Erdogan gets it wrong

Recep Tayyip Erdogan

It seems perfectly possible that the Chinese leadership set a trap for Turkey’s president. Somebody told Recep Tayyip Erdogan that a prominent Uighur musician had perished in one of the huge camps Beijing has established in China’s western and supposedly autonomous Xinjiang region.

Erdogan, anxious to demonstrate his standing with the Muslim Brotherhood and its fellow sponsor Qatar, thundered against the death of the musician Abdurehim Heyit and went on to protest that China’s treatment of the Muslim Uighurs was “a great embarrassment for humanity”.

While the Turkish president was absolutely right about Beijing’s deplorable treatment of the Uighurs, which has included incarcerating around a million suspects in “reeducation camps”, it appears he was plain wrong about the death of Heyit. It now seems very likely that the impetuous president blundered into a carefully laid Chinese snare. Not very long after Erdogan delivered his speech, Beijing put out a video of someone who said he was Heyit, who pointed out that he was very much alive and added that he was being well-treated in his place of detention. Exiled Uighurs have apparently confirmed that the person in the footage was Heyit. But they have also pointed out that he seemed far from comfortable as he spoke to the camera, seemingly delivering a rehearsed script that was almost certainly not written by him.

Beijing has now made a formal protest to Ankara and asked the Turkish president to retract his “false” allegations about Heyit. It remains to be seen if the imperious Erdogan will comply.

However, regardless of what he now says, his blunder is far more than a personal embarrassment. It has actually harmed the Uighur cause and those in the Muslim world who are seeking to support it, with moderately-phrased but well-defined pressure on the Chinese authorities. Because Erdogan was wrong about Heyit, he has allowed Beijing to dismiss all other allegations relating to their mistreatment of China’s largest Muslim minority.

The fate of the Uighurs and Beijing’s response to international pressure depends very much on a considered and measured approach from the entire Muslim Ummah. Shooting from the mouth without checking the facts is not going to achieve anything. And despite the crackdown by the Chinese authorities, a great deal is already known about what is happening to the luckless Uighurs. Thanks to the state-sponsored migration of ethnic Han Chinese to Xinjiang, the Uighurs have already become a minority in their own land, now making up perhaps no more than 45 percent of the population. Their proud history and deep Muslim faith is being trampled by the government in Beijing whose overwhelming desire, as demonstrated for the last 70 years in Tibet, is to homogenize China and crush anyone who does not embrace the Communist orthodoxy.

The Uighurs deserve better than a blustering politician trying to grab the headlines. What is happening to them is ethnic cleansing, every bit as shocking as that which happened in the former Yugoslav Republic. It may even emerge that Beijing is in fact coming close to genocide. The international reputation of the world’s second largest economic power could yet be called into serious question. Beijing can still be persuaded to pull back from its uncompromising treatment of the Uighurs. But this requires care and statesmanship. Today, some Uighurs may be thinking that with friends like Erdogan, who needs enemies?