia groups conducted systematic ethnic cleansing of each other, often randomly rounding up and executing innocent civilians.


The same tragic events are reoccurring in Syria, where political conflict has turned into combat between the Alawite-dominated government forces and Sunni dominated rebel groups such as the Salafist rebel group Ahrar ash-Sham. The instability has also bred extremist groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda’s Al-Nursa. Adding on the mayhem, as Russian and Western forces move in to support opposing factions in the Civil War battlefront, it is feared that sectarian strife would surge as it did in Iraq.


Given these circumstances, for a nation to become a true world leader, it must be able to maintain political and religious stability in some of the world’s most tumultuous areas, especially the Middle East. To do so, a deep understanding of Islamic history, sectarian divide and current politics is urgently required by leaders of the emerging powers.


Contributed by: Ruishi Zhang ’16, Andover International Review Graduate Advisor


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