Is China Courting American Muslims?

Is China Courting American Muslims?

American Islamophobia is bad for business—and good for China.

The Niujie Mosque in Beijing.The legitimization of political discourse against Muslims is on the rise in the United States, while Beijing—an ostensibly socialist, secular government—builds mosques, in a paradoxical soft-power pitch to the Muslim world. Will Muslim business interests look East?

In little over a decade since 9/11, China built a mosque to welcome Muslim guests from countries like neighboring Kazakhstan, a major supplier of natural fuels, to Guangzhou for the 2010 Asian Games. Chinese state-owned construction companies finished a railway allowing Muslims to travel between pilgrimage sites in Mecca and Medina in the same year and broke ground in the construction of a monumental Grand Mosque of Algiers in 2012.

Hong Kong is pushing for legislation to establish “a wholesale Islamic capital market in promoting Islamic finance,” a move to draw more Muslim capital and business to China's Special Administrative Region, according to its Financial Services and Treasury Bureau.

Meanwhile, in the post-9/11 United States, a Baptist church inaugurated a day to burn Islam's holy book in 2010; Herman Cain, in a bid for the Republican Party presidential ticket, proclaimed he would not appoint Muslims to his administration and suggested Muslim Americans take a loyalty oath in 2011; and roughly two dozen state congresses are considering new legislation to block Islamic law from penetrating their legal systems, in what Muslim American leaders are calling a phantom menace and an act of fearmongering.

“If the treatment of American Muslims doesn't change, that will jeopardize U.S. interests in the Muslim world. Muslims have options. They might go to China and India,” said Haris Tarin, head of the Washington office of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), a Muslim American advocacy group.

What happens in the United States is splashed across the Arab presses, much as calls to terrorism are published widely in American media, said James Zogby, the founder of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a DC-based community-advocacy organization that conducts polling and policy research across the Middle East and North Africa.

“When we want Muslims to take a loyalty oath, it rings loudly around the Middle East like a bell,” Zogby said.

In a 2011 release of AAI polling data from Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, all but Saudi Arabia had a more favorable opinion of China than of the United States. Morocco, Egypt, Jordan and the UAE had opinions of China five times higher, while Lebanon's opinion of China was three times higher than that of the United States.

U.S. approval ratings declined between 2002 and 2004, except in the UAE, and declined again between 2008 and 2011 in all countries except Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. In each data set, approval ratings plummeted by as much as half.

Zogby feels public perceptions are likely to affect business decisions.

“The cumulative effect of (Islamophobic) incidents does take a toll. . . . Increasingly in our polling, we find that people still understand that the U.S. is the most powerful of the global economies. But when we ask Arabs about the future, the East is looming large,” Zogby said, “They see South and East Asia as prime targets for future engagement. That will come at the expense of the United States.”

The U.S. Department of Commerce's International Trade Administration said it is confident about the U.S. trade relationship with the Middle East. “American-made products are viewed as high-quality and are much sought after by consumers in the region,” said Francisco Sanchez, undersecretary for international trade.

But China famously undercuts the competition, and that makes a difference in a region where non-oil economies struggling with postrevolutionary unemployment rates need cheap goods for daily use.

In 2010, China surpassed the United States as the top exporter to the Middle East region, after its exports to the region grew by nearly 90 percent from 2005–2009, according to figures from the IMF. MENA exports to China in the years just after 9/11 grew by an average 41.1 percent, whereas exports to the United States in the same period grew by 25 percent.

The trade gap has widened in recent years. China-Middle East trade volume beat out U.S.-Middle East trade volume in 2009 by $3 billion and in 2010 by $67 billion, according to figures released by Beijing and Washington respectively.

In 2011, U.S.-Middle East trade amounted to $153 billion, but according to the most recent release of figures by Beijing, Chinese-Middle East trade already amounted to $120 billion within just the first half of the last fiscal year.

In the post-9/11 world, China famously has beat out the United States as the region's foremost purchaser of oil. More oil may mean more Chinese-built minarets on the horizon, analysts say.

“The more oil the Chinese buy from the Middle East, the stronger the interest Chinese officials are likely to show in developing and strengthening political ties to the Middle East,” said Blake Clayton, an energy fellow at Washington-based think tank Council on Foreign Relations. “That attention will likely be reciprocated,” he said, “Middle Eastern leaders will stay more closely attuned to political and economic developments in China and elsewhere than they had been.”

Given the ongoing discourse against Islamic law in the United States, it may be impossible for Washington to start building mosques, but there are other options that would boost the U.S. image in the Arab and Muslim worlds. MPAC's Haris Tarin suggested the U.S. government “facilitate investment in the private sector,” particularly civil society.

Although the People's Republic is gaining in popularity, Zogby noted that views of China aren't static. In previous years, Beijing's treatment of Muslim Uighurs on its Western frontier tarnished its name with Muslims, and with China's recent support for the Assad regime in Syria, Arab and Muslim attitudes toward the People's Republic may have taken a sharp downturn.

“The Uyghur issue was front and center several years ago. It's not preeminent on people's minds anymore,” Zogby said, “If there's any negative association in people's minds, it's over Syria. Still, China does not have the kind of negative image America has.”

Massoud Hayoun is a North African-American writer and speakers on Middle East, North African and Chinese affairs. He has written for The Atlantic, TIME Magazine and Hong Kong's South China Morning Post.

Image: smartneddy