What is behind deafening silence of Turkey on the Uyghurs in China?

If you have patience and plunge for a few minutes into the endless information flow of state propaganda in Turkey, you can understand why the president of the country has been endowed with a epithet "leader of the world Islamic Ummah". Turkey's Erdogan is always there where the rights of Muslims are oppressed. From the Turkish community in Europe and the Sunnis of Syria to the Rohingya in Myanmar driven from their native places: everywhere Turkey openly challenges tyrants and oppressors. Such an image of Turkey is so entrenched in heads of millions of Muslims in the world that the lack of reaction of official Turkish authorities to repressions of the Uyghurs in China causes outright confusion. The reasons for this silence should be sought in the nature of populism of the Turkish leadership.

Despite the fact the multiple attempts of the Turkish authorities in the 1990s to flirt with the ideas of Pan-Turkism in Central Asia and the Caucasus, and a changed course in the 2000s to a foreign policy based on pan-Islamic solidarity, the Uyghur question in China has always been on the agenda of a ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Over the past 25 years, the Uyghur diaspora in the country has grown from a hundred to several tens of thousands of people. The special attitude of the Justice and Development Party to Uyghurs' struggle was expressed in 1995 by the party's founder Tayyip Erdogan, then the mayor of Istanbul: “Eastern Turkestan is the birthplace of Turks, the cradle of Turkic history, civilization and culture. By forgetting it, we would forget our roots, get into to the abyss of ignorance. The martyrs of Eastern Turkistan are our martyrs".

Traditionally, Turkish authorities' reaction was limited to minor critical statements to the Chinese official treatment of the Turkic minority. In the period from the 1940s through the 1990s, the topic of the Uyghurs in Turkey was not particularly politicized, but the country was accepting Uyghurs who were fleeing communist China and looking for political refuge in Turkey. The need to find resources for influence and confrontation in competition with Russia and China in Central Asia after the collapse of the Soviet Union prompted Turkey to politicize the Uyghur issue. The aggravation of Turkish-Chinese relations was at the peak of the popularity of the Justice and Development Party in the Islamic world. In the summer of 2009, in the midst of unrest in Urumqi Erdogan, then the Prime Minister of Turkey, unsuccessfully tried to bring the topic of repressive policies of Beijing in Xinjiang to discussions in the UN Security Council.

During the summer of 2015, a wave of protests against China rolled through Istanbul. The attack itself was not limited with the Chinese; Asian tourists and local owners of Asian restaurants came under the hand of disgruntled youth as well. Turkish nationalists, acting with the tacit consent of local authorities, thus wanted to express dissatisfaction with discriminatory measures against Muslims in the holy month of Ramadan.

The civil war in Syria and strong desire of the Turkish ruling elites to topple Assad and to bring ideologically close Muslim Brotherhood to power in the neighboring country, prompted Ankara to use all the political resources it had in its hands. Since 2012, in cities of Gaziantep, Kayseri, Konya and Istanbul, in the places of compact residence of Uyghur refugees in Turkey, a recruiting network began to operate with the aim to provide help and send those who wanted to fight the Syrian government. It is foolish to assert that the Turkish government did not realize back then that the Uyghurs, both living in Turkey and fleeing from China, who were leaving in large numbers to fight against the Assad regime, would eventually become a serious problem for Ankara itself.

The question of possible involvement of Turkish authorities in the traffic of Uyghur jihadists was raised by the Chinese side in 2015, when Beijing realized that sooner or later, the battle-hardened supporters of the independence of an Islamic state in Eastern Turkestan would return to their native lands to further steer instability in the border region. It is possible that Beijing was using the problem of the participation of a limited number of foreign fighters in Syria to justify pressure on Ankara and Xinjiang Muslims as well.

It is not surprising that the Uyghur factor of Turkey’s Syrian policy has become a source of threat to its very national security. Now in Idlib, in the last stronghold of anti-government forces, there are about 1000-1500 militants of the radical Islamic movement in Eastern Turkestan. Turkey, which has assumed the responsibility to solve the problem of radical groups in the region under the Sochi agreements with Russia, is in a difficult situation. Any serious pressure on the Uyghur jihadists can radicalize their diaspora in Turkey and induce its members to carry out retaliatory attacks already on Turkish soil, using the experience gained in Syria.

