A group of five Muslim ethnic Uyghur men who sport “crescent moon-shaped” beards are on trial in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region for “religious extremism” after they were found to have secretly attended unsanctioned Islamic sermons, according to a Uyghur member of the ruling Communist Party.
Kurbanjan Omer, a well-known spokesman on official government positions to the Uyghur community, told RFA’s Uyghur Service that he attended a court hearing for the five men last week in Kizilsu Kirghiz Autonomous Prefecture’s Atush (in Chinese, Atushi) city.
“The five were accused of ‘illegal religious activities’ because they secretly attended so-called ‘tebligh’ [religious sermons delivered by extremists] and all wore ‘crescent moon-shaped’ beards” in an apparent reference to the “star and crescent” symbol that had been used by two short-lived Islamic republics in the region, he said.
“Their actions went against the 26 kinds of ‘illegal religious activities’ published by the party committee of the Kizilsu Kirghiz Autonomous Prefecture.”
The Atush City People’s Procuratorate recommended at the hearing that the five men, aged 25-45, be handed sentences of between one and three years in prison, he said, adding that a final verdict would be delivered at their next court appearance.
According to Omer, crescent moon-shaped beards are “increasingly popular among the young Uyghur generation,” and those who sport the style of facial hair—known as “ay-saqal”—are monitored by the local government.
“I consider their behavior to be at the border of ‘religious extremism’ and it deserves punishment,” he said.
“These people are so young, why do they all like to wear moustaches and beards? I am a 66-year-old man, but I’ve never had a beard … If the party and government say that young [Uyghur] people should not have moustaches and beards of any variety, I think it is definitely illegal.”
Chinese officials frequently describe Turkic-speaking Muslims from Xinjiang as separatists and terrorists. They have restricted Uyghurs in some parts of the region from wearing burqas, head scarves, veils and beards.
Omer, who regularly gives lectures on “fighting terrorism” and “ethnic unity” in Xinjiang, said he enjoys a close relationship with the region’s Han Chinese officials and would continue to defend Beijing’s policies, despite being “targeted for revenge” over his views by members of the Uyghur community.
Uyghur rights groups accuse the Chinese authorities of heavy-handed rule in Xinjiang, including curbs on Islamic practices and the culture and language of the Uyghur people.
Last month, two successive suicide bombing attacks which killed six people and injured four others at a security checkpoint station in Hotan (Hetian) prefecture’s Lop (Luopu) county may have been motivated by “anger over the restrictions placed on the wearing of veils and beards,” a local police official told RFA at the time.
The primary function of the security checkpoint was to inspect “extremists” sporting the head coverings and facial hair, police said.
In August last year, authorities in Karamay city prohibited people with beards or those wearing Islamic clothing from traveling on public transportation, prompting anger from the Washington-based Uyghur American Association (UAA), which called the policy “racist” against Uyghurs.
Speaking to RFA on Wednesday, vice chairman of the UAA Ilshat Hesen dismissed the policy targeting facial hair in Xinjiang as “ridiculous,” and indicative of how Chinese authorities “violate the most basic human rights of Uyghurs.”
“Wearing a moustache or beard is not considered a crime anywhere else in the world,” he said, adding that Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang are “more extreme than the so-called ‘religious extremism’ practiced by Uyghurs.”
“The crescent moon is a symbol of Islam and it is also part of the symbol, along with a white star, on the blue Uyghur national flag [of the two short-lived East Turkestan republics in the 1930s and 1940s], so the authorities are very sensitive to crescent moon-shaped beards.”
Chinese authorities have blamed the terrorist group East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and “separatists” from Xinjiang for a series of attacks in the region which have expanded in scale and sophistication in recent years.
Reported by Eset Sulaiman for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Eset Sulaiman. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.