It’s been described as the worst human rights crisis in the world — the arbitrary detention in sprawling camps of a million or more Uyghur Muslims in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province. The Chinese government has claimed that the camps are merely vocational training centers, but in November a trove of leaked documents, dubbed the China Cables, confirmed what the world had long suspected: the camps are Communist Party re-education centers in which Uyghurs are forced to abandon their traditional religion and language. Nury Turkel is a U.S.-based attorney and Uyghur rights advocate and he joins Mehdi Hasan to discuss the situation in Xinjiang — and why so much of the world doesn’t seem to care about it.
Mehdi Hasan: Hello, this is Mehdi Hasan and before we get to today’s show, I have a small request. The Intercept and Deconstructed rely on readers and listeners like you to support the journalism that we do here every day. Right now you can head to theintercept.com/give and do just that. Membership is not only about money, it’s about a proud and public declaration of support for the kind of fierce adversarial journalism we do every day. All donations are welcome. Consider becoming a sustaining member at $5 or $10 a month. It may seem small, but it has a big impact over time. Your donation no matter what the amount does make a difference. This is a community effort. When everyone chips in, it adds up quickly. Deconstructed has big plans for 2020 with your support, election coverage, debate coverage, more live events out on the road, like our recent show in D.C. with Michael Moore and Ilhan Omar. So please do consider becoming a member. Head to theintercept.com/give. That’s theintercept.com/give. On to the show.
MH: When was the last time you spoke to a family member?
Nury Turkel: Last summer.
MH: Summer 2018?
MH: You haven’t spoken to a family member in China for nearly 18 months?
NT: I have aging parents. I cannot call them.
MH: I’m Mehdi Hasan. Welcome to a special end-of-the-year episode of Deconstructed, a bonus if you will, in which we’ll examine, discuss, cast a light on, what’s become perhaps the biggest human rights crisis in the world this year – even though it still, in my view, doesn’t get enough attention globally, including here in the West.
NT: As a lawyer, as an advocate, as a Uighur, I believe that my people are going through a modern day cultural genocide.
MH: That’s my guest today, Nury Turkel, a prominent Uighur-American lawyer and human rights campaigner. Nury says China is carrying out a “cultural genocide” against his people So, why isn’t the world, why aren’t we, doing more to stop it?
MH: Who are the Uighurs and why do they matter, why should they matter? Well, they’re one of the 56 ethnic groups officially recognized by the Chinese government; a mainly Muslim, Turkic-speaking minority group who comprise less than 1% of the Chinese population – though they live in China’s biggest province, Xinjiang. Or East Turkestan as many Uighurs prefer to call it, especially those who support from independence from China.
Now, the Chinese government has been cracking down on the Uighurs for decades, but post 9/11, Beijing took advantage of George Bush’s so-called War On Terror to brand all opposition to Chinese rule as evil “Islamic terrorism” of the Al Qaeda variety. In recent years, they’ve gone much further and now seem to see all Uighurs as potential terrorists, extremists, separatists.
Newscaster: The Chinese government is making no apologies for the way it’s running Xinjiang. It has told the UN that there’s been a major crackdown there in order to rein in violent Islamic extremism and those who would separate Xinjiang from the rest of China.
MH: Beijing has banned Uighur parents from naming their sons “Muhammad;” blocked their children from entering mosques; forbade Uighur government employees from fasting during Ramadan. Uighur Muslim men are prohibited from growing “abnormally” long beards, while Uighur Muslim women cannot wear the face veil in public.
But you might say: well, that’s the kind of garden-variety Islamophobia that we’re seeing growing even in some European states. The Chinese, though, have taken it to new and horrifying levels. A panel of UN investigators said last year that up to a million Uighur Muslims may have been detained in what are basically massive concentration camps in Xinjiang. Earlier this year, the State Department said the true number might be closer to 3 million.
To put that in context, the Uighur population of Xinjiang is around 11 million people. So anywhere between 1 in 10 and 1 in 4 of the total Uighur population in that province is being detained against their will. Kept in camps. Imprisoned. That’s an astonishing number of people both as an absolute number and as a proportion of their population. And those who have been released, and those who have fled the country, say that in those camps, Uighur Muslims are being not just forcibly brainwashed to love President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party, and hate Islam, but also starved, sterilized, tortured, raped, and, yes, killed.
And look, it’s not just life in the camps that’s so brutal and intolerable and like nothing we’ve seen before in the modern era; it’s also life outside of the camps, across Xinjiang, a province which has been turned, in recent years, into a kind of dystopian police state.
Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that the Chinese authorities are using a vast, secret system of advanced facial recognition technology to track and control the Uighurs as they move around, go to work, go to school. The Times called it “the first known example of a government intentionally using artificial intelligence for racial profiling.” Racial profiling of an entire people in a province.
And that’s outside their homes. Inside of their homes, as Human Rights Watch documented last year, they have had to deal with Communist Party snoopers, from the Han Chinese majority community, who have been sent to stay in Uighur homes and monitor them. Imagine, just imagine men from the government coming to stay in your home, to live in your house, 24/7, to watch you and your family talk, eat, pray. It’s almost beyond belief. But it’s happening in the world right now, in Xinjiang, China.
Newscaster: Authorities say the camps are for combating violent religious extremism. Now, some Uighur parents speaking in exile have told the BBC that as well as losing adult relatives, their children too have disappeared and they are not being told where they’re held.
MH: And though the Chinese deny it, and deny the camps, and deny the repression, a recent and pretty unprecedented leak of government papers from the Communist Party to the New York Times, dubbed the China Cables, confirm both that the president of China himself has called for the showing of “no mercy” against the Uighurs and that one senior Communist Party official in Xinjiang tried to stop some of these repressive measures against the Uighurs and he failed. He himself was imprisoned.
Newscaster: This is a document the world was never supposed to see. Instructions on how to run a detention camp.
Newscaster: Documents show that Chinese government officials designed the camps as brainwashing centers on a massive scale.
Newscaster: China says there’s nothing to worry about. The camps are just for training.
MH: Here’s the thing to remember, though: The Chinese government isn’t just powerful at home, it’s powerful abroad. Its economic clout and sheer size means that governments, including Western governments, can’t or won’t do much to help the Uighurs. I mean, there’s the occasional protest or stern letter.
In July, for example, 22 nations including the UK and France and Canada, signed a letter addressed to the UN calling on China to end its massive detention program in Xinjiang. Last month, the United States Congress passed an act restricting the sale of surveillance technology to Beijing and bringing in sanctions against Chinese officials involved in locking up Uighurs. And to be fair, even the usually Islamophobic Trump administration has taken a strong line against the repression of the Uighurs. Here’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaking over the summer:
Mike Pompeo: China is home to one of the worst human rights crises of our time. It is truly the stain of the century.
MH: Though, of course, the Trump administration doesn’t like China already because of the trade war. And so be under no illusion: the moment Trump signs some sort of trade agreement with China and the trade war with Beijing ends, his administration, I suspect, will stop saying anything, or giving a damn, about the Uighurs.
But look, it’s easy to slam Trump or the U.S. or the West for not doing enough here. But as a Muslim, it is deeply depressing to me to see the countries of the Muslim majority world not just silent on this looming genocide against the Uighurs in China, but actually coming out publicly and backing the Chinese government. Yeah, backing it.
Just a few days after those 22 Western nations published their anti-China letter in July, 37 other nations put out a pro-China letter, saying that because of the “grave challenge of terrorism and extremism, China has undertaken a series of counter-terrorism and de-radicalization measures…including setting up vocational education and training centers.”
Vocational education and training centers! My God! In fact, Mohammed bin Salman, MBS, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia went to Beijing earlier this year and said it was China’s “right,” its “right,” to put Muslims in camps for anti-terror purposes. Thank you, MBS.
Earlier this month I interviewed the Pakistani human rights Shireen Mazari on my Al Jazeera English show UpFront. I asked her, as the human rights minister, whether she would condemn the horrific mistreatment and mass incarceration of her fellow Muslims, the Uighurs, at the hands of the Chinese. Pakistan happens to be a close ally of China, dependent on Chinese investment and money. Here’s how that exchange went down:
Shireen Mazari: We talk to the Chinese government. When we get evidence, we take it up but China is an ally and we would not go screaming on the streets about it.
MH: So have you condemned them privately?
SM: I think that our government has been speaking to the Chinese, hearing their point of view, giving our position on this —
MH: What is their point of view when it comes to locking up millions of your fellow Muslims?
SM: That’s what you’re saying, that they’re locking up millions of fellow Muslims.
MH: Are you saying they’re not?
SM: I am saying that there may be cases and we have taken it up with the Chinese. That’s how we deal with our allies.
