Viral Internet story about China’s ‘Dancing Imams’ partly true
This image has gone viral in the last week on Twitter, Facebook and countless aggregator websites, with this same accompanying story.
Chinese Imams Forced to Dance
URUMQI - In another crackdown on religious freedoms, China has forced the imams of eastern Muslim majority district of Xinjiang to dance in the street, and swear to an oath that they will not teach religion to children as well telling them that prayer is harmful to the soul.
During the incident, reported by World Bulletin on Monday, February 9, Muslim imams were forced to brandish the slogan that “our income comes from the CKP not from Allah”.
State Chinese news said the imams were gathering in a square in the name of civilization where they were forced to dance and chant out slogans in support of the state.
The slogans included statements glorifying the state over religion such as ‘peace of the country gives peace to the soul’.
They also gave speeches telling youth to stay away from mosques, and that the prayer was harmful to their health, encouraging them to dance instead.
Female teachers were instructed to teach children to stay away from religious education and made to swear an oath that they will keep children away from religion.
As with many viral Internet news items, this alarming report has some truth in it, and a lot of exaggeration.
I wanted to find the original source of the photo, which carries the watermark of the Xinjiang branch of the Chinese state media agency, Xinhuanet. Even using Google Image search, it look me quite a bit of time, given the hundreds of times the photo has been reproduced across the Internet. In addition, Chinese websites commonly copy each other’s content (especially items from the state propaganda office), so wading through the Chinese results took some time too.
Here are two publications of the photo from local media. The Xinhuanet impression is probably the original. The Shule County government website carries the same image. Click through the slideshows to find the dancing imams.
In any event, the image of the “dancing imams” comes from Shule County, near Kashgar, in Xinjiang Province. Most of the people living in this area in the far west of China — including the men in the photo — are Uighur Muslims. There has been unrest and violence between UIghurs and members of the Han majority group living in Xinjiang and elsewhere.
So, what about the dancing? As the state media report explains, the men were participating in a local dance contest organized to foster camaraderie and friendship. The banner in the background reads “故士安宁,心神安定” (gushi anning, xinshen anding) “With peace, there is stability.”
My Uighur friends assure me, however, that pious Uighur men, especially imams, would not dance in public willingly, so the report that they were forced into it is credible. They were not dancing in the street, however, nor were they the only group dancing. It was part of a community-wide performance held in a public square.
Whether they had to chant the slogan “our income comes from the CKP not from Allah,” however, I can’t verify yet. Since the men were dancing to the pop tune, “Xiao PingGuo” (Little Apple), which has its own lyrics, if the men had to do any chanting, it would have had to have been before or after their dance routine.
As @rachel_tln at Foreign Policy reports, government officials organized these dance performances last month all across western Xinjiang. Teams — some including hundreds of members — had to line-dance to “Xiao PingGuo,” which has been described as the Chinese “Macarena.”
Besides the men pictured above, described in state media as the “religious team,” there were also dance teams of children, villagers (men and women), and women alone. There were also performances by drum teams, comedians, dancers and others, depending on location.
This image may support the allegation that Uighurs were forced to wave Chinese flags during their dancing. The woman in the foreground in the “villagers team” looks less than happy dancing with flags clenched in her teeth.
It was yet another example of the Communist Chinese compulsion of staging elaborate public performances to build community, and not coincidentally, present a cheerful, harmonious face to the outside world.
Bread and circuses, as it were.
How were the imams coerced into performing? At this point all I can only suggest it was a kind of “mandatory option,” as my high school music teacher once put it. Sure, you can say no, but there will be unpleasant consequences if you refuse.
Every Chinese citizen has to pledge loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party and promise to maintain a “harmonious society.” When someone does something displeasing to local party officials, or to the bigwigs in Beijing, they can lose their jobs, be fined, arrested or detained, be publicly humiliated, or be tried and imprisoned for crimes against the state.
In addition, Chinese bigwigs expect prompt compliance with their directives, no matter how inconvenient or difficult it may be for other people.
The event in Shule was not the only Little Apple contest in Xinjiang. Foreign Policy links to this one in Kashgar city on the square in front of the Id Kah Mosque. This gala was even bigger than the one in Shule County.
These public performances are part of the government’s efforts to quell extremism in Xinjiang, where separatist groups have become real threats to the “harmonious society” favored by the CCP. The idea, one supposes, is that keeping Uighurs busy preparing for entertainment galas will lessen the possibility they will join extremist factions.
I have my doubts, as these big galas are PITAs and may only aggravate latent hostility.
As for the viral story’s allegations that Uighurs’ religious freedoms are being violated, including prohibition of religious education and prayer, I’m doubtful, but only somewhat.
The Chinese are trying to quash Muslim extremism, so it’s possible the prohibitions are only against extremist actions. On the other hand, my Uighur friends tell me of routine harassment by Han officials — most government offocials in Xinjiang are Han and/or are not native to the province — and there have been rules in some towns prohibiting young men from growing beards and women from wearing face veils, all in the name of fighting terrorism.
Islam is one of the religions formally recognized in China, and Muslims are free to worship in state-approved mosques. There are two relatively large Muslim minority groups, the Hui and the Uighurs. The Hui predominantly descend from ethnic Chinese who converted to Islam centuries ago, and for the most part, the Hui co-exist quite peacefully with the Han majority.
Uighurs, in contrast, are of Turkic descent and have resisted assimilation into the majority Chinese culture. They have their own language and customs — they typically do not celebrate the Chinese New Year, for example — and have more in common with their neighbors to the west than to the Beijing government in the east.
The Party, for its part, does not trust groups that do not bow to its power, and that includes Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, and pro-democracy protesters, artists and writers. So any unrest in Xinjiang or elsewhere has been answered quickly and violently by the People’s Liberation Army. Reports of these altercations are quickly scrubbed from social media in China, and Chinese residents only hear about them (if at all) from foreign media. Controlling the Party’s narrative of a “harmonious society” is one reason why China has blocked Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, The New York Times, and other foreign media since PLA soldiers were recorded beating Tibetan monks in 2009
So, is the Chinese government telling Uighurs they can’t teach the Quran and prayers to children? And is the government forcing Uighurs to pledge allegiance to the Party, and not to Allah? It’s certainly possible, but proving it is another story.