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Published On:26 September 2011
Posted by Indian Muslim Observer

For China's Muslim schools, a balancing act

By Ananth Krishnan

For the Ningxia Islamic College's 420 students, lessons can often be confusing.

During their morning classes, the students, all from China's 10 million-strong Hui Muslim minority group, recite verses from the Koran and study Arabic.

When afternoon lessons resume, after prayers, their teachers shift tack: the students pore over Chinese textbooks on Socialist theory, learning about capital, labour and Communist Party philosophy.

“Socialism and Islam are, usually, not the most compatible of subjects,” says Ma Ming Xian, the vice dean of the college, with a smile.

Getting the equation right in the curriculum is just one of many balancing acts that Islamic schools routinely face, in a country home to 20 million Muslims but has national education policies directed by an officially atheist ruling party.

In interviews with The Hindu, officials, teachers and students in Ningxia, a western desert region home to the Hui, and in far-western Xinjiang, where 8 million Uighur Muslims live, painted a picture of a carefully enforced education system, that looks to strike a balance between political and religious interests.

In the Islamic college in Yinchuan, teachers said their priority was to ensure that students placed “patriotism over religion”. “Love your country, love religion,” reads a sign at the entrance of the college.

“The country comes first, and then your religion. That is our message,” said Mr. Ma.

China's five “autonomous regions”, which include Ningxia, Xinjiang and Tibet, are home to most of the 55 minority ethnic groups. They are allowed to set up their own education systems under the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law.

In practice, policies are set by Beijing and directed by local Communist Party secretaries, who hold more power than their government counterparts, said teachers and officials in both regions.

In most primary and middle schools in Ningxia, Huis do not study the Koran or learn Arabic. “We are only allowed Koran study once we are in college,” said one Hui student at the Yinchuan college.

Mr. Ma, the vice-dean, said there were “some differences” with the education system, with religious coursework making up 70 per cent of the curriculum. The five State-run Islamic colleges were, however, an exception — they devote more attention to religious studies than other schools as they are used to train Imams.

Most of the Ningxia school's 3,400 graduates, Mr. Ma said, ended up working in the region's 3,760 registered mosques. But because of an “oversupply” of religious teachers in recent years, more students were taking up jobs as translators in West Asia or Africa where Chinese investments are growing, according to a recent report in the State-run Xinhua news agency.

Less attention

In Xinjiang, the central government has encouraged the setting up of bilingual education schools to promote the study of Mandarin Chinese. In the past two years alone, Xinjiang has set up close to 1,500 bilingual schools, now making up 85 per cent of all kindergartens. In these schools, many Uighurs say religious studies and Uighur culture are given less attention.

Pan Zhiping, a scholar at the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences, said “there has been criticism of the Chinese government popularising Mandarin,” but added that the government was of the view that “a developed country needs a common language.” Mandarin Chinese, not Uighur, is the working language of both government and State-run companies in Xinjiang.

In both Xinjiang and Ningxia, local governments have waged a campaign against informal Quran study sessions, on occasion, arresting and fining local residents who organise and participate in private religious study sessions.

“By the time students start reading the Koran, they are already too old and have left school,” said Ilham (name changed), a primary school teacher in Kashgar in Xinjiang's far west. “And by the time they start studying,” he added, “they have already lost interest.”

(Courtesy: The Hindu)

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