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How China Coopted Turkey to Forsake the Uyghurs
People gather for an exhibition called "Not a joke, a genocide" to raise awareness against China's policies and human rights violations towards Uyghurs in Istanbul, Turkey on March 14, 2021. (Photo by Onur Coban/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
People gather for an exhibition called "Not a joke, a genocide" to raise awareness against China's policies and human rights violations towards Uyghurs in Istanbul, Turkey on March 14, 2021. (Photo by Onur Coban/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

How China Coopted Turkey to Forsake the Uyghurs

Mustafa Akyol

On Jan 7, 2021, daily Sabah, one of Turkey’s largest newspapers, came out with a full-page story penned by the Chinese ambassador to Ankara, Liu Shaobin: “The Century-Old Glorious History of the Chinese Communist Party and Its Codes of Success.” It was an ode to the “miracles” of the CCP, decorated with a commanding photo of President Xi, another photo showing China’s technological progress, and smiling kids. It also included a strong emphasis on the CCP’s determination to advance “the Chinese-Turkish strategic relationship.1

What made this unabashed Chinese propaganda especially notable is that daily Sabah is no ordinary paper: It is the “flagship” of Turkey’s pro-Erdoğan media empire, which had grown aggressively in the past decade, devouring and transforming what used to be independent newspapers and TV stations. So, whatever appears in this media, in particular Sabah, is not mere news and opinion. It rather reflects the attitudes and strategies of Turkey’s current regime.

Those who are familiar with Turkey’s trajectory would probably not have a hard time deciphering the attitude and strategy in question here. Because, as a Turkish academic observed, since the mid 2010s, there has been a “blossoming of Turkey’s relations with China… against the backdrop of Turkey’s apparent strategic estrangement from the West.”2 This was, in part, based on pragmatic grounds, as cooperation with China, the world’s rising economic power, came with obvious benefits. But there was also an ideological element: After the mass anti-government protests and a politically motivated corruption investigation that shook him in 2013, Erdoğan became convinced of a Western conspiracy targeting his rule. So, he began seeking out non-Western allies. Russia and China were the obvious options — and they seemed willing to lure Turkey to their side, too.

In the same period, Erdoğan’s propaganda machine began to praise Turkey’s detachment from the West as “full independence.” But this “road from Brussels to Shanghai,” as I put it back in 2016, rather implied dependence on Russia and China.3 The latter, especially, had ambitious demands from Turkey, which was made obvious by none other than Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, during on official visit to Beijing in Aug 2017, where he said:

We'll regard China's security as our own security. We'll never allow any activities that threaten China's sovereignty and security on our territory or the region we are in. We'll eliminate any media reports targeting China.4

Arguably, the first promise above — that Turkey would respect China’s sovereignty and security — was fair. All countries expect that from each other. But the second promise — that Turkey would “eliminate any media reports targeting China” — was bizarre, as democratic countries don’t ask for such censorship from each other. Yet apparently the Turkey of 2017 was gearing towards a new club — a club of dictatorships — which had its own peculiar rules.

One wonders: What were those “media reports” in Turkey that could possibly “target China”? What could they be about?

“The ethnic policy in Xinjiang”

An article in The Global Times, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, gave the answer openly in an Aug 2018 editorial on “China-Turkey ties.” These ties should get better, the editors noted, but:

What's most unacceptable is that Turkey was adding fuel to the Xinjiang question. Some elements in Turkey encouraged separatist sentiment, helped some radicals from Xinjiang illicitly enter the Middle East, and made irresponsible remarks on the ethnic policy in Xinjiang.5

So, Turkey had to silence those domestic “elements” that opposed “the ethnic policy in Xinjiang,” or the Uygur Autonomous Region in northwestern China. This was exactly the time when Beijing was elevating its persecution of Uyghurs to a genocidal level: Labor camps were established, hundreds of thousands were being enslaved, and a policy of enforced abortion and sterilization was gaining steam. Meanwhile, reports beginning to appear in Western media on why “China Is Treating Islam Like a Mental Illness,” and how “China Is Detaining Muslims in Vast Numbers.”6

If Turkey’s leadership took these reports seriously, Turkey could have emerged as the global champion of the Uyghur cause. That is because, historically, Turkey used to be the key champion of the Uyghur cause. This is mainly due to cultural and historical ties. Uyghurs are a “Turkic” people, which means they share an ethnic origin with the Turkish-speaking people of modern-day Turkey. Their language is largely intelligible to Turks, and their tradition of Sunni Islam — Hanafism, with Sufi influences — is also similar to that of Turkey. Turkey is also the host of the second largest Uyghur diaspora after Kazakhstan, and used to be the base of the Uyghur opposition in exile, founded by Uyghurs who fled China after the Maoist Revolution. That is why, growing up in Turkey’s Islamic and nationalist circles, I repeatedly heard about the persecution of “our brothers in East Turkestan.” (The latter is the common term in Turkey for what China calls “Xinjiang,” or “new territory.”)

