Turkey is last major Islamic state not to stand up for China’s Muslims

In recent months, a wave of Islamic countries stood up to China over its oppression of the Muslim Uighur ethnic minority before backing down again, largely due to fear of Beijing’s economic vengeance.

Turkey — which bills itself as a leader of the Islamic world — is the latest country to retreat into silence.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has spoken out against China’s oppression of the Uighurs on numerous past occasions, but this week he gave his implicit support to China’s policies in Xinjiang during a state visit to the country.

Chinese and Turkish delegations, led by Erdogan and Xi, meet in Beijing on July 2, 2019.
Mark Schiefelbein/Pool via Reuters

“It is a fact that the people of all ethnicities in Xinjiang are leading a happy life amid China’s development and prosperity,” Erdogan said on Tuesday, the state-run China Daily newspaper reported, paraphrasing the Turkish president.

He added that some people were seeking to “abuse” the Xinjiang crisis to jeopardize Turkey and China’s economic relationship, saying according to Agence France-Presse.

“This abuse is having a negative impact on Turkish-Chinese relations. It is necessary that we do not give opportunity to such abuse.”

China has installed a modern surveillance state in Xinjiang. Uighurs in the region are forced to download malware that sweeps their phones for content unsavory to the Chinese regime, and authorities have detained up to 1.5 million of them in prison-like camps where people are reportedly tortured.

Read more: Chilling undercover footage taken inside China’s most oppressive region shows it’s virtually impossible to escape the paranoid police state

A police officer stands guard in Kashgar, Xinjiang, as children play on the street.
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Though major Muslim countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia have also been silent about China’s Uighur crisis, Turkey’s apparent capitulation is perhaps most threatening to Uighurs.

Until now, Turkey had been the only Islamic country that dared speak up for the Uighurs.

It has also offered a safe haven to the community. Many members of the Uighur diaspora have moved there in recent decades, enticed by the similarities between the Turkish and Uighur languages and cultures.

Turkey is currently home to some 35,000 Uighurs, Reuters reported this March, citing the Istanbul-based East Turkestan National Center.

That number includes many former detainees in China’s prison-like camps, where guards reportedly force Uighur inmates to sing patriotic hymns in order to get food, and subject them to physical and mental torture.

Many Uighurs in Turkey still have relatives living in Xinjiang, and regularly stage large-scale protests calling for the release of their loved ones.

Read more: This man’s family vanished in China’s most oppressed region. The next time he saw his son was 2 years later, in a Chinese propaganda video.

Uighurs in Turkey hold up photos and signs demanding the whereabouts of their missing relatives in China at a protest in Istanbul in November 2018.
Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

Erdogan himself has previously been a prominent voice for the Uighurs. Here’s his record:

  • In 2009, then-Prime Minister Erdogan described ethnic violence in Xinjiang as “a kind of genocide.”
  • In 2015, President Erdogan’s government openly offered to offer shelter to Uighur refugees.
  • In February 2019, Turkey’s foreign ministry condemned China’s “reintroduction of internment camps in the 21st century.” It went on to describe China’s “policy of systematic assimilation against the Uighur Turks” as “a great shame for humanity.”

February’s statement came in response to widespread protests in Turkey over the reported death of Abdurehim Heyit, a Chinese Uighur poet and musician well known among Turks.

China has responded to all these statements by repeatedly threatening to jeopardize the two countries’ economic relations.

Beijing also temporarily closed a consulate in Izmir, western Turkey, with Chinese ambassador to Turkey Deng Li telling Reuters: “Criticizing your friend publicly … will be reflected in commercial and economic relations.”

Read more: The mystery of a Muslim poet who may or may not be dead in a Chinese detention camp is at the center of a diplomatic crisis between China and Turkey

Erdogan in Beijing, China, on July 2, 2019.
Mark Schiefelbein/Pool via Reuters

Why has Erdogan changed his tune?

Turkey — which underwent a currency collapse and a recession last year — has grown increasingly reliant on Chinese economic aid in recent years.

Ankara has been trying to join President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to link China to dozens of countries through infrastructure. The project has seen Chinese investment flow into developing countries, and critics have described the initiative as “ debt-trap diplomacy.”

Erdogan heaped praise on the Belt and Road during his China visit, with both Turkish and Chinese media reporting his eagerness to work alongside China on new projects in the region.

Turkey may also want to become closer to China militarily, having bristled with the US over its arms programs and foreign policy.

Read more: Turkey unveils new stealth-fighter concept as the US prepares to kick its ally out of the F-35 program

Erdogan and President Donald Trump give a press conference in the White House in May 2017.
Evan Vucci/AP

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation — a 57-country consortium that calls itself “the collective voice of the Muslim world” — followed a similar pattern of speaking up, then rowing back their comments about Xinjiang.

Experts told Business Insider earlier this year that this behavior could be the result of Chinese threats against the countries if they do speak up.

Adrian Zenz, an independent researcher into the Xinjiang surveillance state, tweeted after Erdogan’s visit to Beijing: “I guess the Muslim world’s actual care for their spiritual brothers is essentially zero.”

Read more: A wave of Islamic countries started to stand up to China over its persecution of its Muslim minority. But then they all got spooked.

Uighur women hold the flags of East Turkestan — what many Uighurs call the region of Xinjiang — at the courtyard of Fatih Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, in November 2018.
Murad Sezer/Reuters

Uighurs in Turkey left in limbo

Many Uighurs in Turkey either had their Chinese passports revoked on their way out, or are unable to renew them at Beijing’s embassy in Turkey, Deutsche Welle and Reuters reported earlier this year.

Without those Chinese passports, they cannot file for work permits or legal residency in Turkey. This effectively renders them stateless, which precludes them from finding work, both outlets reported.

For this reason many Uighurs in the country are unemployed. Those who find jobs are forced to take informal, cash-based work, Deutsche Welle noted.

Uighur men work at a halal butcher shop in Istanbul’s Zeytinburnu district, where many Uighur exiles live, in December 2018. Many Uighurs lack work or residency permits in the country.
Murad Sezer/Reuters

Erdogan’s conspicuous silence in Beijing is making Uighurs even more uncertain about their future.

Alip Erkin, an activist who runs the Uyghur Bulletin network, told Business Insider: “Wary of growing Chinese economic influence in Turkey and its increasingly cozy relations with China, Uighurs fear for even more restrictions on political activities and media coverage of what is going on in East Turkestan.”

Many Uighurs refer to Xinjiang as East Turkestan. Uyghur is an alternative spelling.

“Lasting uncertainty of legal status is forcing them to seek permanent resettlement elsewhere through various official and unofficial means,” Erkin said.

Xi and Erdogan in Beijing on July 2, 2019.
Roman Pilipey/Pool via Reuters

‘A delicate balancing act’

The fate of Uighurs in Turkey remains unclear, but they haven’t lost all hope yet.

Ankara has sent mixed messages to the Uighur diaspora in recent weeks, with the government granting over 146,000 residence permits to Uighurs from China, Iraq, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan in a gesture of support just five weeks ago.

“You don’t need to worry,” Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu told an audience on the day, referring to Uighurs, according to Hurriyet Daily News. He went on to say that the country will do all it can to ensure Uighurs “reach tomorrow as citizens of the Republic of Turkey.”

Erkin called this “a reassuring message to Uighurs living” in Turkey. He added that the contrast between Soylu’s support and Erdogan’s apparent kowtowing to Beijing is “a delicate balancing act on the part of Turkey.”

Business Insider has contacted Turkey’s foreign ministry for comment on whether Turkey would change its policies toward Uighurs’ path to Turkish citizenship.


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