China has banned wearing veils as part of a major crackdown on what it sees as religious extremism in the western province of Xinjiang.Mustafa Kemal Ataturk took this same tactic in his modernizing reforms in Turkey, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in Word War I. Ataturk himself mostly banned male demonstrations of Islamic heritage, but his successors decided it was necessary to impose restrictions on women, as well, as Islam began to reassert itself in the 1970s. Women in Turkey only regained the right to wear the veil in 2013, as the increasingly-Islamist government of Erdogan came to power.
The measure, which comes into effect Saturday, also bans "abnormal" beards and names, as well as other "extremist signs." Forcing others to wear veils is also forbidden.
I say "regained the right to wear," but I recognize that this formulation is controversial. The idea that there is a free-expression, freedom-of-religion right here is the ordinary American way of thinking about it, but it is not necessarily the way the parties to the conflict think about it. For some, especially the hard-core Islamists, there is not a right but a duty for women to wear the veil.
For others, including the modernizers, the veil has to be viewed as an intrinsic part of an oppressive system. There is no difference between "allowing" the veil, in this view, and "forcing" the veil. That is, not every woman who wears a veil she is "allowed" to wear will be forced to wear it, but many will be, and you can't really tell the difference between them. That being the case, there's no question of respecting a right to wear the veil. There's only a question of forcing some women not to wear it, or allowing other women to be forced to wear it.
A female friend from Turkey tells me that she thinks Americans really don't grasp the issue very well, as we tend to insist on seeing things through the lens of rights for religious minorities. That tends to blind Americans to how oppressive Islam can become in states where it is not a minority. If the state doesn't step in to act as a counterweight to this powerful religion in Turkey, even women from secular families like her own will ultimately end up being constrained by it. Ataturk's reforms served to force people to keep their religion private, and only something like that reform program was strong enough to effect this.
In the case of Xinjiang, China, the American will be even more inclined to see things through the lens of protecting a religious minority. Muslims are a majority in Xinjiang, but a tiny minority within the context of China as a whole. They have no power in national government to speak of, and it is clear that the Chinese view them as a speedbump on the way to Chinese glory. Even the name of the province, "Xinjiang," means "New Frontier." The intent of the Chinese majority is to roll over this area, to subjugate or even to replace this culture. If there is any case in which the American view seems to be validated by the facts, it is this one.
There is one final note to Ataturk's story. In 1928, Muslims who were deeply alarmed at his reform project gathered in nearby Egypt to form a new organization designed to reverse his 'modernizing' and to restore Islam to the central place in their society. Led by Hassan al-Banna, this group became known as The Muslim Brotherhood. Their history is probably known to most of you. China's Xinjiang province borders the contested region of Kashmir and therefore Pakistan, Tajikistan, and via the Wakhan corridor, Afghanistan. The region is already infested with similar movements, and has proven beyond the capacity of any nation-state to control. Nor can China easily advance into that region without alarming nuclear-armed India and Pakistan.
This likely won't be the last time you hear of this.