Chinese Muslims fret over war

By Scott Hillis

Tanshan village is about as far away from Baghdad and Washington as it is possible to get, but a looming war in Iraq is never far from the residents' minds. 

Living deep in the parched and impoverished hills of northern China's Ningxia region, the villagers usually worry about more immediate problems, such as whether their meagre harvest of wheat and beans will last out the year. 

But here and in other areas of southern Ningxia – where more than 80% of people belong to the Muslim Hui ethnic group – many are watching the US build-up to war with anger. 

While acknowledging that a terrible tragedy hit the United States on Sept 11, 2001, they cast US behaviour since then in terms of the strong bullying the weak. 

Some see the looming war as stemming from a personal grudge by US President George W. Bush against Iraq's Saddam Hussein, whom Bush’s father chose not to topple during the 1991 Gulf War. 

Ask Tanshan’s Sha Deke, who peddles Islamic books alongside sundry items like playing cards with photos of bikini-clad women, for his views on Iraq, and his posture straightens and his voice firms up. 

“In our hearts we are especially angry. Such a huge and powerful country picking on a small country!” said the bespectacled Sha, 30. 

“Iraq is developing nuclear weapons to protect its territory, not to destroy others. What is so destructive about that?” 

Sha's only source of news is a small black and white television that receives two state-controlled stations. There are no computers and no Internet. The village has a cellular relay station, but no one seems to have a mobile phone. 

State media are not allowed to stray from Beijing's stance opposing war, but their reporting has been relatively detailed. They have even covered US evidence that Iraq has sought biological and chemical weapons in defiance of United Nations resolutions. 

In Tongxin, a town about 70km from Tanshan, restaurant manager Zhang Xiaoling engages guests in polite chat about Hui customs and history before the talk turns to Iraq. 

The soft-spoken 25-year-old with a spiky haircut, sharp suit and a ready smile answers as easily as if he had been asked for his opinion on local teas. 

“As an average person, I just want world peace. If the world is peaceful, then we will have peace at home as well,” Zhang said. Then he adds: “But as a Muslim, I am very angry.” 

Many Chinese say they are opposed to a US-led war on Iraq. They say the United States lusts for oil. It is flexing its superpower muscle. It hates Saddam, an ambitious Muslim leader. 

They point to the tens of thousands of casualties Iraq suffered in the massive US air assault 12 years ago, and to reports of civilian deaths in Afghanistan, where a US-backed coalition toppled the Taliban after the Sept 11 attacks. 

But among ethnic Han Chinese there is widespread disdain for Islam, which is often viewed as backward and oppressive. 

Beijing is also backing the war on terror as it tries to suppress what is says are Muslim terror cells seeking independence for its far-flung western territory of Xinjiang. 

In Ningxia, where about one-third of the 5.7 million people are Hui Muslims, people said they also opposed terrorism. 

Take Hong Yang, a major Muslim leader in China. At 37, he counts more than one million people as his followers. 

Sitting on a sofa in his three-storey Tongxin home in front of pistachios, dates, melon seeds and other snacks, he says he is against war because he fears tit-for-tat violence. 

Asked for his views on the Sept 11 attacks on US cities, and what to make of Muslim-backed terrorism, Hong turns grave. 

“9-11, this incident was a crime. We can only say this incident was a crime,” Hong said. “Religion helps people move from war to peace. But there are individuals who use religion to obtain their own goals.” 

When prodded, others are quick to denounce terrorism. 

“People should not hurt innocent people, that they did this was cruel,” Sha, the bookseller in Tanshan, said of the Sept 11 attacks, which killed 3,066 people. 

“We hope Allah will help us find a peaceful resolution to this problem.” 

But as the United States edges closer to war with Iraq, solidarity with other Muslims seems paramount. 

A typical response came from Hong Weizhong, 64, an elderly administrator in a blue Mao suit and white Muslim cap at a school run by Hong Yang outside Tongxin. 

“America is just like an adult picking a fight with a child!” said Hong. 

He perhaps has good reason to fear a backlash against Muslims: during China’s 1966-76 ultra-leftist Cultural Revolution, fanatical Red Guards levelled every mosque in the area and burned down the previous Islamic school. – Reuters 

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