Thanks to these deep cultural and religious ties, in 2009, the then Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan had emerged as the most vocal champion of the Uyghurs, when China suppressed the riots in Ürümqi with brutality. Then Erdoğan, in his typically hyperbolic tone, went as far as condemning Beijing for “genocide.”7 But it was a very different time with a very different Erdoğan: Turkey was on a promising path to join the European Union, and Erdoğan was still gaining credit in Western capitals as a “moderate Islamist” accomplishing liberal reforms.

Yet the same Erdoğan would not say anything significant, to date, in the late 2010s when China initiated a real genocide against Uyghurs. Quite the contrary, when he visited Beijing in July 2019, the Chinese state media reported that he said: “It is a fact that the people of all ethnicities in Xinjiang are leading a happy life amid China’s development and prosperity.” In the face of reactions, Turkish officials noted that the paraphrase was “mistranslated,” and what Erdoğan meant was “hopes that the peoples of China’s Xinjiang live happily in peace and prosperity.”8 In any case, it was painfully clear that Erdoğan was extremely careful to not offend China.

‘Agent-provocateurs against Turkey’

At this time, there also emerged “reports” in Turkey’s pro-Erdoğan media suggesting that the Uyghurs were doing perfectly fine — and all the reports about their persecution was nothing but Western lies. A first sign was a headline in daily Star in July 2015, which condemned “provocateurs that target Turkish-China relations by using allegations about East Turkistan.”9 In 2019, a reporter from ATV, the TV network of the Sabah group, visited Xinjiang on a trip arranged by Chinese authorities, only to report back that Uyghurs are quite happy and the only problem is “capitalist and imperialist propaganda” against China.10 Around the same time, the editor-in-chief of Yeni Şafak, an infamously creative conspiracy theorist, wrote, “the Uyghur campaign is a CIA operation.”11

This was, apparently, a common view among pro-Erdoğan Islamists, as Akif Beki, a former-Erdoğan-advisor-turned-critic, put in his column in daily Karar, one of the few remaining independent newspapers in Turkey. “There are those who see the critics of China as agent-provocateurs against Turkey,” Beki wrote in Jan 2019, with astonishment. “There are government propagandists who justify China-style fascism.”12

To be fair, Turkish authorities also have made some remarks in favor of Uyghurs. First, in Feb 2019, the Turkish foreign ministry posted a written statement “regarding serious human rights violations perpetrated against Uighur Turks.”13 Soon after, government spokesman Ömer Çelik voiced “concern’ over Uyghurs’ plight in China.” In March 2021, when his Chinese counterpart visited Ankara, Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoglu this time noted that he conveyed “our sensitivity and thoughts on Uighur Turks.”14 And in April 2021, when the Chinese ambassador in Ankara lashed out against two Turkish opposition politicians who spoke on behalf of Uyghurs, Ankara summoned the ambassador, “in a rare show of displeasure with Beijing.”15

My sense is that these measured official declarations of concern about Uyghurs was the government’s effort to “do something,” or at least appear so, in the light of growing public awareness in Turkey — especially in some Islamic and nationalist circles — about the ongoing brutality against Uyghurs. A Turkish analyst, Selçuk Çolakoğlu, makes the same point when he reminds that the Turkish foreign ministry statement mentioned above came only after “opposition parties, primarily the nationalist Iyi [Good] Party and the Islamist Saadet [Felicity] Party, initiated a public campaign in early 2019 to support Turkic Muslim minorities in China and put pressure on Turkey’s ruling coalition.”16 Moreover, the government may have responded to this pressure right at that time, because it was the wake of the local elections of March 31, 2019 — the latest Turkish elections to date.

