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Dr. Mohammed Al-Sudairi


Fellow in the project "Conceptions of World Order and Their Social Carrier Groups" (September–December 2021)

Short Biography

Mohammed Al-Sudairi is a Post-doctoral Fellow at the Hong Kong Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences and is a Senior Research Fellow and Head of the Asian Studies Unit at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. He obtained his PhD in Comparative Politics from the University of Hong Kong, his master's degree in International Relations from the Peking University and in International History from the London School of Economics (joint program), and his undergraduate degree in International Politics from the Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He is proficient in Arabic, English, and Chinese. His research interests encompass Sino-Middle Eastern relations, Islamic and leftist connections between East Asia and the Arab World, and Chinese politics. 


Modern China and the Question of Muslim Sectarianism

Sinophone Islam, as found in the Xibei (Xinjiang, Gansu, Qinghai and Ningxia), is characterized by sectarian (jiaopai) divisions among various groupings such as the Qadim (gedimu), the Sufi orders (menhuan), the Xidaotang, the Ikhwan (yihewani), and the Salafis (sailaifei). With the exception of the latter, all of these sects adhere to a common doctrinal and legalistic tradition, shared by their co-religionists in Central Asia, of Maturidi-Hanafism. Yet this commonality in framework – and the broader Sunni affiliation that unites all of these sects – has not deterred the emergence of discernible sectarian identities shaped by strained inter-sectarian relations that have occasionally devolved into exclusion, excommunication (takfir) and even violence. This sectarian configuration makes China’s Islamic landscape in the Xibei unique when compared to other non-Sinophone Muslim contexts wherein sectarian cleavages have, particularly over the past two decades, expressed themselves in terms of the more well-known Sunni-Shi’ite divide. This highly-contingent sectarianism creates an opening for thinking about the evolution of societal and state-centred politics (in relation to minority religiosities) as well as the unexpected international entanglements of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) into the religious and ideational worldviews of others.

The proposed research project aims to explore the question of Muslim sectarianism as it relates to the PRC by focusing on three distinct dimensions. First, at the communal-level, the project looks at the production and re-production of sectarian identities among Sinophone Muslim communities in the Xibei from the twentieth century onwards. Some of the critical questions that will be examined include how and why did such self-identities take root (i.e. the process of sectarianization) in the Xibei while failing to do so in other environments such as in the Zhongyuan or Yunnan. Additionally, how have these sectarian identities intersected with other ‘unifying’ ethnic/nation-building projects – i.e. the formation of the Hui, Salar, Dongxiang, Bao’an minzu – promoted by the PRC state? Second, at the national-level, the project interrogates how the modern Chinese state, in both the Maoist and post-Maoist eras, imagined and controlled sectarian divisions among its Xibei-based Muslim citizens. Of interest is identifying the hallmarks (sources) and evolution of official thinking on the topic, and what strategies have been deployed by multi-levelled state actors, in provinces such as Qinghai for instance, to contend with these divisions and realize the overriding goal of stability maintenance. In other words, this dimension is concerned with understanding the PRC’s ‘state governance of Muslim sectarianism’ and how it manages sectarian difference.

Third and last, at the international-level, the project considers how the PRC has been incorporated into the sectarian imaginaries of various actors from the Muslim world over the preceding two decades. It will pay particular attention to the Arab world wherein various narratives have re-cast China as a key battleground for a much larger Sunni-Shi’ite struggle. In doing so, China’s rise and growing visibility within Muslim-majority Belt and Road Initiative countries is brought under new light, highlighting the ‘religious-sectarian’ aspect of this rise. In many ways, this dimension shows how the “realities” of China (including that of sectarianism within it) are side-lined in favour of other more locally-grounded ideational projects. The project, which will potentially be converted into a book, promises to be of interest to those studying sectarianism and sectarianization, state management of religion and minorities, Islam in China, and global perceptions of China. It will draw upon Arabic, Chinese and English-language sources, and engage with the literatures of multiple fields and disciplines.