Some Uyghurs travel to Turkey to connect with local culture, religion, but fail to find what they hoped

By Phoenix Weekly – Reuters Source:Agencies Published: 2015-8-24 19:08:01

Asylum seekers are escorted by Thai immigration officials to a court in Songkhla, southern Thailand on March 15, 2014. On that day, Thailand convicted dozens of asylum seekers thought to be Uyghurs from China for illegally entering the country. Photo: AFP

Turkey has long been a popular destination for emigrating Uyghurs in exile due to cultural and religious links. The Muslim-majority country, pursuing a goal of getting closer to the Turkic-speaking regions in Central Asia, offers a tolerant legal and social environment to immigrants, especially Muslims and people from Turkic countries. However, the complicated political scene in Turkey may disappoint Chinese Uyghurs as they arrive here after an onerous journey.

Walking into this particular gated neighborhood of 10 five-story buildings in Kayseri, central Turkey, one immediately notices two huge flags hung between two apartment blocks. The red one is Turkey's national flag, while the sky-blue one, with a white crescent moon and star, is the proposed flag of "East Turkestan," what separatists and their supporters call China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

About 1,000 Uyghurs are housed in this neighborhood in one of the most Islamic cities in Turkey, guarded by local police. Most of them have paid several thousand US dollars to smugglers, who took them across the southern Chinese border into neighboring Southeast Asian countries en route to Turkey, their final destination.

Their journey was a tough one. Most of them were detained in a third country, some for more than a year, until Turkish officials found a way to bring them to Turkey.

"From the end of last year, about 1,000 Uyghurs have entered Turkey via various routes, mostly from Thailand and some from Malaysia. The Turkish government resettled about 1,000 Uyghurs in Kayseri," Rahmetjan, a Uyghur trader who has lived in Turkey for 10 years, told the Phoenix Weekly.  

Most of them embarked on their journey out of piety and admiration of a country that shares their religious belief. But after they arrived here, they often find that Turkey is more secular than they had imagined. They are also regarded as a destabilizing factor in the China-Turkey relationship.

History of immigration

They are not the first Uyghurs to settle down in Kayseri in the past century. Before the founding of the People's Republic of China, a group of exiled Uyghur separatists arrived in Turkey, many choosing to live in Kayseri. In 1952, another 1,800 Uyghurs moved to Turkey. Now many of the descendents of these Uyghurs have neither been to Xinjiang, nor speak the Uyghur language.

In 2011, in an interview with the Chinese media, Murat Salim Esenli, then Turkish ambassador to China, said the Uyghur population in Turkey was around 300,000. Chinese authorities usually put the number at 100,000.

These Uyghurs make a living through various businesses including clothing, silk, pottery and traditional Chinese medicine. Some open Chinese restaurants and traditional Chinese medicine clinics.

In comparison, there are fewer Han Chinese people in Turkey. Most Han ethnic in Turkey are employees of large Chinese companies like Huawei or China Sunergy.

Interactions between Chinese people of different ethnicities are common. A Han Chinese businessman said Uyghurs often act as translators or agents between Turkish and Chinese businesses.

"In Turkey's wholesale markets, you can see shops run by Han people and Uyghurs next to each other, and they chat, drink tea and trade with each other. But once they talk about politics, hostility arises," he said.

A close bond

Many Uyghurs see themselves as having a cultural and spiritual bond with Turkey. "As Muslims, we all have a longing towards Muslim countries," Alim, a Uyghur surgeon born in Urumqi, who moved to Turkey a year ago, told Phoenix Weekly. "People long to live in an environment that shares the same food, culture and religious belief with them. That's why I thought Istanbul was the best place in the world."

Installing illegal satellite TV and buying pirated Turkish DVDs, which dominate Xinjiang's DVD market, are two major ways Uyghurs are getting access to Turkish culture.

"Turkish culture has had a huge influence on Xinjiang in the past decade. Many Uyghurs watch Turkish films and television dramas at home, and they have this admiration of life in Turkey," Suleyman, a Uyghur man living in Kashgar, told the Phoenix Weekly.

The Turkish language is another reason why Turkey offers a greater sense of belonging to the Uyghurs than other Muslim countries such as Malaysia. As they are both Turkic languages, Turkish and Uyghur share a high degree of mutual intelligibility.