MH: So who’s going to speak up for the Uighurs? Either in the West or the Muslim-majority world? Are we really going to all just sit back and watch a cultural genocide in which the Chinese government tries to wipe out Uighur culture, faith, history, heritage. Are we going to watch that unfold in front of our eyes? Watch millions of innocent people rounded up and put into camps? Or is there anything that can be done to help what is now one of the world’s most repressed minority communities?
MH: My guest today is Nury Turkel, a Uighur-American lawyer and campaigner, and board chair for the Uighur Human Rights Project here in Washington DC.
Nury Turkel, thanks so much for joining me on Deconstructed. There are some horrible, horrific reports coming out of Xinjiang, China. You are a Uighur-American, presumably, you still have family living there. What has happened to them in Xinjiang? What are they going through? Are you able to speak about that without putting them in danger?
NT: Because of this IJOP that has been in the news a lot, Integrated Joint Operations Platform, the Chinese government forced Uighurs to install spying software on their phones that resulted, that forced Uighur families to cut off their foreign-based relatives and family members including myself. So because of that technological way of monitoring Uighurs’ daily activities, daily communication, most parents disconnected from their family members. That is causing anxiety, despair, a sense of guilt to the extent. In some instance, Uighurs find out about their their loved ones passing on newspaper articles.
MH: When was the last time you spoke to a family member?
Nury Turkel: Last summer.
MH: Summer 2018?
MH: You haven’t spoken to a family member in China for nearly 18 months?
NT: I have aging parents. I cannot call them.
MH: Because you worry about putting them in danger?
MH: And you’re quite high profile, obviously with the Uighur Human Rights Project.
NT: Yes. If you call them, there’s no directive, it says you cannot talk to or receive or make phone calls.
MH: The Chinese don’t have an official directive?
NT: They don’t do that. But because of this intrusive way of monitoring daily regular communications, if the system the algorithm picks up something, then the family members will be in trouble. Because of that we try not to contact them. So it’s you know, it’s like excruciating experience. We used to have about two years ago — I always say this and when I say this, people may find it incredible. I would love to go back to my semi-normal life two years ago in a heartbeat. At least during that period, I could call regularly, check up with my parents. But now that kind of basic freedom has been taken away from us.
MH: And what kind of stories are you hearing from your fellow Uighurs in the diaspora? What’s shocked you even as an activist, campaigner, lawyer following this horrific situation for many years? What’s the most shocking thing you’ve heard?
NT: The absolutely arbitrary nature of China’s detention of the Uighurs. Recently leaked documents published by ICIJ has so many disturbing lines, but one of them really caught my attention is that during the period of seven days in 2018, 2017 the IJOP, the operating system, identified 25,000 Uighurs. Of that they were able to locate close to 16,000 and with that kind of basic process of relying on a technology, they shattered close to 16,000 people’s lives in less than one week.
MH: So those 16,000 people were detained based on those algorithms and surveillance?
NT: Yes, that’s how horrific it is. And then in this same document does not say, if this has been an effective method, they just —
MH: These are official internal Chinese Communist Party documents?
NT: Yeah, it’s on the ICIJ website.
MH: And the New York Times also published part of these as the China Cables. Is it fair to say that every Uighur Muslim you know here in the U.S. has stories about disappeared relatives?
NT: It is hard to find anyone who has not been affected. You can easily find someone whose family either disappeared or someone that they know associated with have disappeared. One of the most jarring aspects of this whole crisis is the way that the Chinese government’s attacking the Uighur women and children. They’re forcing Uighur women to sleep and eat with strangers in their home. It’s a taboo in Islam. And what we’re talking about is very devout, pious Muslim families and they’re making the Uighur kids to spy on their parents if the parents are still living together, you know, asking questions like, do your parents still read the Quran? Do they instruct you to speak Uighur? Do they ask you not to mingle or hang out with Han Chinese people? Things like that.
MH: So it’s a full kind of cultural theological assault, it’s Uighur language, Uighur culture, Uighur religion, the Islamic religion that’s under assault.
NT: When you look at their practices, actually, this has been verified by the leaked documents, the Chinese Communist Party Secretary people call him president but he’s not really president. He’s the general secretary of the Communist party —
MH: Xi Jinping.
NT: Xi Jinping. Xi Jinping specifically said that, used the word “thought viruses.” What does that mean? “Thought viruses” is basically Uighur’s Islamic faith. So that “thought viruses” need to be cleared up.
MH: Islam is a virus.
NT: Islam is a virus. And then another term that they use repeatedly is “thought transformation.” So, basically they’re reprogramming a living, breathing human being.
