#43 event report – Radical Islam and International Security. A Chinese Perspective

April 20th, 2015 Bridge Cafè (Wudaokou)


Prof. LIANG Yabin, Party School of the Central Committee of the CPC



‘Islam is a sensitive term in China,” Prof Liang Yabin said, “and understanding radical Islam is equally challenging.” The Party school of the Central Committee of the CPC has a unit focused on studying what radical Islam is and where does it lie in the Chinese context. “We all agree that China is a victim of radical Islam and we work keeping that in mind,” Liang continued.

Putting forward the academic and historical debate on culture and its theoretical foundation, Liang went back to take references from Samuel P. Huntington and his well-know work, “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order” (1993). Huntington’s work theorized that after the Cold War the world order would have been made out of the intricacies of cultural clashes rather than of the clashes among political ideologies.

From there professor Liang formulated his speech in four sections, namely, i) rise of radical Islam, ii) how to understand radical Islam, iii) China as a victim of radical Islam and iv) what can we do about it. While talking about all these four sections, he connected all of them with each other with practical and theoretical references. He said that understanding religion and especially Islam is not an easy task in China because it is a very sensitive issue.

Going back to Huntington’s time, Liang connected the idea of clash of civilizations with two other works, namely, “The Roots of Muslim Rage” (1990) by Bernard Lewis and “Young Islam on Trek: A Study of the Clash of Civilizations” (1926) by Basil Mathews. Two major principles, democratic universalism and military interventionism, come from these works and were coined with the intent to manage the world resulted from the clash of civilizations, in Prof Liang’s words.  However, he argued that they didn’t turn out to be very successful means to manage the world order. He further said that one of the repercussions of such behavior drove directly towards radical Islam in the current world. Many Chinese scholars tend to think that radical Islam resulted only from Muslims themselves rather that as the product of the way the Western world, especially the United States of America, has intervened in the Arab countries, with the imposition of economic and cultural rules.

There is a fundamental problem in terms of understanding radical Islam: according to different perspectives, what we define as “terrorists” could appear as “freedom fighters” to the community whose rights and beliefs these people are trying to defend. This is how radical Islamists have gained more and more space in different countries of the world, also outside of their sphere of influence, like in Nigeria. The success of this movement lies also in its own soft power, exercised by the use of the internet: what we’re witnessing in more recent times are more “lone wolf” terror attacks instead of massive well-organized terrorist attacks, underlining the fact that there are more and more individuals that have been attracted to Islamist propaganda and want to join the movement by organizing small – but still deadly – attacks, all around the world, as in Sydney and Paris earlier this year. In addition, according to CIA figures, around 20,000 to 31,500 Islamic State Militants are fighting in Syria and Iraq and among them 15,000 are foreigners, with an increase in numbers because of the efforts employed by the newly established caliphate to recruit new members. Radical Islam has become a primary global threat, surveys revealed.

With that, Prof Liang Yabin switched to talk about understanding radical Islam in the historical sense and also in contemporary times. Going back to the end of World War I, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the fragmentation of the area into smaller countries deprived the Islamic world of a strong political center. With the Western intervention into domestic political affairs and the support to authoritarian regimes, the area faced repeated revolutions and phases of violence. Radical Islam it is said to be fueled then by political and societal grievances, provoked by injustices committed by Western governments in the past decades.

Prof Liang connected the historical background to the question of why radical Islam has become so prevalent at the present time. He claimed that one of the main reasons for radical Islam being so successful is because of the use of technology: social media and websites can spread the Islamist messages faster and practically everywhere in the world, reaching out to new supporters. The messy withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, the prisoners abuse by US soldiers, the doubtful results of the Arab Spring are all elements that can help us understanding the reasons why in the last few years we witnessed a rise of Islamist movements.

Where does China stand in this picture? As Liang explained, China is a secular country without a dominating religion, therefore it has developed tolerance towards every religion. Muslims have made great contributions to the history of China, as Zheng He, explorer during the Ming Dynasty that reached East Africa in the XIV century. However, the real relationship between China and Islamist movements revealed more conflicts than cooperation and radical Islam has become one of the biggest concerns for Beijing for its ability to drive the country towards instability. For instance, we are witnessing a strong arabization of the Uygur population in Xinjiang province, while in recent years terrorist attacks have crossed the borders and reached also other parts of China, as shown by the attack at Kunming train station in March 2014.

Prof Liang also discussed on what could be done in order to control the rise of radical Islam and mitigate risks coming from it. A change in foreign policy is widely needed, with a less interventionist approach deployed by Western countries and more cooperative efforts to increase the level of governance of Arab countries. Improving the quality of life of these communities with a fairer income distribution, investing in education, undermining the ideology of violence: these are all possible ways for weakening the rise of radical Islam.

Finally, prof Liang argued that the international community has to work together to prevent any use of violence against normal citizens all over the world.

Q & A

Addressing the question on whether there are any internal factors that are fueling radical Islam rather than just external factors, Prof Liang said that there are different understandings about different religions and all of them have their internal dynamics. Different people with religious faith have different understandings about their own religion and about other religions. It is very hard to change such perceptions and understandings. Forcing people to change their religious beliefs is also not a solution. For the case of China, being a communist party member means that one is not allowed to be part of any other organizations, including religious groups. This is a dilemma within Chinese society.

Chinese government is very strict about any radical religious beliefs. In the same vein, it is not possible for China to allow people to follow radical religious views and this is the case in Xinjiang.

Responding to the question about what is China’s long term strategy to counter radical Islam and terrorism in the name of religion, prof Liang said that President Xi Jinping’s plan for the New Silk Road could help China to deal with radical Islam by creating economic opportunities for people in Asia and out of Asia. China has always been fighting against radical Islam with tremendous calmness, which will also continue in the future. He said that the U.S. actions related to deal with radical Islam are rather troublemaker in China’s eyes.

In another question on how it would be possible to fight radical Islam by following the policy of non-intervention, prof Liang argued that the government is aware of taking actions but at the same time it also has to be careful to several other factors. The Chinese government has been continuously trying to be a responsible actor while dealing with any kind of international crisis. Similarly, the Chinese leadership is trying its best to prevent the arabization of its own society in the region with a strong presence of Muslim believers.

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