Xinjiang mission could determine Turkey’s place in Muslim world - analysis

An upcoming Turkish observer mission to China’s troubled Xinjiang province to assess reports of a brutal crackdown on Muslim Uighurs is a risky gamble that could shape Turkey’s challenge to Gulf states’ leadership of the Muslim world, said an analysis on Thursday for the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA) at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University. 

The two countries agreed on the mission after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan raised the issue during a July visit to Beijing, adding that it was possible to “find a solution to this issue that takes into consideration the sensitivities on both sides.”

Ankara has long seen Turkic Uighurs as the brethren of Turkish people and has welcomed thousands of exiled Uighurs to Turkey. Erdoğan was among the first to denounce China’s treatment of Uighurs, using the word “genocide” in reference to Xinjiang in 2009. In February, Turkey urged Beijing to shut down the camps where more than a million Uighurs are said to be facing detention and forced to give up their religion. 

China, which says the camps are part of its fight against terrorism, temporarily closed its consulate in the Mediterranean port city of Izmir in response and threatened further economic retaliation. Ankara soon fell silent on the issue and boosted economic relations with Beijing, apparently hoping to spur its troubled economy with investment from China’s Belt and Road initiative, a massive infrastructure plan that includes new land and sea routes to Europe.

“If Turkey, on the basis of the visit, were to endorse China’s assertion that it is countering extremism by offering voluntary vocational training to Turkic Muslims, it would be granting a significant victory to China given Turkey’s ethnic and cultural ties to the Xinjiang Muslim community,” wrote James M. Dorsey, a non-resident Senior Associate at BESA.

Such an endorsement would make Erdoğan “just one more Muslim leader who for economic and commercial reasons was willing to cold-shoulder co-religionists in a time of need,” Dorsey added, pointing to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.  

“A Turkish confirmation of the extent of the crackdown would position Erdoğan as a leader willing to defend Muslim causes that other leaders have chosen to ignore,” he said. 

Turkey’s findings in Xinjiang are likely to resonate across the region, according to Dorsey, and could influence Sudan’s decision, under pressure from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to reconsider several Turkish contracts made with ousted President Omar Bashir. 

“Turkish criticism of China could also complicate efforts by Central Asian governments to ignore Xinjiang,” said Dorsey. “After vacillating between silence and criticism, the Turkish visit is likely to determine where Turkey really stands.”