Chinese Muslim Americans Fear U.S. Alliance with China

When Mohammed Salah Lin was invited to Michigan to lecture on Chinese and international trade in January 2001, he expected to return to China after a three-month stay. A year later, after Beijing authorities linked him to a September 2000 Muslim uprising in China, he is afraid to return home.

Lin, 41, is now one of about 300 Chinese Muslims living in Los Angeles, and part of a smaller group of Chinese Muslims who gather once a month to talk about religious tenets, social values and their Chinese identities. Reticent to draw attention to himself as he struggles to bring his family to America, Lin refused to use his real name.

Lin and others are not overtly political, but do watch U.S. policy toward China. In January, the Chinese government released a report linking the Muslim Uighur separatist movement in Xinjiang province with Osama bin Laden's terrorist network. "Terrorism is a threat to both our countries," Bush said on his recent Beijing visit. Bush and Chinese President Jiang Zemin agreed to increase anti-terrorism cooperation. China's support for the war in Afghanistan was important to the Bush administration.

Lin is grateful for the religious freedom he has found in the United States. But he worries that America knows too little of the plight of Muslims in China.

"The U.S. government supports Buddhists in Tibet but not Muslims in Xinjiang," he said.

Trouble for Lin -- a Hui Muslim from Gansu, a western province that borders Xinjiang -- started in China two years ago. Formerly an economics professor at a Chinese university, Lin was lecturing in Shandong province in China in September 2000 when a conflict broke out between Muslim and non-Muslim locals in the nearby town of Liu Miao.

According to Lin, Muslims accused a butcher of selling pork in a halal meat shop (a shop that prepares meat according to Muslim religious guidelines) and of hanging a pig's head on the entrance to the local mosque. Swine are considered unclean in Islam. In response, Chinese Muslims from Shandong, Shanxi and Hebei provinces gathered to protest. Many were also angry with the local government, and saw the incident as an example of authorities' disrespect for their religious needs.

"It was a totally peaceful protest, and nobody was carrying weapons, but the protesters were met by armed police who fired into the crowd," Lin said. Thirty-nine Muslims were killed and hundreds injured and arrested, according to Lin.

"This was a massacre of Muslims by the Chinese government," he says.

After the incident, Lin says he had an "obligation as an educated Muslim and a scholar to investigate." In December 2000 he reported his findings anonymously via e-mail to Muslim contacts and scholars all over China.

After coming to America, Lin found that the Chinese Public Security Bureau had traced his e-mails and sent warnings to his wife and son in China. "They ransacked our house and took their passports away." Now he doesn't dare return to China, and his family is barred from leaving.

"I told my lawyer everything, but he said that no judge will grant me religious asylum in America as a Muslim. He told me to say that I was a member of Falun Gong." A devout Muslim, Lin refused to claim he was a member of the Chinese sect, rooted in Buddhism, that Beijing has attempted to eradicate. Because Lin's wife was forced by the government to get an abortion, he claimed to be persecuted by China's one-child policy and won asylum.

The men and women who attend the Los Angeles group include recent immigrants and American citizens, Chinese speakers and Arabic speakers, devout Muslims and those who are still learning about the Quran. Some are from Taiwan, others were born in America, and many, like Lin, are among the over 30 million Muslims of mainland China.

Ali Liu, a Chinese Muslim who works as an accountant in the Saudi Consulate, helped found the group over 12 years ago to discuss Islam with other Chinese Muslims, many of whom have lost touch with their religion after years of surviving under political oppression.

"I feel an obligation to ask Chinese Muslims to come back to Islam, but I cannot give them too much pressure because they are new here and they have a lot of pressure to make a life in America," said Liu, who has lived in the United States for 18 years.

Liu comes to the monthly meetings with Chinese copies of the Quran for those in the group who can't speak English or Arabic. Women in the group share stories about Islam in Mandarin while the group elders encourage their grandchildren to listen.

Some in the group grew up praying and studying the Quran secretly in China.

"I dare not pray openly in China, even though I am a devout Muslim," said Lin, who remembers being forced to raise pigs and eat pork as a child during China's Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). During that time, his oldest brother, who was an imam and studied Arabic, was jailed for four years.

Lin said that these days, many of China's working-class Muslims practice openly, but for an educated Muslim to pray or study openly in China remains taboo.

"If you are a high-ranking official or a scholar and you study the Quran, you will never be trusted. This might not be official, but you will never get a promotion," he said.

Lin is certain he would serve a minimum of 10 years imprisonment if he returns to China.

Such harsh sentencing is likely considering the long history of clashes between Chinese authorities and the Muslim separatist movement the northwestern province of Xinjiang -- a primarily Muslim region that shares a border with Afghanistan.

The Chinese government report on Xinjiang identifies six organizations it brands terrorist and says they were responsible for over 200 terrorist acts in China in the past decade.

Lin worries clashes between Muslims and the Chinese government will increase. He longs for his family to join him here, where they might be permitted to live.

"My dream is that my son can grow up in America where he will have freedom of religion," he said.

Anna Sophie Loewenberg (A HREF="mailto:"asloewenberg@aol.com">(asloewenberg@aol.com) lived and worked in Beijing for four years and was a reporter for Beijing Scene, a bilingual weekly.

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