Yet, at the same time, the same government took great pains to keep Beijing unoffended, as Uyghur activist Kuzzat Altay put in a piece on “Why Erdoğan Has Abandoned the Uyghurs”:

Most Uyghurs have found it much harder to get resident permits or citizenship after 2014. They can’t make a living but risk being interned if they go back to Xinjiang. China also refused to renew their passports. Gradually, a Turkish government that was supposed to offer them freedom is now raiding Uyghur homes, arresting hundreds of people, and coordinating deportations with Beijing.17

This make-China-happy policy included the banning of rallies and demonstrations in Ankara, the Turkish capital, or Istanbul. In March 2021, during a visit to Ankara by the Chinese foreign minister, the longtime leader of the Uyghur cause in Turkey, Seyit Tümtürk, was put under house arrest, using pandemic lockdowns as a pretext.18 Apparently, the promise the Turkish foreign minister gave in Beijing 2017 — that no anti-China “activity” or “report” would be allowed in Turkey — was still valid four years later.

The Rise of Turkish Maoists

It is not an accident that during the Erdoğan regime’s rapprochement with China, an unexpected political figure in Turkey gained new power and prestige: Doğu Perinçek, the founder of Turkish Maoism, a life-long anti-American and anti-NATO polemicist, and the leader of a small political faction: Patriotic Party, which was formerly named Worker’s Party, whose slogan read, “Independence, Revolution, Socialism!”

The interesting irony is that in the early 2010s, when Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) seemed to be on the path to the European Union, Perinçek was among their fiercest opponents. He was even arrested and jailed in 2008, in the “Ergenekon” investigation spearheaded by a clique which was then the AKP’s best ally: the “Gülenists,” or the followers of the self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, who had a covert network within the police, judiciary and military. But in early 2014, the decade-old alliance between the AKP and the Gülenists turned into a deadly enmity, marking a political earthquake that led to new political alignments. Soon, Perinçek went out of jail, sided with the AKP, condemned Gülenists as a Trojan Horse of “imperialism,” and began advocating, “No US, no EU, just fully independent Turkey.”

In this post-2014 period, despite their miniscule electoral support (0.23 percent, according to 2018 general elections) Perinçek and his Patriotic Party became an implicit ally of Erdoğan’s “People’s Alliance,” formerly established between the AKP and the far-right MHP (Nationalist Action Party.) Perinçek regularly appeared in the pro-Erdoğan media, and praised the “golden age of Turkish judiciary,” at a time when it became a draconian handmaiden of an authoritarian executive.19 (There were even rumors of a pro-Perinçek clique in the judiciary.) To those who are surprised by this convergence, Perinçek gave an explanation which was arguably accurate: “Erdoğan came to our side, not that we went to his side.”20 In 2019, he also stated, “We are a partner of the government, we are partly steering it.”21

It also seems that the Maoist veteran has used this newfound prestige in Erdoğan’s “New Turkey” to drive it further towards China, where he visited to speak at state-organized conferences as a “special guest.” His newspaper, Aydınlık, routinely published stories denying the persecution of Uyghurs as “imperialist lies.”22 What China is really doing, Aydınlık also kept arguing, is “Enlightenment mobilization, as in our Atatürk Revolution.”23 Such Kemalist language — including Perinçek’s vocal atheism — could normally irk Turkey’s Islamic conservatives. Yet instead, Perinçek received praises from some prominent Islamic figures in the pro-Erdoğan camp, such as popular tele-imam Ahmet Mahmut Ünlü, as a genuine “patriot.”24

A Silver Lining: The Turkish Opposition

It is no surprise that in the face of such subservience to China by the Erdoğan regime, it is Turkey’s opposition parties who have stood up for the Uyghurs. These include the main opposition CHP (the longtime standard-bearer of secularism), the second largest Good Party (a new claimant for Turkish nationalism), the small Islamist Saadet (Felicity) Party, as well as two new parties founded by former AKP ministers disillusioned by Erdoğan: Deva (Remedy) Party and Gelecek (Future) Party.

The Good Party, led by its charismatic female leader Meral Akşener, is especially important. The party represents mainstream Turkish nationalism, which has always had a heart for the “oppressed Turks” abroad, including the Uyghurs. It was founded in 2017, as a splinter group from the Nationalist Action Party, whose longtime leader, Devlet Bahçeli, consolidated his alliance with Erdoğan. Since then, Akşener’s party emerged as a new voice in Turkey, at times disturbingly nativist (against Syrian refugees, for example), but also helpfully defiant against the authoritarianism and corruption of those in power.

The Good Party also took a notable step in March 2021, by calling for a parliamentary motion “to investigate the inhumane and cruel acts of the People’s Republic of China against the Uyghur people.” But the Turkish parliament denied this appeal by the votes of — guess whom — Erdoğan’s AKP. A month before, Meral Akşener also gave her platform to an Uyghur activist, Nursima Abduraşid, who told about the plight of her family and her people to Turkish parliament. Yet while Abduraşid was speaking, TBMM TV, the official channel parliament of the Turkish parliament, stopped its broadcast.25 (It is a channel controlled by, of course, the AKP.)

