Sitting on cheap plastic chairs in front of a Chinese restaurant on a narrow street in Cairo’s Abbassia district, Ma Songhui seems to have lost his appetite – and for good reason.
Since July 4, scores of his Chinese classmates from Al-Azhar University – all of them Uyghurs from China’s northwest Xinjiang province – have been arrested by the Egyptian police. Those who managed to escape the raids are hiding in the capital or trying to leave the country, according to Sweden Uyghur Education Union President Nijat Turghun. All are afraid of being expelled to China, where they will be at risk of arbitrary detentions and torture.
“Many of their families in Xinjiang were visited by Chinese authorities a few weeks ago. There were pressures; barely veiled threats were made to force them to come home. And then the Egyptian police started raiding restaurants and residences of Uyghurs studying at Al-Azhar. Some have managed to escape, but we expect most to be deported,” said Ma, a 28-year-old Chinese Muslim from Linxia, in the province of Gansu.
Ma arrived in Egypt in 2012 to undertake religious studies at Al-Azhar, together with hundreds of other Chinese Muslims. Although the recent wave of arrests has so far only targeted Uyghurs, and not the Hui people, the Muslim ethnic group to which Ma belongs, he is concerned that repression may have a negative impact on his professional prospects upon returning home.
“It was my choice to come to Al-Azhar and study our religion. But now, to tell the truth, I’m beginning to regret it,” said Ma, who uses the Arabic name Abdullah in Cairo. “With everything that happens, who knows what people will think of my university when I go home,” he said with a sigh.
Due to its unmatched prestige, Al-Azhar University has seen a growing influx of Chinese students over the recent years. As religious restrictions are increasing in China, several Chinese Muslims have found Cairo a place where they could engage in religious practices in a relatively friendly environment. But with China’s economic resurgence – the country is now one of Egypt’s largest economic partners – Chinese Azharites find themselves increasingly torn between their desire to remain faithful to their beliefs, and their willingness to secure their share of China’s economic miracle.
An Ancient, But Forsaken Tradition
Things did not always look so bleak for Cairo’s Chinese Muslim community, whose existence dates back to 1931 when the first delegation of Chinese Muslim students arrived in Egypt with financial support from the Chinese government.
Already at that time, the highest authorities of the Republic of China were convinced that religious exchanges could serve as a basis for strengthening relations between China and Muslim countries, writes Maurice Gajan of Arab West Report. With a foot in each culture, devout Muslims and patriotic Chinese at the same time, Chinese Azharites were seen as a precious diplomatic tool.
Indeed, this small group of devoted emissaries acted not only as “bridge builders,” bringing China and the Muslim world closer together, but also as community leaders, contributing to the survival of Chinese Islamic culture through the political upheavals of the 20th century, writes Wlodzimierz Cieciura, assistant professor at the Department of Sinology, University of Warsaw.
The establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 put an end to Chinese delegations to Al-Azhar, and relations were gradually broken as religious repression within China intensified.
It was not until 1981, with the economic opening of China, that Chinese delegations to Cairo restarted. Chinese Islam was once again put forward with the aim of winning the favors of Muslim countries, in what scholar Dru Gladney calls Beijing’s “Islamic card.” The heritage of Chinese Muslims, previously viewed with suspicion, was now considered useful again.
But this newly regained role was only short-lived. The rise of China as an economic power multiplied the channels of influence between the two countries, offering Beijing many new ways to shape bilateral relations. Unable to compete with official diplomacy, the Chinese Muslim community in Cairo has been relegated to a cultural role on the fringes of official networks.
“Both China and the Arab countries have obviously adopted a pragmatic attitude in following their own interests while involving the Chinese Muslims. For the Chinese Muslims themselves, this means more freedom and enhanced economic opportunities as well as an increase in political influence and political rights in their home country,” writes scholar Frauke Drewes from Münster University.
The community itself also changed. While the majority of Chinese Azharites in the 1980s were Uyghurs, Hui now make up a large majority of the 1,000-2,000 Chinese students at Al-Azhar, according to Drewes. One can be sure that the wrath of the Egyptian police, which specifically targeted Uyghur students – apparently at the request of Chinese authorities – will only accelerate this trend.
A “Soft” Form of Exile
Unlike their predecessors, most of the current Chinese Azharites prefer to keep their distance from diplomatic affairs. Many see Al-Azhar as a “breath of fresh air,” a kind of temporary exile enabling them to flee religious restrictions in China while obtaining a higher degree.
“It is certain that the overall atmosphere in China is not conducive to my professional development,” said Mu Lijun, a master’s student at Al-Azhar and a native of Yinchuan, capital of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. “In addition to social pressures and derogatory and insulting comments that are made with impunity, many of the Chinese Muslims are confronted with a form of ‘glass ceiling’ limiting their employment opportunities.”
