China’s new tactic to suppress Muslim separatists: banning veils and “abnormal” beards

Too long?
Too long?
Image: Reuters/Carlos Barria
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The Uyghur people of China’s far-west Xinjiang region have long complained that government rules and policies discriminate against them. Things just got worse.

Yesterday authorities in the violence-prone region passed a new regulation that will surely lead to more resentment among the 10 million or so Uyghur, most of whom are Muslim and speak a Turkic language. They comprise about 45% of Xinjiang’s population; 40% are Han Chinese.

Taking effect on Saturday (April 1), the regulation bans over a dozen behaviors that authorities deem ”abnormal.” Among them:

  • Refusing to watch state-controlled television
  • Refusing to listen to state-controlled radio
  • Wearing an “abnormal” beard
  • Wearing a veil
  • Preventing children from receiving national education
  • Using religious instead of legal procedures to marry or divorce
  • Meddling in other people’s weddings, funerals, or inheritance
  • Interfering with the enforcement of family planning policies
  • Intentionally damaging national identity cards, household registration books, or the Chinese currency

Of course it’s unclear how authorities would know whether someone has watched enough state TV or meddled in another person’s wedding. But then many laws in China are vague, which is useful to authorities wanting a wide berth in interpretation.

Believers pray at Urumqi's Yanhan mosque during Friday noon prayer, known as Jumu`ah to Muslims, Xinjiang province, China, 17 July 2009. Security forces increased security in key areas of the city during Friday prayer following the recent incidents of last Friday 10 July prayers in which over 30 Uighurs were detained after they marched towards a police station. Official reports also said that a police officer was stabbed during the unrest.
Praying at Yanhan mosque in Urumqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang region.

The new regulation builds upon similar ones passed in recent years to control perceived safety threats from an increasingly restive population. The administrative region, which borders Russia and several Central and South Asian countries, has a history of protests by groups who want to create an independent state named East Turkestan, and of violent crackdowns on the unrest by Chinese authorities.

Earlier this month a video, purportedly from ISIL, seemed to show Uyghur members training in Iraq. The video said the group would plant its flag in China and blood would “flow in rivers”—heightening alarm in Beijing.

In August 2014 a new rule in the region’s city of Karamay prohibited people with a certain look from boarding buses. Specifically anyone wearing:

  • Head scarves
  • Veils
  • Long beards
  • A jilbab (a loose-fitting garment)
  • Clothing with the crescent moon and star

(The latter is a symbol of Islam, one used on various national flags and also by separatist factions in the Uyghur population.)

A month earlier, authorities passed a new rule preventing bus passengers from carrying a variety of items, including yogurt, water, and cigarette lighters. Last fall authorities implemented rules banning religious activities in schools, and prohibiting parents from enticing or forcing their children to join religious activities.

And in the region’s Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture last month, authorities initiated a program requiring all vehicles to have a GPS system installed for government tracking—and requiring gas stations to deny service to ones without it. The move was widely seen as targeting the area’s Muslim residents.

The voices of those seeking reconciliation have also been silenced. In September 2014 the government jailed for life Ilham Tohti, a prominent scholar who encouraged better communication between the Han Chinese (who make up about 90% of China) and the Uyghur community. They charged Tohti, winner of major human rights prize, with being a separatist.