The Uyghur Crisis: The American and Turkish Perspective

By THO Contributor, Abdul Abbas

The long-overlooked Uyghur crisis is finally getting the media coverage it so desperately needs, entering the mainstream in a way that has caught the attention of the general public. Whereas a year or two ago most governments didn’t acknowledge or even have an official position on the matter, there is now a wave of countries taking a stance. For those unfamiliar, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has targeted the Muslim minority group in the Xinjiang region known as the “Uyghurs”, solely on the basis of their religious beliefs.  Interestingly, the Chinese Uyghur population are a Turkic ethnic group and share many cultural and linguistic ties to Turkey, which adds another fold into Turkey’s involvement in the crisis. According to the U.S. State Department, this targeting includes but is not limited to “detention in internment camps, torture, physical and sexual abuse, mass surveillance, family separation, and repression of cultural and religious expression.” The official number of those being imprisoned is said to be around one million Uyghur men and women, while the U.N claims there to be more than two million Muslims imprisoned (Reuters,2018).

As in most international matters, the United States’ opinion carries significant weight and they have taken a position against the Chinese Communist Party and for the oppressed Uyghur peoples. Back in July, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called China’s treatment of its Muslim population the “stain of the century” (Reuters, 2019), officially placing the State Department in direct conflict with the CCP and its handling of the matter. In addition to the State Department’s position, President Trump along with Congress placed sanctions on Chinese diplomats associated with the detention and companies who benefit off the backs of the imprisoned Uyghurs (New York Times, 2020). 

In contrast, another government whose position on this matter holds weight is Turkey’s, as they share many diplomatic and economic ties with China. The main tie being China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), an infrastructure deal that would see China investing between $1.2 and $1.3 trillion (Morgan Stanley, 2020) in infrastructure development for over 70 nearby countries, including Turkey.  

Ankara officially condemns China for “violating the fundamental human rights of Uyghur Turks and other Muslim communities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region”. However, this stance has been complicated due to diplomatic ties between Turkey and China, with Turkey slowly strengthening economic and security ties in the east (specifically China) and relying less on the west and NATO. While the official view is that the Turkish Republic stands with the Uyghurs, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has signed Uyghur extradition agreements and has arrested immigrant Uyghurs in Turkey. Moreover, during Erdogan’s visit to Beijing in 2019, he said that “It is a fact that the people of all ethnicities in Xinjiang are leading a happy life”. These contradictory comments and positions by Erdogan and his government have rightfully invited criticism, the most public of which from the U.S Senate. 

After the release of an authenticated Axios News report regarding a “secret extradition request” received by Turkey from China, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Senator Jim Risch criticized the Turkish government. The report outlined how Turkish authorities have been interrogating Uyghurs seeking asylum in Turkey, which has never been the case prior. (Axios, 2020) Furthermore, Senator Edward Markey criticized Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for “abusing [Uyghur] extradition requests" and suggesting that those abuses were politically motivated (Anadolu, 2020).

In a pointed rebuttal by the Turkish Ambassador to the U.S., he claimed that the report was unfounded and reaffirmed Turkey’s support for the Uyghurs by saying “any issue pertaining to their well-being holds a special place on our agenda” (Anadolu, 2020). However, Telegraph and Al Arabiya supported the claims made by the American Senators. The inconsistency displayed by the Turkish government in regard to the Uyghurs could be troubling news for the vulnerable population.

As of October 30, 2020, The President, the Senate, The House of Representatives, and the State Department all still hold their views against the CCP and their violations of Uyghur human rights, and the claims made by the prior mentioned senators against Turkey have been substantiated by multiple news organizations. Namely Foreign Policy, National Public Radio, and The Telegraph.

For President Erdogan, his position on the Uyghurs and their deportation from Turkey has “turned diplomatically bland” (Foreign Policy, 2020), which is becoming more noticeable as the days go along. The Turkish government still condemns the CCP’s handling of the Muslim Uyghur crisis, and urges to the UN by the Turkish Foreign Minister have been made in hopes of protecting the religious and cultural identity of the Xinjang region. 

With Turkish reliance on the East growing, Chinese economic influence in Turkey rising, and as American criticism of the detention mounts, the fate of the Uyghurs remains uncertain as ever.