Samuel Huntington’s seminal work, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, published more than two decades ago, posits that in the twenty-first century, most major conflicts will pit cultural regions against each other.
One such potential area of contention would be at the boundary between the Islamic world and that of the east Asian Confucian-based civilizations.
Were that to become the case, a small-scale version of this is already playing out in the Muslim regions of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Xinjiang – officially the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region – in the far west of the country has already become an arena of conflict.
Despite its name, it is in fact historically part of Muslim Central Asia, the large region once called Turkestan.
Most of that area, the home of major Islamic civilizations, was conquered by the Russian tsars in the 19th century and later became five separate republics in the Soviet Union. They became independent countries in 1991.
Only Xinjiang, once known as East Turkestan, and historically inhabited mainly by Uighurs, remains under the domination of a non-Muslim state.
The Uighurs, along with Turkic tribes like the Kazakhs (including some who also live in Xinjiang), converted to Islam beginning around the year 1000.
Xinjiang is part of the PRC today because the Manchu-ruled Qing empire conquered it in the eighteenth century, in the course of a westward expansion. The local populations, however, were largely allowed to retain their own cultures.
This benign neglect continued into the 20th century. But with the emergence of the Communist-ruled Chinese state in 1949, as Beijing sought to maintain control over Xinjiang, a debate emerged pitting the old imperial ethno-pluralism against Han Chinese nationalistic assimilationism.
At first Beijing followed the Soviet model of ethno-federalism, granting non-Han peoples official status as nationality or ethnic groups, with special rights enshrined in the Chinese constitution.
Han civilization was, in theory, not considered superior. The PRC celebrated China’s cultural diversity, encouraging publishing in non-Han languages, putting minorities on the currency, and so on.
But many Chinese political theorists blamed the disintegration of the USSR on Soviet nationality policies, so a reassessment of the ethno-pluralist system began.
They argued that only after assimilating minorities into a broader pan-Chinese ethnicity would China be truly stable.
Not only would ethnic distinctiveness have to be eliminated, but the religion underpinning it would have to also be wiped out, because religious belief itself was contradictory to the unitary pan-Chinese identity.
In October 2017 the Xinjiang Communist Youth League used a medical metaphor to malign the Uighur belief in Islam.
“There is always a risk that the illness will manifest itself at any moment, which would cause serious harm to the public.” That is why, they insisted, the devout “must be admitted to a re-education hospital in time to treat and cleanse the virus from their brain.”
Hence the introduction of today’s “re-education” centres – in effect, gulags and prisons – and redefining independent Uighur groups as terrorist organizations.
Today there are tens of thousands of security personnel in the region. As well, a vast and expanding surveillance network of facial-recognition cameras, GPS vehicle tracking, and fingerprint, voice-print, and even walking-gait scans are linked to a database of personal information about the population.
Uighur religious and other cultural practices are increasingly circumscribed or legally banned. School instruction in the Uighur language has been eliminated.
Xinjiang authorities now define as “extremist” veils, head coverings, “abnormal beards,” long clothing, fasting at Ramadan, avoiding alcohol, religious education, mosque attendance, and avoidance of state radio or television.
Members of the Uighur cultural, academic, and business elite, including top administrators of universities and chief editors of presses, have been singled out for detention.
Over a million people are interned in the re-education camps, where detainees must sing anthems of the Chinese Communist Party, disavow Islam, watch propaganda films, and study Chinese language and history.
The state now increasingly finds Islamic faith and even non-Han ethnic culture to be inimical to the goal of homogeneous Chinese identity.
If Huntington is right, and the Muslim and east Asian world will eventually collide, this is a foretaste of what’s to come.