Robert Fisk’s World: In a remote corner of China lies a tiny patch of Muslim freedom

I find a brace of outrageously polite children learning the Koran
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The Independent Online

Some of the Arabic is misspelled. The "F" has sometimes been written as "R", the gravestones occasionally carrying adjectives in the wrong place. But it's Muslim, no doubt about it.

There are enough half-moons on the cracked concrete to tell you that this little corner of a foreign field owes its existence to a prophet in a far distant land – a desert so far away that when I asked a Chinese security guard for the nearest mosque, he directed me to a Sikh temple. Welcome to Hong Kong, People's Republic of China, home to almost a quarter of a million Muslims.

Yes, we know about the Uighurs – though there are precious few in Hong Kong – and this little democratic bit of the great communist nation boasts a hidden cathedral, an ancient pagoda and the skin of the last wild tiger shot on the island – a black ratty bit of fur, all that's left of the handiwork of Indian policeman Rur Singh who shot the 240lb, 73-inch long, 3ft-high beast after it padded up to the Stanley Police Station, under Japanese occupation in 1942.

But somehow the Muslims of Hong Kong remain even more alien to this unique place than the Brit financiers and brokers and the memorials to a lost empire. And when I ask to see the chief imam of Hong Kong – a title to reflect upon – he turns out to be a Pakistani from Multan, busy arranging residence cards for his flock, happy to extol the delights of his temporary multibillion-dollar homeland. "We are free," he announces. "We are independent. We have a good relationship with the police." When non-locals praise local policemen, I always look at them askance. But Mufti Mohamed Arshad – trained at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, frequenter of Lebanon, Syria and Qatar – insists there are several Muslims in the Hong Kong police force, though they have to speak Chinese.

The first Muslims to reach Hong Kong reportedly from Malaya arrived well over a century and a half ago – fishermen and traders who turned up for a few days and decided to stay, men for the most part whose families originally came from Yemen. After the British arrived on the "barren rock" – this was Palmerston's phrase – in 1841, they brought in their Indian regiments, which contained thousands of Muslims. The first mosque was built in 1896 near the Kowloon barracks.

Haj Mohamed has his own military background; he was religious affairs education officer in the Pakistan air force, serving in Islamabad and Quetta before arriving in Hong Kong in 2001. Indeed, Pakistani pilots used to travel to the People's Republic for training. So Mufti Mohamed is a safe pair of hands. No wonder he gets on with the security forces. But there are good relations between all religions – the mufti holds interfaith meetings – and when demonstrations were held on the island to protest at Israel's ferocious bombardment of Gaza almost 12 months ago, Muslims were outnumbered by non-Muslims. A non-Chinese Jewish businessman told me that many Chinese businessmen knew little about the Middle East "except for five minutes on CNN". He was very, very wrong.

About 100,000 of Hong Kong's Muslims have the right to work and hold residence papers; the same number are domestic helpers and there are a few hundred asylum-seekers from Somalia, Pakistan and other Muslim countries. Thirty thousand are Chinese Muslims, refugees from the mainland during British days or born in Hong Kong to refugee parents. There's a Chinese Muslim imam at the Osman Ramju Sadick Islamic Centre, where I find a brace of outrageously polite children learning the Koran, reciting the "sura" while sitting on a high-pile rug, a weirdly Chinese script from the Koran – a mixture of Arabic characters with Chinese squiggles in the middle – on the wall above them.

"Mosque" doesn't really translate into Mandarin or Cantonese and the best version I got was "qing zhen si", or "pure truth temple" – I guess that's why I got misdirected to the Sikh temple in the first place. "Allah" comes out in translation from Chinese as "True God", "Islam" as "Pure Truth". As Imam Sulieman Wang pointed out to me, "When there are no words in Chinese for 'Koran' or 'Hadith', it was difficult for most Chinese to understand what we believed in."

But every cloud has a dark, black lining. Another Chinese Muslim – a regular visitor to the mainland – realises how lucky he is to live in Hong Kong. "There, an imam cannot even address the people of a mosque in which he is not the preacher. Chinese Muslims wanted to hold demonstrations over Gaza, but this was not allowed by the state. We say we are very angry but we can do nothing. We can't demonstrate in China." The Chinese system of education, the man complained, meant that a lot of mainland Muslims did not understand their religion. The bitter protests among the Uighur population was ethnic rather than religious.

As he spoke, a flock of Chinese military helicopters moved up the waters off the island, preparations for the great 60th anniversary of Mao's enormous, economically miraculous and – historically – sometimes Stalinistically vicious nation. A few of the local papers have been questioning the great famine, the silent suffering of millions that followed the 1949 communist victory. They are lucky to have this freedom. In fact, just about anybody in Hong Kong is lucky. So are the Muslims. Save for Lebanon and Malaysia, I can't imagine a Muslim land where they would be freer. Which either tells you something about Hong Kong. Or rather too much about the Muslim world.

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