Turkey condemns China on Uighur problem

(Worshippers at the famous Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, Xinjiang)

Turkey has broken its silence on the controversial topic of the human rights situation in Xinjiang, China, with the Foreign Ministry issuing an exceptionally strongly worded statement on February 9. The statement alleges that the violation of the fundamental human rights of “Uighur Turks and other Muslim communities” has worsened during the past two years and now figures in the agenda of the international community. It alleges that the official Chinese policy aims at “eliminating the ethnic, religious and cultural identities of the Uighur Turks and other Muslim communities in the region” through “arbitrary arrests” and “political brainwashing in internment camps” and forced separation of families.  

The statement says, “The reintroduction of internment camps in the XXIst century and the policy of systematic assimilation against the Uighur Turks carried out by the authorities of China is a great shame for humanity.” Referring in particular to the death of folk poet Abdurehim Heyit erectly while undergoing a prison sentence in Xinjiang, Ankara urged Beijing to respect the fundamental human rights of Uighur Turks and to close the internment camps, and called on the international community and the Secretary General of the United Nations “to take effective measures in order to bring to an end this human tragedy in Xinjiang.” 

Turkey is not the first Muslim country to officially criticise China over the situation in Xinjiang. (Nor is this the first time Turkey has commented on the Uighur problem.) Malaysia and Indonesia took the lead in December. The Malaysian Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Senator Datuk Marzuki Yahya is on record as saying that Kuala Lumpur “disapproves of all forms of oppression against any ethnic or minority group”. Marzuki, however, underlined the “cautious approach” that distinguishes his government on issues that affect other countries.

Specifically with regard to Xinjiang, he said Malaysia has expressed its opinions and recommendations on the international forum, so that “China guarantees the rights, freedom of religion and harmony of its people. Therefore, the government has constantly monitored developments in the region and will continue to seek the best solution to this problem through the regional and international cooperation forums.” 

On December 17, the Indonesian Foreign Ministry announced that it had summoned the Chinese ambassador, Xiao Qian, to convey to him the concerns of Indonesian Muslims about the situation of the Uighurs. The foreign ministry spokesman said in Jakarta that “freedom of religion and belief are human rights and it is the responsibility of all countries to respect them”.

Clearly, in comparison, the Turkish statement is exceptionally harsh in its condemnation of China. The Western media have been taunting Muslim countries for their silence on the subject. It remains to be seen, however, whether other prominent Muslim countries will take the cue from Ankara — especially Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran and Bangladesh. 

Curiously, Pakistan has gone the extra league to play down the reports from Xinjiang. The Foreign Ministry spokesman in Islamabad, Mohammad Faisal was quoted as saying on December 21 that “part of foreign media is trying to sensationalize the issue, spreading false information.” 

The Turkish statement will put Islamabad in a dilemma. Given the high sensitivity of the Uighur issue for Beijing and taking into consideration the imperatives of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the strategic partnership between the two countries, Islamabad will exercise restraint. On the other hand, from the Pakistani viewpoint, a wave of opinion in the Muslim world on the plight of the Muslim community in Xinjiang also would create a precedent that has implications for its own campaign on the situation in Kashmir.  

The Turks claim to have ethnic affinity with the Uighurs. But then Uighurs and Turks also have a complicated history. Ironically, Uighurs fought against Turks and established their kingdom, which inherited most of the land Turks ruled once. Until 13th century, one could say Uighurs and Turks were almost the same except for regional differences. 

The Uighur language of Kashkar was used as common language in central Asia until the ‘Sovietization’ of the region in the 20th century. The Turks and Uighurs can understand each other. But, having said that, through the past several centuries, Turks and Uighurs freely mixed other nationalities too — such as the Persians, for example. (Tajiks speak a mix of Turkish and Persian.) All in all, Turks and Uighurs can be regarded as two branches of a giant tree. 

Suffice to say, the Turkish statement on Xinjiang must be seen as an expression of ‘Pan-Islamic’ sentiment rather than as an articulation of ethnic kinship. Simply put, the Islamist government under President Recep Erdogan likes to wear the mantle of leadership in the Muslim world, and championing Muslim causes abroad — be it of Rohingya Muslim or the Kashmiri or the Palestinian Muslim — comes naturally to him. 

To be sure, Beijing will take offence at the Turkish statement on Xinjiang. The Western campaign on Xinjiang aims precisely at such an eventuality — creating complications in the relations between China and the Muslim world. In the Cold War era, the West brilliantly succeeded in pitting Islam against socialism, which significantly affected the former Soviet Union’s standing in the Muslim world. For obvious reasons, complicating the Soviet Union’s relations with the oil-producing countries of the Muslim Middle East was a top priority for the West. In the current situation too, the Western strategy aims to create impediments for Beijing’s Belt & Road Initiative projects. (Turkey is a vital hub in China’s BRI grid.) 

In the final analysis, the West is playing a geopolitical game on the Uighur issue. The Trump administration, in particular, is least qualified to champion the welfare of Muslims, given its Islamophobia. (Incidentally,  Turkey too has pursued brutal policies against the Kurds, resorting to horrific methods of torture and imprisonment.) 

It is possible that the Sinophobes  in India may regard Beijing’s current predicament with some Schadenfreude. But in reality, India and China have common interest in opposing the Western strategy to use the human rights issue as a handle to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, or to deploy it as a geopolitical tool (as in the ‘Afghan jihad’ in the 1980s.) The short point is, it’s Xinjiang today, and it could as well be J&K tomorrow.