A Muslim was jailed for six years in China for refusing to shave off his beard, while his wife was imprisoned for two years for wearing a burqa, as part of a severe crackdown on religious “extremism” in the far-western province of Xinjiang, local media reported.
China blames rising violence in Xinjiang on Muslim fanatics and terrorists, and the government has been trying to force people to abandon conservative forms of Islam. Under an initiative known as Project Beauty, men wearing long beards and women in face-covering veils can be fined, as well as face surveillance and reeducation. Criminal punishments for these offenses were introduced in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, in February.
But the six-year jail sentence, reportedly for “picking quarrels and making trouble,” would represent a particularly severe punishment. According to the Kashgar Special Zone News, the 38-year-old man had grown a beard in 2010 and refused to shave it off despite repeated demands from local officials. It was unclear if he faced other charges: the maximum sentence for the reported charge is normally five years.
Critics see the crackdown on Islam as an intensification of long-standing repression of the culture and rights of Xinjiang’s ethnic Uighur people, who face widespread economic and social discrimination. China sees it is a justifiable response to a series of bomb and knife attacks by extremists bent on violent jihad.
The man’s wife was sentenced to two years because she wrote a confession to local authorities. The article quoted her as saying the court had given her “a chance to be reborn” and as vowing to repent for her mistakes when she is released.
The original report, issued Friday, cited the political and legal affairs committee of the Kashgar government as the source. It was picked up by major Chinese Web portals on Sunday, but later deleted by censors. On Monday, the reporter concerned wrote an apology for filing “a false report,” although there was considerable skepticism online about whether this apology was genuine or made under pressure from red-faced local officials.
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman of the exiled World Uighur Congress, called the reported sentence unprecedented. “It’s unacceptable and absurd, and shows China’s hostile mentality and the crisis of its rule,” he wrote in an e-mail. The aim, he added, was to “use judicial and administrative means to force Uighurs to give up their own way of life and accept the Chinese tradition.” This, he warned, would only provoke people to fight back.
The story was originally issued as part of a series of stories on the achievements Kashgar has made in getting rid of burqas. Officials were quoted as boasting that the city’s court has sentenced a number of “outlaws blinded by religious extremism, who wear burqas, veils and grow beards.” The Kashgar Special Zone News is a free supplement included in local papers.
Each family has to sign a “de-radicalization” pledge, the paper reported, while a “buddy system” has been set up to "help" those who have been caught wearing burqas. In one village, the local authorities have educated and “converted” more than 100 women, while authorities have also encouraged religious people under 50 to shave off their beards, according to the paper.
In another township in Kashgar, 54 people who used to wear veils or beards were given training on skills such as baking, hairdressing and tailoring. “They have relatively low level of education and are deeply influenced by religious extremism,” Wang Huailiang, a township party secretary, was quoted as saying. “But we must not discriminate against them. We must let them learn some skills so that they can make a living on their own.”
As part of the efforts to eliminate extremism, people of all ages have been forced to dance to Chinese pop music and sing “red songs” -- in praise of revolution and the Chinese Communist Party.
On Chinese social media, the sentence provoked debate, Agence France-Presse reported. "Anyone dressed that way is a terrorist, not a Muslim!" wrote one user on Sina Weibo, a Chinese equivalent of Twitter.
Others dismissed the anti-beard campaign as a "simple and crude" measure that would do little to ensure public safety, while some noted that the German political theorist whose ideas inspired Communist parties across the world was far from clean-shaven.
"How many years would Marx have been sentenced to?" one user asked.