Monthly Archives: April 2015

persecution of muslims in china

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 bomband 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.

The niqab is perfectly compatible with Canadian values, Mr. Harper

Idil Issa is a Canadian writer and consultant based in Ottawa.

It is unclear why Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party have latched on to the niqab in the lead-up to the federal election this fall. There are plenty of wedge issues that would allow a conservative PM to muster his base. However, it is the niqab, that alien garment, so unfamiliar to Canadians in their daily life, that has been selected as the wedge of choice.

What is the niqab? A cloth that veils the lower half of the face. Some argue that it originates with pre-Islamic Arabian traditions practiced by rich and privileged classes of women. It is a marker of pious separation, in a manner similar to the cloistering of nuns. The religious rationale is that diminishment of the physical allows one to more deeply plumb the depths of the spiritual; as such, the niqab represents a conservative interpretation of religious dress in Islam. Not many adhere to it, and given its tiny impact, not many bother to be for or against it. Until now.

On March 16, the member of parliament for Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound, Conservative Larry Miller, told a call-in radio program: “Frankly, if you’re not willing to show your face in a ceremony that you’re joining the best country in the world, then frankly, if you don’t like that or don’t want to do that, stay the hell where you came from, and I think most Canadians feel the same.” By pandering to base prejudices, politicians like Mr. Miller are paving the way to the polls with discrimination, hatred, and division.

The impact that these casual remarks have on the few women who do wear the niqab is incalculable. Law-abiding and peaceful women, who may be marginalized to begin with, are further victimized by the insensitive decision to make political hay out of their private choices.

Prime Minister Harper fares little better than Mr. Miller. He stated in parliament that the niqab “is not transparent, is not open and, frankly, is rooted in a culture that is anti-women.” When one speaks of transparency and openness in public life, it is usually in reference to intangibles such as access to information and honesty, not to thread count. But perhaps this helps to obscure the Prime Minister’s own abysmal record on openness and transparency.

To those claiming that the niqab is antithetical to liberal democracy, I would beg to differ. The niqab is perhaps awkwardly placed within a republic, in which the people are, supposedly, ruling themselves directly, and must show up to a thought-experiment senate every day to legislate. One notices that France, and former French colonies, seem to have more difficulty with the niqab, and this may have something to do with republicanism and the understanding of the citizen as legislator.

However, in a parliamentary democracy, we elect representatives, and our will is expressed through them, at least formally. A niqab-wearing woman can voice her opinion, she can email her political representative, and she can cast her ballot. She is not hampered in expressing her democratic will any more than a person wearing tattoos, piercings or other unusual items would be.

Furthermore, it seems a little ironic that the institutions that have historically been birthed through a passion to preserve the freedom of conscience of the human being, whether midwifed by the persecuted Puritans in the United States who built a new kind of democracy, or the Protestants of Europe and Britain who dared to practice their religion outside the community of the Catholic Church, are now being used against religious minorities to curb these very same freedoms.

It is precisely the unpopular ways of being, related to the most fundamental aspects of our lives as free agents, which are jealously protected within a liberal democracy. Our ability to choose how we dress, who we love, who we meet with, who or what we worship, is the sine qua non of life in an open society. Any fundamental freedoms which turn on the popularity of a minority group within a majority population are freedoms that have not been fully realized. Reasonable accommodation, in this light, does not refer to what odd religious or cultural or sexual practices the majority is willing to tolerate, but what hardships we are all willing to bear in order to reach for true equality.

It is telling that the Prime Minister has chosen the swearing of the Canadian citizenship oath as the site where he wishes to restrict religious freedoms. From a legal perspective, the widest possible latitude is given to the most intensely felt personal convictions, which are engaged to meaningfully solemnize this oath, whether rooted in the Bible, the Koran, or secular-humanist values. Is this misunderstanding due to ignorance or cynicism? Given Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s track record to date, that’s anyone’s theory.