By James M. Dorsey
Turkish soccer player Alpaslan Ozturk’s decision to risk fame and wealth by expressing support for the embattled Turkic Uighur minority in Xinjiang reflects pressures in China’s ties to Turkey, its most complex relationship in the Muslim world and a key node on the Silk Road that Beijing hopes to revive with massive investment in infrastructure across the Eurasian land mass.
In Mr. Ozturk’s case, two Chinese clubs could simply penalize the player for his remarks by calling off plans to hire him after he demanded that ten percent of his future salary be donated to Uighurs in ‘East Turkestan.’ By using the term employed by nationalist Uighurs rather than Xinjiang, the Chinese reference to the region, Mr. Ozturk poured fuel on the fire.
In a Facebook posting quoted by Turkish media, Mr. Ozturk, a 22 year-old Belgian-Turkish national, said that “it is not right for me to breath in a country that skins our Muslim brothers alive. I thought so and I decided so. We see it on the television and in newspapers every day. Uighur Turks are being slaughtered since they are fasting (during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan)."
Mr. Ozturk said his statement was his way of rejecting the Chinese offers.” I condemn a country that slaughters people for being Muslims and fasting. I wasn't thinking of going to China when I received offers. Since I wasn't willing to live there, I laid down these conditions and thus the transfer was cancelled," he said.
Mr. Ozturk’s statement may not have been appreciated in Beijing, but it resonated with Turks, including the government, whose affinity to the Uighurs is based on both ethnicity and religion. Turkey is also a major gathering point for Uighur exiles and opposition groups that have long complained about discrimination and restrictions on following their Muslim faith.
As many as 28 people were killed last month in a clash in the city of Kashgar when police stopped a car at a checkpoint. It was the latest in a series of incidents involving protests as well as political violence in recent years.
“While Mr. Ozturk’s decision may of course be his own personal preference, it is hard to separate the footballer from the politics in this case,” said John Konuk Blasing, who first highlighted the soccer player’s action on his blog, thisisfootballislife.com
Mr. Ozturk’s statement provided grist on the mill of Turkish nationalists as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sought to forge a coalition government in the wake of last month’s parliamentary election that failed to produce an absolute majority for his ruling Justice and Democracy Party (AKP). If successful, discussions to form a coalition with Turkey’s ultra-nationalist, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) which traces its roots to pan-Turkism could complicate relations with China.
Politicking over Xinjiang was evident in recent reporting in pro-government media of a visit to Beijing by the left-wing Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which dashed the AKP’s hopes in the election and became the first pro-Kurdish party to be represented in parliament. An AKP-MHP coalition could also deal a death knell to a Turkish-Kurdish peace process that would end violence in south-eastern Turkey and grant Kurds greater rights.
To sully the HDP, a pro-AKP newspaper published a bloodied image of Xinjiang saying that a HDP delegation was visiting Beijing “despite the East Turkestan torture.” An opposition newspaper, meanwhile, published time a statement by actors and academics calling for Uighur independence in Xinjiang.
Despite broad-based Turkish support for the Uighurs, China has to be more circumspect with Turkey than its clubs were with Mr. Ozturk given Turkey’s status as a regional power in Central Asia and the Middle East and its geographic location at the western end of the One Belt, One Road (Silk Road) initiative that has become a cornerstone of Chinese policy.
Turkey dropped official support for Uighur separatist groups following a 2010 visit by then Prime Minister Wen Jiabao during which China upgraded relations to strategic. The two countries hoped that the emphasis on cultural and economic rights backed up by Turkish investment in Xinjiang would help dampen nationalist sentiment. At the same time, China favours Turkey over Egypt or Saudi Arabia for the education of its imams.
The Turkish-Chinese strategy has yet to pay off. Global Times, a Communist Party newspaper, estimates that some 300 Chinese nationals have joined Islamic State (IS), the jihadist group that controls a swath of Syria and Iraq.
An IS video with Chinese subtitles portrayed in October 2014 "a Chinese brother before he did a martyrdom operation (suicide bomb attack)” in the town of Suleiman. Months earlier, Chinese police aided by satellite images detected dozens of cross-border tunnels in northwest Xinjiang that could facilitate the infiltration of operatives of Uighur separatist groups.
Fears of the IS’s potential impact on Xinjiang, has prompted some Chinese analysts to call on their government to join the US-led coalition in Iraq. “China lacks military capabilities to join anti-terror operations…. China can instead provide funding, equipment and goods for the allies. It can also help by providing training local army and police personnel, an area in which China is experienced,” said prominent Chinese Middle East scholar Ma Xiaolin in a posting on his blog. He noted that China was already sharing intelligence with coalition partners.
Chinese concerns were bolstered when IS identified East Turkistan as one of its target areas and the group’s caliph, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi listed the People’s Republic at the top of his list of countries that violate Muslim rights in his declaration of the caliphate. Maps circulating at the time on Twitter purporting to highlight IS’s expansion plans included substantial parts of Xinjiang.
Mr. Ozturk is not known as an IS supporter even if the group may emerge on the ground in Xinjiang as one of Uighur nationalism’s foremost promoters as a result of Chinese policies that choke of more moderate expressions.
"I said what I said. It is not a message bearing the intention of showing off. I just posted a message on my Facebook profile to my friends who follow and love me. I never thought this would come to this point. I said what I said and it was obvious,” Mr. Ozturk said.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.