Save our Turkic brothers, Mr. President!

Following a long silence, the Turkish government yielded to pressure from its nationalist voter base in February – arguably in a bid to garner local election votes – and criticised the persecution of the Uighur people by China. Yet how to strike a balance between Turkic solidarity and pressing economic interests? By Ulrich von Schwerin

By Ulrich von Schwerin

Ever since systematic attempts by the Chinese government to assimilate the Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang came to light last year, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, many Turks consider the Uighurs their Turkic brethren on the grounds of their language, culture and religion.

The Turkish president is therefore under pressure from his nationalist base to criticise the persecution of the Uighurs. On the other hand, however, Turkey maintains close trade relations with the People’s Republic – on which Erdogan, faced with an economic crisis, is more reliant than ever.

While Erdogan likes to present himself as defender of Muslims and has regularly criticised the persecution of Palestinians and the Rohingya, he has declined for months to waste words on what activists view as a "cultural genocide" of the Uighurs, just as Saudi Arabia and other Muslim states have avoided any criticism of their economic partners.

It was all the more unexpected, therefore, when, on 9 February, Turkey released a strong statement accusing Beijing of seeking to erase the ethnic, religious and cultural identity of the Uighurs. "It is no longer a secret that more than one million Uighur Turks incurring arbitrary arrests are subjected to torture and political brainwashing in internment camps and prisons," the Turkish Foreign Ministry declared. The "systematic assimilation" of the Uighurs is, it continued, "a great shame for humanity".

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (l) and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (r) shake hands after holding a joint press conference in Beijing, China on 3 August 2017 (photo: picture alliance/abaca/Turkish Foreign Ministry /A. Gumus)
Economic interests of greater concern to Turkey than pan-Turkic solidarity? on a visit to Beijing in July 2018, Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu affirmed that Turkey would not tolerate any anti-Chinese activities. During the economic crisis in Turkey last summer, Beijing granted Turkey a loan of 3.6 billion dollars. Following Februaryʹs announcement, China was quick to make clear that further criticism will come at a price, closing its consulate in the Turkish port city of Izmir, one of the end points on the new Silk Road

Potential erasure of an entire culture

Two weeks later, foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also called for the protection of the cultural identity of the Uighurs and other Muslims and safeguarding of their religious freedom. The Turkish policy expert Selcuk Colakoglu feels that this change of course must be viewed against the backdrop of the Turkish local elections at the end of March.

"Since the beginning of the year, Turkey has seen an uptick in protests by nationalist supporters of the opposition Iyi Party and the Felicity Party," says the Director of the Turkish Centre for Asia Pacific Studies. "Erdogan has come to the conclusion that his AK Party is at risk of losing votes if the government maintains its silence on the oppression of the Uighurs."

In Istanbul, Uighur activist Abduwali Ayup welcomes Turkey’s change of course, but is calling for further steps, as an entire culture is under threat of erasure. "I’m grateful for this declaration but Turkey can do more. If it raises its voice, it can influence the entire Islamic world," says the linguist, who was imprisoned in Xinjiang in 2013 for advocating for Uighur children to be able to receive an education in their mother tongue. He fears that if nothing is done, the Uighur language will disappear in 30 years.In Xinjiang today, the recitation of prayers, wearing a beard and the traditional greeting "As-salamu alaykum" are deemed suspect. Anyone who prays regularly, does not drink alcohol or eat pork risks being branded a Muslim extremist or separatist and sent to a work and re-education camp to be trained to be a good Chinese citizen. "The Chinese authorities have effectively outlawed the practice of Islam within this region," confirms Farida Deif from the organisation Human Rights Watch.

For Ayup, Beijing’s policy is an "unforgivable mistake". "It’s impossible to reconstruct a culture once it has been destroyed," says the activist. His two sisters and his brother are in one of the camps. He has no direct contact with his relatives as it would be dangerous for them. All communication between the Uighurs is monitored, all movements are recorded by cameras and they are even subjected to observation in their own homes. Uighurs are also under pressure abroad and are to some extent forced to spy on their fellow citizens, says Ayup.

After his release from prison, Ayup came to Turkey in 2015 with his wife and daughters because he could no longer remain in his home town of Kashgar.

Turkey has granted asylum to tens of thousands of Uighurs since the Chinese occupation of Xinjiang in 1949, among them the leader of the Uighur nationalist movement, Isa Alptekin, who remained in Turkey until his death. Turkey has been the most significant champion of the Uighur people for decades and, during the unrest in Xinjiang in 2009, Erdogan accused Beijing of committing "genocide" against the Muslim minority.

What price "cultural genocide"?

However, following China’s new Silk Road Initiative, economic interests have become a greater concern to Turkey than pan-Turkic solidarity. On a visit to Beijing in July 2018, Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu affirmed that Turkey would not tolerate any anti-Chinese activities. During the economic crisis in Turkey last summer, Beijing granted Turkey a loan of 3.6 billion dollars. The government in Ankara has now broken its silence on the persecution of the Uighurs but it remains uncertain as to whether it will take further steps.

China has been quick to make clear that further criticism would come at a price. After Ankara’s announcement, Beijing called on its citizens to exercise special vigilance on their travels to Turkey. The Chinese ambassador in Ankara, Deng Li, also warned that public criticism among friends would "not be constructive" and could damage mutual trust and economic relations. Shortly afterwards, without stating a reason Beijing closed its consulate in the Turkish port city of Izmir, which was to be one of the end points on the new Silk Road.

"The closure of the consulate sent a clear political message to Turkey not to proceed any further," says policy expert Colakoglu. A further warning came in early March when four Turkish business people were arrested at a business fair in China for "tax offences".

"I am not expecting anyone to sever ties with China, but that does not mean that they can ignore cultural genocide," says Ayup. Now it is up to Erdogan to find a balance between his economic interests and the pressing matter of solidarity with the Uighurs.

Ulrich von Schwerin

© 2019

Translated from the German by Ayca Turkoglu