China Muslims Work to Change Perceptions After Knife Attacks

China says it has sentenced three men to death and one woman to life in prison over a deadly knife attack in March that left more than 30 dead and 140 injured. Beijing says Muslim militants from China’s restive western region, Xinjiang, carried out the attacks. Now, more than six months after the incident occurred residents in the city are still coping with the aftermath.


It is clear that the attacks are having a lasting impact here in Kunming. There is a strong police presence throughout the city especially in large shopping areas or at public transportation sites.


Outside Yongning Mosque, one of six key houses of worship for Muslims in Kunming, a police van was on standby. Near the mosque, Jinbi Square was full of police, some in uniform and some not. Plainclothes police followed this reporter around while conducting interviews, but did not interfere.


Muslims in Kunming say that while they condemn the violence, and it is not a reflection of the true beliefs of their faith, the attacks continue to have an impact.


Muslims from all over China and even parts of South Asia filled the halls of Yongning mosque last Friday afternoon, the same day the sentences for the attack were released.


One ethnic Hui Muslim from Gansu spoke with VOA about life in Kunming after the attacks. He makes a living selling barbequed lamb and beef on the street.


He says, “I am a Muslim and the attackers were Muslim and because of that, when others look at me and the cap that I wear they also think that I am from Xinjiang.”


In Xinjiang, which has experienced unrest and security crackdowns, most Muslims are ethnic Uighurs. But in Kunming, most Muslims are ethnic Hui, who have not had the same tensions with the government or with China’s Han majority.


Gui Junwen is also a Hui Muslim and director of Yongning mosque. He says it could take up to five years to overcome the impact of the attacks.


Gui says “there are those [in Kunming] who are directly linking the Muslim religion to terrorism and when they see Hui Muslims that’s what they think.” However, he says that gradually Muslims here “are working to turn that around, communicate and build understanding.”


For some, bridging that gap may take more time. One Kunming resident says there have always been tensions between Muslims and other groups in China.


He says “there are a lot of Muslims in Yunnan and their view of life and their customs are so different from most people and even Christians.” He says, “it’s like we live in two different worlds.”


Another younger Kunming resident says that the attacks were shocking.


He says he “couldn’t understand why people in China would kill each other like that.” Adding that now, when he goes places for fun, he is fearful and worries.


Others, however, say the situation now is not that bad.


One female resident says “most [Muslims] in Yunnan are ethnic Hui and the Hui have long gotten along well with Chinese.” She says It’s really only a small minority of those “rogue elements of society who commit such acts.”


Kunming has long been a melting pot of religious faiths and Yunnan is home to more than 20 ethnic minorities, but residents say the violence risks undermining that reputation.


Muslims in Kunming say that following the attacks it was difficult to flag down a taxi.

Yang Changjiu rushed two blood soaked victims to the hospital in his cab the night of the attacks, which he says have been a big blow to his business and tourism here.


Yang says that while some have been saying to not pick up people from Xinjiang because the attackers were from there, he does not feel the fear. “There are good and bad people in Xinjiang,” Yang says. But he says as long as someone wants a ride, he will pick them up.


Not all residents in Kunming may agree with Yang. The attacks in Kunming are just one of a more than a dozen outbursts of ethnic and religious violence that have hit China over the past year and half.


Those attacks, and the near daily news headlines here about the Islamic State’s conquests in the Middle East, are challenging those here who are trying to change the perception that all Muslims are extremists.

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