A 38 year-old man in Kashgar, identified as Mehmet Emin, was last month sentenced to six years in prison for his beard, a sentence which provoked internet users to decry the lack of religious freedom in China’s Xinjiang province.
According to reports, he began growing it in 2010 and received warnings on numerous occasions to remove it, but refused. His wife received a two year sentence, for wearing a veil covering her hair and face, and was awarded a comparatively lighter sentence because she wrote a confession to local authorities, expressing regret for her behaviour and admitting her wrong.
Since the mid-1980s, religious repression has escalated in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), in China’s northwest.
Xinjiang, a province once dominated by Uyghur Muslims, whose culture is more Central Asian than Chinese, has seen an influx of Han Chinese resettling in the region, to the extent that the Uyghurs now barely constitute 50% of the population, when only 40 years ago, they comprised more than 90%.
Though the Uyghurs have long been calling for independence, the region is ‘autonomous’ only in name and not in practice. The colonisation of their homeland by the Han Chinese has only enhanced their nationalist attitudes, and Chinese media has hastened to label their acts of nationalist violence as “acts of terrorism”.
In May last year, the state responded to violence in the region with the announcement of a year-long “crackdown on terrorism”.
Restrictions on Islamic practices in Xinjiang have risen, from banning women from wearing headscarves, to fasting during Ramadan, to taking children to the mosque.
These restrictions have naturally only served to exacerbate the tensions already present in the region, and as a result of religious, cultural and economic repression of Uyghurs by the central Government, some purposely defy Government rules, as expressions of discontent and acts of rebellion.
A 38 year-old man in Kashgar, identified as Mehmet Emin, was recently been sentenced to six years in prison for his beard, a sentence which provoked internet users to decry the lack of religious freedom in Xinjiang. According to reports, he began growing it in 2010 and received warnings on numerous occasions to remove it, but refused. His wife received a two year sentence, for wearing a veil covering her hair and face, and was awarded a comparatively lighter sentence because she wrote a confession to local authorities, expressing regret for her behaviour and admitting her wrong.
Chinese officials see veils, burqas, beards, and clothing featuring the star and crescent as signs of religious extremism, but accused the couple of “provoking trouble” – an unspecific accusation regularly utilised by Chinese courts to bypass the lack of a sensible allegation.
Restrictions on Muslim practices have been slowly tightened since 2008, but have intensified in the past year. In April 2014, cash rewards were offered to informants in Shaya County, Aksu, who reported on neighbours with excessive facial hair. In August, men with beards and women with headscarves were forbidden from riding buses in the city of Karamay.
In January 2015, legislators approved a ban on women wearing the burqa in public, and in February, criminal punishments for men with long beards and women in face-covering veils were introduced in Urumqi, the provincial capital.
Further efforts to eliminate ‘extremism’ have involved forcing people to dance to Chinese pop music, as well as “red songs” (songs praising the Chinese Communist Party), and families have been made to sign a “de-radicalization pledge”.
An initiative called Project Beauty encourages women to leave their hair and face uncovered, or risk facing a fine.
The report on Mehmet Emin was originally issued on Friday, March 27, and was picked up by major Chinese Web portals by Sunday, but later deleted by censors. By Monday, several articles on the case had been deleted from mainland news sites, and the original reporter wrote an apology for “a false report”, although there was scepticism about the genuineness of the apology.
Despite online accounts having disappeared in China, it sparked debate among China’s netizens. One commenter writes: “Not bad, they should ban the Qur’an too, otherwise be punished for 10 years” (translated), while others doubt the authenticity of the story, given its disappearance from major websites.
The spokeswoman for the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, Dilxat Raxit, said that “no other country in the world would give such a heavy sentence for a man growing a beard,” and she branded the sentence ‘political persecution’, claiming that the Chinese Government feels threatened by the faith of the Uyghur people.
One user on Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, wrote: “Anyone dressed that way is a terrorist, not a Muslim!”, while Raxit makes the hypocrisy clear: “If a Chinese person grows a beard, it is a personal fashion he is allowed to choose freely. If an Uyghur grows a beard, he is a religious extremist.”
This Islamophobic attitude resonates all too familiarly with recent events, but the overwhelming response to the sentence from Chinese netizens is one of disbelief, with one comment summarising the counterargument perfectly: “Marx and Engels were both bearded, would they have received six years in prison too?”