China passed a five-year plan to sinicize Islam at a meeting on Saturday with representatives from China’s eight Islamic associations. During the meeting, participants agreed to guide Islam to be compatible with socialism and implement measures to sinicize the religion. This is China’s important act to explore ways of governing religion in modern countries.
The news captured widespread attention in Western media. Some people connected it with the country’s efforts to address extremism in Northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, accusing China of violating freedom of religious belief. But before they comment on China, we suggest these people pay attention to their own countries’ social instability and terrorist attacks caused by religious extremists.
In today’s world, modern countries are generally all facing a revival of religion, including Western countries. As the revival accelerates, immigrants of different religious beliefs have more or less caused social conflicts on different religious borderlands. In Italy, politicians even warned people of a religious invasion: “We are under attack. Our culture, society, traditions and way of life are at risk,” said Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini at the beginning of 2018. One Italian media straightforwardly declared “Religious wars to make a comeback in 2019.” In the internet era, the spread of religion is even speeding up.
Generally speaking, modern countries are secular and diverse in a globalized world. But the revival and spread of religion have somewhat impacted secular society. Fundamentalism has caused more religious violence and religious nationalism is threatening countries’ legitimate governments and leading to social instability.
Governing religion is a common challenge faced by all modern countries. The main purpose of China’s five-year plan to sinicize Islam is to seek governance that tallies with Chinese practice, and it is not only limited to Islam.
Such governance should be suitable for all religions in China. Although there are people on Twitter who maliciously accuse China of “totalitarianism” and being a “colonial power,” they still have to admit that compared with Western countries, China has made great progress in governing religion. In Xinjiang, religious extremism has been effectively addressed. Peace and order have eventually been restored to the region.
De-extremization and freedom of religious belief are entirely different, and Islam and socialist society are not incompatible. Cracking down on extremism and guiding religions to be compatible with socialism are not the so-called “violation of freedom of religion.” Quite the opposite. China wants to ensure more people enjoy such freedom in a normal way. In China, there are nearly 200 million religious believers, about 144,000 places of worship registered for religious activities and more than 380,000 clerical personnel, according to a white paper released by the State Council Information Office in 2018. Aren’t these numbers the best proof?
And these large numbers are precisely why China persists in sinicizing religions and cracking down on extremism.
This is China’s most practical and innovative way of governing religion. In an era of globalization, the revival of religion is a challenge faced by the whole world. As China learns from foreign countries’ experiences, the latter should also respect China’s practice.