In December 2021, the Good Party also launched The Human Rights Report on China Uyghur Autonomous Region, which may be the most significant study of Uyghur genocide published in any-Muslim majority country so far.26 Prepared by four analysts and published in four different languages (English, Turkish, Uyghur and Chinese) the 108-page report is really a must-read for anyone who wants to understand what China is actually doing to Uyghurs. With “interviews conducted with 53 persons, some of whom are directly victims of concentration camps,” chilling details are told: torture and rape in the camps, organ harvesting from deceased inmates, destruction of mosques, banning of religious practices, “Sinicization” of Uyghur children seized from their families, forced sterilizations, compulsory birth control and abortions, and a totalitarian control over millions of people.

In the last days of 2021, I spoke to one of the authors of the report, Hüseyin Raşit Yılmaz, a Turkish analyst based in Ankara. He was genuinely saddened and revulsed by the torment of the Uyghurs, and was hoping that his report would help bring more attention to it both in Turkey and the world. I asked him why Erdoğan’s AKP has been so silent on this burning tragedy — despite their claim to be the defenders of the oppressed Muslims around the world. His answer was, “China is good at buying silence.” The “AKP politburo,” he also explained, had long decided to cozy up with China for “economic reasons.” Meanwhile, he said, the party’s rank-and-file had three lines of thinking:

The first group believes, “If something needs to be said, Erdoğan will say it,” and nothing else matters. The second group believes, “China may be doing some wrongs to the Uyghurs, but Western powers have their own game against China and we will not join them. The third group has not even heard about the plight of Uyghurs — as the pro-government media that they follow says not much about it.

Yılmaz also believed that Turkey would not take a strong stance for the Uyghurs as long as the AKP was in power. But if the opposition were to come to power — which he sees as a real possibly in the next general elections scheduled for 2023 — Turkish policy and rhetoric could change “180 degrees.” Turkey could be, in other words, free from subservience to China.

Such a potential shift was also signaled by the leader of the Future Party, Ahmet Davutoğlu, who used to be an ally of Erdoğan as his prime minister until the in-party purge in 2016. In Dec 2021, Davutoğlu publicly defied “those in Ankara, who pretend to be the defender of the oppressed, although their hearts and consciences have turned silent against this persecution.” “Enough,” he called on to them, “raise your voice.” And the best way to do that, he added, would be to boycott the Beijing Olympics.27

A Trouble Beyond Turkey

The Erdoğan regime’s stance on the face of Uyghur genocide is tragic. But it is also emblematic of a much larger problem in the whole Muslim world. That’s because Turkey is not the only Muslim-majority country that has decided to turn a blind eye to China’s cruelty against Muslims. Quite the contrary, the blindness seems to be the norm. In fact, Turkey has done much better than those who went out of their way to explicitly support China. Among these are Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Morocco, Palestine, Syria, and Yemen, who all signed a lavishly pro-China declaration at the United Nations General Assembly in October 2020. They praised China’s “response to threats of terrorism and extremism,” and even supported actions taken to “safeguard the human rights of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang.”28

Why is this the case? Why virtually all Muslim leaders are so negligent of the Uyghurs — when many of them never mince words about other “oppressed Muslims” elsewhere?

I believe there are three reasons. One is economic: friendship with China, the world’s second-largest economic power, is not easy to risk. China is the top trading partner of 20 of the 57 member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, a huge path of commercial and transportation infrastructure intended to pass through much of the Middle East, offers big opportunities for many Muslim nations. There are also countries already deeply reliant on China, such as Pakistan, especially in its historical rivalry with India. So, it is not a matter of mere opportunism, but also obligation. As the former ambassador of the United States to Beijing, Terry Branstad, put it fairly, many Muslim countries are just “too intimidated by China’s economic, military strength.”29

The second reason is political: most Muslim nations are ruled by autocratic states. These regimes are frequently criticized by Western media, NGOs, and sometimes governments for their human rights violations. In return, these regimes depict — and probably really perceive — these criticisms as nefarious lies, if not heinous conspiracies. They also say that it should be nobody’s business to criticize their “domestic affairs.” Which is all exactly what China is saying about the “U.S. conspiracy behind the Xinjiang allegations.” In other words, while justifying its brutality with a language of sovereignty, China is speaking a language that Muslim autocrats know well, use well, and also probably believe in.

