The Chinese government is claiming that at least 13 of 109 Uyghur Chinese nationals repatriated from Thailand last week were “on the way to jihad,” attempting to reach Syria and Iraq and fight with the Islamic State.
Muslims around the world—and particularly in Turkey, where Uyghurs are considered brethren—have taken to violently protest against the deportations and China.
Video airing on Chinese state-run CCTV+ this week described the Uyghur arrestees as “snakeheads,” human smugglers, as well as jihadists. The video showed Chinese authorities riding alongside the men in a plane, who were hooded for the entire flight and arrival in China.
The report claimed that some of those arrested had “admitted” to reading radical Islamist propaganda and being inspired by it to travel to Syria and Iraq and join the Islamic State. That propaganda, Chinese media claims, was being distributed by the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement, a group China considers a terrorist Islamist group, whose members have staged various attacks in western Xinjiang province, where most of China’s Uyghur minority live.
“A fair number of them were stirred up and bewitched by terror videos issued by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and World Uyghur Congress,” claimed the Chinese media report, noting that these groups were “instigating them to go to Syria and Iraq to take part in a so-called jihad.” The World Uyghur Congress is a group dedicated to protecting the human rights of Uyghurs in China, also considered by China a dangerous separatist group.
The World Uyghur Congress has condemned the deportation, with a spokesman noting that transporting them in hoods “stripped [them] of their dignity” and that “running away is all about a non-violent way to save themselves.” Those who support the Uyghurs fleeing China claim they are attempting to travel to Turkey, not Syria or Iraq.
The issue has exacerbated already-existing tensions between China and Turkey. The Uyghurs are a Turkic people and considered by many Turkish nationalists to be ethnic Turks, worthy of support from the Turkish government. The Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a statement in early July in defense of the Chinese Uyghur population, claiming that government officials are “deeply concerned” about reports of China cracking down on the celebration of the holy month of Ramadan in public in Xinjiang. China has officially banned Communist Party members from fasting in public and forced storefronts in the region to sell alcohol and cigarettes, both “haram.”
“Our people have been saddened over the news that Uighur Turks have been banned from fasting or carrying out other religious duties in the Xinjiang region. Our deep concern over these reports have been conveyed to China’s ambassador in Ankara,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry noted in a statement.
China has since accused the Turkish government of helping provide passports to Uyghurs trying to get to Syria and Iraq. Specifically, Tong Bishan of the Chinese Ministry of Public Security, claimed that the Turkish embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, was issuing false documents to Uyghurs who were being sold to terrorist groups in Turkey. The groups then “organise the youths, they brainwash them, and get them to the front line to fight. They are cannon fodder,” he alleged.
The Chinese government is also framing the issue as one of illegal immigration, not just corralling terrorists. An article in Chinese state-run news outlet Xinhua cites various “experts” (Chinese and Thai government officials and sympathetic online media editors) noting that the repatriation was “something of China’s internal affairs” and a responsibility of any state to return illegal immigrants to where they belong.
Turkish nationalists have taken with zeal to the Uyghur cause. On Thursday, members of a group calling themselves the East Turkestan Education Association attacked the Thai consulate in Istanbul over the repatriation of Uyghurs, breaking down doors and removing the Thai flag. The attack followed similar attempts to express outrage at China’s treatment of Uyghurs that hit unintended targets. Turkish protesters mistakenly attacked a group of Korean tourists in Istanbul, which a Turkish Nationalist Party leader excused as an unfortunate consequence of both Koreans and Chinese nationals having “slanted eyes.” Turkish protesters also destroyed the front of a Chinese restaurant where no Han Chinese nationals worked; the restaurant was run by a Turk and its kitchen manned by a Uyghur.