Autonomy in Movement: Informal Islamic Activities amongst Hui Muslims in China

NARA Masashi (National Museum of Ethnology, Japan)

This presentation examines how a Muslim minority can maintain religious autonomy from the contemporary Chinese state that actively oppresses religion. Specifically, it focuses on processes whereby Hui Muslims carry out informal and highly mobile Islamic pedagogical practices in Kunming, Yunnan Province.

Recent studies of religious revival in China have tended to interpret it with an assumption that it is possible for religious groups to expand autonomy through political action against the state or with it, such as resistance and institutionalization (e.g. Chau 2005) et cetera (cf. William 2008). However, such studies overlook the fact that people paradoxically lost autonomy through engaging in politics against the state. That is to say, when individuals attempt to challenge the state through means legitimized by the state, the effectively become agents of the state. They are empowered in the name of the state and officially enrolled as actants in government.

Conversely, Scott proposed “the art of not being governed” as an understanding of autonomy that avoided walking into such a paradox. According to Scott, hill peoples in upland Southeast Asia before World War 2 maintained autonomy from the state by taking flight both culturally and geographically from central state power (Scott 2009). However, city dwellers do not have such an anarchic space within modern nation-states.

Based on the above, this presentation examines how Hui Muslims have maintained their religious autonomy in contemporary China; a country where religions are under strong governmental control. This presentation focus on the processes and practices Hui Muslims have carried out through engaging in informal religious activities to deal with “state power”.

Although there has been an abatement of religious policies in the post-Mao Chinese state, for example allowing the reconstruction of mosques, the government still tightly restricts many aspects of religious life. Officially, religious activities are to be conducted in authorized religious institutes. Moreover, although official mosques are legally secured to hold religious activities, they must follow instructions laid out by the government. Consequently, most mosques have become places where Muslims cannot conduct religious activities freely.

In sum, because of governmental limitations, Mosques cannot sufficiently work as Islamic educational institutions. Therefore, Muslims informally conduct Islamic learning activities outside the governmental administrative system. However, the location of such pedagogical practices is highly unstable because such activities are in constant danger of prompting the policing and enforcement of governmental regulations. Instead of direct and situated resistance to the state, religious teaching and learning practices have become a ‘hit and run’ affair; activities are often temporarily halted and locations shift in order to dodge governmental regulations.

Such activities are mobile and fragile because participants are always faced with the possible intervention of the government. However, through such clandestine methods Hui Muslims cannot be completely oppressed by the government. In fact, it is because of such unstable practices that the propagation of Islam continues effectively if intermittently.

Thus, Hui Muslims maintain autonomy by “movement” as a refuge from the state rather than engaging in firmly located politics against the state. Autonomy for them is in incessant movement rather than in aiming to be free from situated subordination.

References

Chau, Adam Yuet. 2005. The Politics of Legitimation and the Revival of Popular Religion in Shaanbei, North-Central China. Modern China 31(2): 236-278.

Scott, James C. 2009. The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale Agrarian Studies Series). New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Williams, Gwyn. 2008. Cultivating Autonomy: Power, Resistance and the French Alterglobalization Movements. Critique of Anthropology 28(1): 63-86.

Hou Renyou

Doctorant en sociologie, anthropologie et ethnologie, rattaché au Centre d'études chinoises-ASIEs (EA 4512) de l'Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales (INALCO). ATER, DEA, section de Chinois Membre statutaire de l’IrAsia (UMR 7306).

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