The third reason is ideological: For more than a century, Islamic movements around the world, especially in the Middle East, have perceived “the West” as the main adversary. That is due to geostrategic confrontations such as European colonialism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and more lately the excessive “War on Terror” after 9/11. It is also due to cultural tensions, such as the Western advocacy of secular governance, individual freedom, or women’s rights, which Islamists or even traditional conservatives perceive as the main challenge to Islam in the modern world. In the meantime, non-Western powers are often seen as allies or at least lesser evils.

This ideological bias has led to the demonization of the Western civilization in darkest terms, creating an “Islamist Occidentalism” — a mirror image of the “Orientalism” that Muslims often complain about. It is unmistakable in the Islamic Republic of Iran, where, since the 1979 revolution, the United States has been the “great Satan,” “Westoxification” has been the worst sin, and the regime has incessantly advocated for the mustazaf (“the oppressed”) who are defined, exclusively, as the victims of Western powers or Israel.

A similarly Occidentalist narrative has become dominant in Erdoğan’s Turkey, too, despite the country’s continued presence in Western institutions such as NATO and the Council of Europe. As early as 2014, speaking of the West, Erdoğan said: “They want us dead, they like seeing our children die.”30 Two years later, he also made it clear that he believed in the opposite of what “the West” says: During an official visit to Belarus, he praised the Lukashenko dictatorship, only to add, “If they [Westerners] call somebody a dictator, that person is good in my eyes.”31
That is also why Turkey’s pro-Erdoğan media often shares good news about a post-Western world. Erdoğan’s statements on how the “centuries-old hegemony of West is over” are carried to headlines, while pro-regime intellectuals impatiently ask, “Who is going to strike the final blow on Western hegemony? China or Turkey?”32

The blindspot in all such excited gushing about a post-Western world is the presumption that non-Western powers will somehow be better for Muslims, as well as the rest of humanity. China’s genocide against the Muslim Uyghurs clearly goes against this presumption — and that is precisely why, it seems, it is being ignored.

What is Really Good for Muslims?

As a Muslim myself, here is my take: A post-Western world, where powers such as China and Russia will be more assertive and definitive, may indeed be good news for Muslim autocrats: It will be a world where economic benefits will flow without any questions about human rights. These autocrats will be able to crush their dissidents, and dominate their societies, in a system where state sovereignty is the highest value and the ideas of Carl Schmitt, the notorious German political thinker who helped inspire the rise of Nazism, once again sets the tone.33

One can say that many Muslim autocrats already crush their domestic opponents, while Western capitals hypocritically look the other way, prioritizing their narrow interests. That is a very valid and important criticism. But the very basis of this criticism is the liberal values that the West at least claims to uphold: human rights, freedom of speech, democracy, rule of law. Thanks to the same values, hypocrisies of Western governments are routinely criticized by their own civil society, media, and ordinary citizens. And thanks to these criticisms, policies may change, violations may be checked, wrongs may be corrected.

Yet when a fully authoritarian and highly technologically advanced state like China turns against a minority, such as Uyghurs and other Muslims, there is nothing to stop it: the CCP does not recognize any value above the state, nor does it allow any criticism of the state. It silences criticism, with its long arms, even abroad.

For comparison, look at France. In the 2010s, the country was targeted by a series of terrorist attacks by Islamist militants affiliated with ISIS or Al-Qaeda. In return, in February 2021, the French government passed a controversial law against “Islamist separatism,” which allows closing down mosques or religious organizations for “hate speech,” limiting home-schooling, or banning foreign funding. Such measures, besides other deep-seated religious liberty deficits of French secularism such as bans on “religious symbols,” have been criticized by many, including myself.34

Yet none of these French measures are comparable to what China is doing to the Uyghurs, which were also sparked by a terrorist threat, albeit a less severe and in fact much exaggerated one. French Muslims are not enslaved and tortured in concentration camps, criminalized for merely fasting in Ramadan, or separated from their children who end up in state “orphanages.”

That is why Muslims who are understandably worried about Islamophobia in France, and other Western liberal democracies, should also wake up to the much greater threat on the other side of the planet: China shows what horrors can come from a totalitarian regime which adopts Islamophobia as state policy. It also shows that the same totalitarian regime can buy the silence, if not the compliance or sycophancy, of Muslim governments around the world. It shows a dark dystopian future that we Muslims should really worry about — and stand up against.