The Uyghur dimension of ties between Beijing and Ankara was not limited to the Syrian conflict alone. Since 2017, international media outlets began to report on the existence in China of a larger scale government program for the ideological "re-education" of the population of Xinjiang. Forced involvement of Uyghur locals and representatives of other Muslim minorities to the program is accompanied by a massive restriction of rights and freedoms, which caused a sharp reaction from leading human rights organizations, the United Nations, European countries and the United States.

Against the background of statements of the world community, Turkey stands out with its deafening silence, which has sheltered the lion’s share of Uyghur activists who have fled from China and historically being one of the international pillars of the Uyghur national movement, Ankara, has diligently avoided public discussion of the problem. It would be a mistake to say that the issue of the rights and freedoms of oppressed Muslim peoples across the globe came off the agenda of Turkish diplomacy: today, neither the problem of the population of Yemen, nor the fate of occupied Palestine, nor the calamity of the African continent are left without attention from the country's leadership.

Turkey's silence about the Uyghur oppression is a policy choice imposed by foreign policy conditions. China for the Turkish power elites represents a serious geopolitical alternative to Ankara's Western partners. With the increasing tightening of screws in Turkey, Western countries are increasingly thinking about finding mechanisms that would force Turkish government to stand in the way of further democratization. The mutually beneficial development of economic and trade relations is conditioned by the political demands of the EU and the United States, which prevent Turkish leadership from pursuing its own political ambitions. Thus, politically undemanding and wealthy China seems to represent a good alternative.

The fate of an unstable economy, as well as a number of infrastructural "construction projects of the century" in Turkey is being decided today by Chinese loans. China uses Ankara’s tense relations with Western countries and buys profitable assets, ranging from online sales networks, the banking sector to purchasing shares in the country's main marine ports. It even comes to discussions about construction of a third nuclear power plant in the country and joint projects in the field of defense. It seems that Turkey is ready for anything, just to get the money, but not from the West.

The price for the opportunity to wage a "struggle against Western dominance" is a complete disregard for the fellow Uyghurs. Turkish pro-government media can write about the growing trade volumes with China, but they will definitely ignore the topic of repression against the Uyghurs. Even when forming a policy of relations with third countries, Turkey is ready to observe China’s interests: for example, at the meeting of the parliamentary commission on foreign affairs, deputies, discussing relations with Thailand, admitted that the Turkish authorities, when considering the extradition of Uyghurs to this country, are guided by the desire not to provoke criticism of Peking.

Meanwhile, Turkish diplomats at the initiative of the Chinese side are participating in the development of joint initiatives in the fight against terrorists. In the age of close cooperation between Beijing and Ankara, the "martyrs of Turkestan" are no longer the martyrs of the Turks, as earlier was claimed by the ex-mayor of Istanbul. For Turkey, Uyghurs now are international terrorists. Moreover, Turkey makes it clear that it is now ready to fight against those who encroach on the security of China itself.

And even in cases where Turkey has a good opportunity to influence China in regards to the situation of Uyghurs by diplomatic means, Turkish diplomats, following instructions, deliberately take a low profile. Thus, the position of the Turkish authorities when discussing the report on China in the UN Commission on Human Rights was criticized for deliberate inaction.

Meanwhile, the Uyghur issue is periodically raised by the Turkish opposition parties, who are not necessarily responsible for governing the country and maintaining official relations with China. The activity of the Turkish civil society on the situation of the Uyghur, as in everything else, is minimal: without instructions from above. People have to be content with individual actions like, for example, a symbolic march from Istanbul to Ankara.

Of course, no one obliges Turkey to fight for the rights and freedoms of Muslims in the world. The support hitherto rendered by the Turkish people to all their brothers in faith undoubtedly deserves the highest degree of respect and sets an example to all others in the age of mass migration, global crises and humanitarian disasters. The history of Turkish politics in the Uyghur issue shows that as soon as the topic of rights and freedoms becomes a point of propaganda of the populist regime, everyone suffers. Populism is an ideology of irresponsible politicians. After giving hope for a speedy solution to your problems, populist politicians can renounce you at any moment, as soon as their mercantile and personal interests are threatened.

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