A Chinese couple has been sentenced to spend years in prison for wearing overtly Islamic fashions in the western Chinese city of Xinjiang. Chinese authorities sentenced the man to six years for sporting a beard and the woman to two years for wearing a burqa.
The Agence France-Presse reports that the couple was found guilty of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” though the article does not mention whether any individuals testified that the couple had expressly picked any quarrels with them. The 38-year-old man reportedly began growing his beard in 2010 and refused to shave it off on multiple occasions, while the woman had also been warned not to wear Islamic clothing in public.
According to local authorities, “Since the beginning of the year, a certain number of people breaking the regulation on beards, veils and burqas have been prosecuted and sentenced.”
Uyghur organizations have condemned the punishment as a violation of the couple’s rights. The World Uyghur Congress, an organization serving the Uyghur diaspora, called the sentence “absurd,” noting, “If a Chinese person grows a beard, it is a personal fashion he is allowed to choose freely. If a Uighur grows a beard, he is a religious extremist.”
The Chinese government, run by the Communist Party and, on principle, opposed to all religion, has been transparent in its desire to eradicate Islam from China. In August 2014, authorities announced new regulations that banned beards and Islamic clothing in public in Xinjiang, the western province home to most of the nation’s Uyghur population. In December, the regional legislature passed a law banning burqas specifically.
Chinese authorities have argued that such laws are necessary to curb terrorist activity. Xinjiang experienced an increase in terrorist activity in 2014, with a combination of bomb and knife attacks taking dozens of lives. The Chinese government also claims that at least 300 of its citizens–most, if not all, of Uyghur ethnic extraction–have joined the Islamic State.
Some argue that the Chinese government’s crackdown on Islam is pushing Uyghurs towards Islamist extremism. UCA News, a Catholic Asian outlet, cites the deputy director of the Xinjiang Islamic Association as urging China to recruit more state-approved Islamic authorities, rather than shun Islam in its entirety. While he notes that “if the religious leaders compete with the extremists on Islamic knowledge, I cannot guarantee that they would win,” he adds that a well-versed Islamic authority could use some parts of the Koran to counter the segments that can be used to “inject violent thoughts” into those who are insufficiently well-read.
The Chinese government has not only used the threat of arrest and state-sanctioned violence to curb the practice of Islam. In an attempt to convince Muslim women to abandon Islamic garb, a campaign called “Project Beauty” was launched in 2013, meant to convince Muslim women that wearing their hair out was preferable to hiding it, including the forced viewing of a film arguing why women should show their faces.