"Uyghurs can understand 60 percent of Turkish, and after three months [of living in Turkey] they can easily understand 90 percent of the language," Suleyman said.

"If a Uyghur high school student goes to Turkey, he can take the college entrance examination after taking just three to four months of intensive courses. Many get a high score in the exam," Alim said.

Rahmetjan said that "In the eyes of many Uyghurs, Turkey is their promised land."

Turkish assistance

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and many Turkic-speaking countries gaining independence, Turkey gradually took on the role of the leader of the Turkic-speaking world with its comparatively stronger national power and political system. Pan-Turkism became an important ideology that Turkey uses to connect with countries in Central Asia and Eastern Europe.

On the foreign policy front, Turkey has been proactive in participating in regional affairs, and has used cultural links and business ties to promote cooperation between Turkic-speaking countries. Turkish politicians have long aspired for a "Turkic Union" with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and the Turkish government has made Turkic people and Muslims their priority when making policies.

In addition, the Turkish government has an open attitude toward immigrants, whether they have arrived in the country legally or illegally. Older Uyghurs in Turkey used to tell Alim how they entered Turkey 40 years ago via the Tibet Autonomous Region and Pakistan on a donkey.

"They didn't even need a passport back then," Alim said.

While it's no longer possible to get to Turkey on a donkey, Turkey's open attitude to immigrants has remained unchanged, and its legal and social atmosphere is highly tolerant of illegal immigrants.

Turks are also known for their hospitality and friendliness, especially to Turkic people and Muslims which they see as brothers. Local people often drive trucks to donation centers in Kayseri and unload oil, tomatoes, clothing and furniture.

This may help explain why Turkish officials in embassies in Southeast Asian countries offer assistance to Uyghurs who want to enter Turkey. "There are too many people who live in Turkey illegally. There are over one million Syrians alone. As long as you don't commit crime, you have a place here," Alim said.

According to Reuters, Uyghur mother Summeye who has successfully arrived in Turkey with her 4-month-old baby Arife, said the baby was given documents labeled "Republic of Turkey Emergency Alien's Travel Document," valid only for travel to Turkey. The document lists the baby's place of birth as Turpan, a city in Xinjiang. Under "nationality," it says "East Turkestan."

Summeye, 35, says she was given it, along with documents for herself and her three other children, by a diplomat at the Turkish Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, which she reached after nine days of being transported by people smugglers through Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand.

China's local media have reported that some Turkish officials were directly involved in rescuing Chinese people smugglers detained in Southeast Asian countries, by saying that they are Turkish citizens. The Chinese smugglers were then sent to Turkey.

Jihad recruitment

Turkey is home to many groups and organizations composed of Uyghurs in exile, both secular and religious. While some organizations are jihadist and others do not support violence and terrorism, all share the same vision - an independent "East Turkestan."

 A case in point is the East Turkestan Education and Mutual Assistance Association, which manages a fund which the Turkish government offers to students from other Turkic and Muslim countries. Students who win a scholarship can enjoy a range of benefits including tuition-free studies, free healthcare and housing. "Apart from those who can pay for their own tuition fees, all students who need funding will have to contact the association," Rahmetjan said.

This is how the association gets to advance its ideology. Every summer and winter holiday, they invite Uyghur students from abroad to attend sermons in the Turkish mountains. These sermons are often used to recruit new members for terrorist groups.

"Every Uyghur knows this. Although they don't like it, they won't do anything," Rahmetjan said.

Most Uyghurs who migrate to Turkey are Wahhabists, a fundamentalist branch of Sunni Islam. "But that doesn't mean they are all terrorists," Rahmetjan said. Many of these conservative Muslims are astonished by how secular Turkey is. But after, they eventually adapt to it. "For example, those from Hotan will live in the same community, and those from Kashgar will live in the same community. Usually, Uyghurs from northern Xinjiang are more secular than those from the south, and less conservative," he said.

They are far less passionate about jihad than others may have imagined. "Like other refugees, making a living is their most urgent need," Rahmetjan added.

Uyghur refugee Adil Abdulgaffar, 49, told Reuters that he knows of people who have gone to Syria from Turkey to fight. "These militants lure them, saying they will help them train for the Uyghur cause, they will give them weapons and they will support them against China," he told Reuters.

"But I also know that they very much regret it and would like to come back," he said.

Newspaper headline: Journey to the west

Posted in: In-Depth

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