This “unhealthy” climate toward religion in China, according to Mu, is why he choose to “escape” by choosing Al-Azhar, as more and more of his Chinese coreligionists do.
Years after the end of the persecution of the Cultural Revolution, Islamophobia is still alive and kicking in China, explains Ma Tianjie, founder of Chican Opinion. Beyond the state’s official position of equal treatment of so-called “national” religions, which includes Islam, cases of intolerance are becoming more and more frequent on social media.
In May 2016, a video of a young Hui student reciting the Quran aroused the ire of Chinese internet users, who denounced an “evil cult” (the same epithet is used to justify the repression of Falun Gong practitioners). In July, China’s largest online catering service, Meituan, was forced to remove its “halal” category after internet users’ intense criticism.
In many cases, these campaigns are launched or fueled by Party figures, such as Xi Wuxi, professor of Marxism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who regularly denounces on her blog fellow Chinese citizens who she considers too sympathetic to Islam.
While Ma Songhui, like several Hui students, does not like to use the word “exile,” preferring instead to speak of a “return to the roots” and a “spiritual immersion,” his Uyghur peers boldly claim this status.
Uyghur students find greater freedom of religion and thought abroad than in Chinese universities, where there is no place for religious practices, argues Turghun. “For example, it is forbidden to fast, to pray, to wear a veil, to grow a beard for young men, and to wear long skirts for female students. Reading and passing around religious books is absolutely forbidden,” he said.
“It is true that one can devote oneself to religion here, without having to worry about breaching the Party line or breaking the rules. We are free, in a sense, to explore our faith in depth, especially by practicing and studying with professors who have a knowledge that does not exist in China,” said Ma.
A Mirage of Opportunities?
However, behind this quest for a spiritual catharsis, students have also their own down-to-earth plans. For Na Juanhai, a young Chinese Muslim from Beijing’s growing middle class, her time at Al-Azhar is as much a way of escaping a growing malaise with her religion in China as the embodiment of her entrepreneurial spirit.
“Some of the owners here are former Chinese students at Al-Azhar who decided to stay in Egypt. They have found their own little paradise here, a small space of freedom, and they have no reason to return to China,” said Na, pointing to the Chinese restaurants of Abbassia, which form the meeting point of the small Chinese Muslim community of Cairo.
“Most students rely on their own means to support themselves, often borrowing funds from their families. A few receive scholarships, but it is a very small minority. Most of us must get back our investment afterwards,” said Mu. “Originally I wanted to go back to China and become an imam, but I’m not so sure it’s the best option now.”
Turghun explains that Al-Azhar graduates were able to easily find good employment upon returning home in the past, but the situation is quite different today, especially after the riots that shook the capital of Xinjiang in 2009.
“In the past, diplomas from foreign Islamic universities not only had a good reputation, but also showed a high level of Islamic knowledge. But in recent years, things have changed. China began to see these students as a threat because of their work for Uyghurs’ Islamic belief and identity. They are seen as a huge obstacle for China’s assimilation policy,” he said.
No wonder then that many Chinese Azharites prefer to find less prestigious but much more reliable employment in private businesses, working as translators in Egypt or elsewhere in the Arab world, where they can earn relatively high salaries.
“It is a kind of mixed blessing, to be honest. Being a Chinese Muslim means that you are subject to invectives and live as a minority in your own country, but it also means that you can use your cultural advantage to find a job. It is obviously easier for us to adapt and get along with Egyptians because of our common religion,” said Mu.
Mu says that even if he considers that restrictions imposed on Muslims in China are unjust, he will not hesitate for a second to join the ranks of Chinese state companies that are making significant investments around the Suez Canal.
This willingness to reconcile faith and patriotism is also in line with the official Muslim establishment in China. Ding Wenjian, an imam at Beijing’s Niujie Mosque, is pleased to see that the faith of young Hui can bring them interesting opportunities abroad.
“Chinese Muslim youth can significantly support the development of their country and become an essential part of the Belt and Road Initiative. It is easier for them to relate to other Muslims and Arab people, as they speak a common language and share the same religion,” the 40-year-old imam told The Diplomat, just after Friday prayers.
But for Ma Songhui, the lucrative opportunities brought by his heritage seemed to lose a little of their luster after his peers were arrested. “We thought we were safe, but even here, even thousands of miles away, the same things are happening again, the same rifts and conflicts,” he said, adding he felt disappointed that the country he thought was a beacon of hope had turned against the very ones to whom it had offered shelter.
As we get up to leave the restaurant, he tells me he plans to go give out CVs and references tomorrow to Chinese state-owned companies based in the Suez Canal Development Zone, where China has become the biggest investor. Perhaps he will find opportunities there that will compensate for the freedom that was, in the end, only a mirage.
This work was produced as a result of a grant provided by the Africa-China Reporting Project managed by the Journalism Department of the University of the Witwatersrand.
François Napoleon is a journalist based in Beijing, China.