MH: Which is why they call these camps “re-education camps” or critics call these camps re-education camps. They call it vocational and training centers, ridiculously. What is your understanding of what is going on inside these camps? Aside from the violence, we have reports of torture, horrific reports of fingernails being pulled out and the electric shocks and beatings and sexual assault of women. Aside from that, if I can even say the phrase “aside from that,” what actually are the Chinese trying to do in their own warped, the Chinese government, what is it trying to do in its own warped mind inside of these camps with the Uighurs when you talk about reprogramming?
NT: Two words: transformation and force them to become loyal to Communist Party and Xi Jinping. So, basically they’re trying to transform the Uighur soul, mind and heart to be loyal to Xi Jinping and to the CCP, Communist Party.
MH: It’s not just communism, it’s to the dictator, the personality.
NT: Yes, there’s an app actually in China available and some of that some people actually forced to install, it’s called “Xi Jinping Thought” app. You have to study. These leaked — I keep referring to these leaked document because it’s so important in these leaked documents. It says they have a scoring system. One of the criteria for any individuals to have as simple as calling to be able to talk to their family members is based on how well that they studied Xi Jinping Thoughts, how well that they were able to study language, how well that they were able to adopt non-religious ideology. In other words, denouncing their religion that has been part of the Uighur lives as early as 13th century.
MH: And you talk about an app on phones but in these camps, obviously, this is not about downloading an app. This is forcibly done. They’re denied food. They’re denied meals until they’ve gone through these weird rituals of singing in praise of the president, praising communism, praising Xi Jinping.
NT: Yeah. And also these apps, American companies actually technology, American Silicon Valley companies are assisting the Chinese government to set up these.
MH: Why does that not surprise me?
NT: Yeah, and one particular app that they initially promoted as Islamic-friendly app, it’s called Zapya allowed the Uighurs to install, and this company is technologically supported in Silicon Valley, even though it’s — So they compiled 1.5 million Uighurs using that. It’s like a file sharing. It’s a cloud system. So, the people who download it, verses of the Quran through that app and share it with each other. That resulted the algorithm to pick up these people, even though it was initially promoted as a Muslim-friendly app
MH: And in these camps, there is this as you say, treatment of Islam as a virus. What should we call these camps? Because I was talking to Sarah Leah Whitson the other day, who until very recently, was a very senior official at Human Rights Watch. And she made an interesting point that we call them camps in the news, re-education camps. But actually, these are places of mass forcible detention, so should they just be called prisons?
NT: You can call it prison, but there’s a lot of historic parallels to the Nazi concentration camps. When you look at that part of the history, Nazi Germany with the promotion of people like Adolf Eichmann and others promoted extermination of the Jews based on their religion, based on their ethnicity right. The same parallel has been seen in the leaked documents. They use the words like dictatorship, like crushing, rounding up anyone who should be rounded up and also they’re specifically targeting Uighurs’ ethno-national identity. So I think it is reasonable to call it at least modern day concentration camps.
MH: You’ve invoked the analogy of Nazi Germany and you mentioned that the ethno-national identity of the Uighurs is been targeted. So, would you describe what the Chinese government is doing right now as a genocide in the making?
NT: It is a — You know, when you look at the legal definition of cultural genocide, to be specific, whatever the Chinese has been doing, the government has been doing fits, meets the legal definition, attacking the Uighur children, attacking the language, attacking religion, forcing Uighur women to marry Han Chinese, birth control. So, all of these hallmarks supports, meets the definition of cultural genocide. I’m very comfortable as a lawyer, as an advocate, as a Uighur, I believe that my people are going through a modern day cultural genocide.
MH: And that cultural genocide, the Chinese government’s aim is what? Is it to try and change the demographics in Xinjiang, trying to import Han Chinese non-Muslims to replace the local Turkic speaking Uighur Muslims? Is it about keeping “stability” in a very diverse, ethnically diverse but centralized nation?
NT: What they’re trying to do is to stamp out Uighur identity and also make them atheists, believing in communist ideology, simply because the Uighur Islam to the Chinese government or Chinese thought leaders, policymakers is a sign of disloyalty. So as long as the Uighurs maintains their cultural identity, ethnic identity, religious practices, the Chinese government believes that it will potentially become a political threat. It’s a preemptive way of you know, it’s very strange. We’ve seen this only in the movies. Even if you look at the people who are locked up, and their policy objectives, their ultimate goals, all based on preemption.
MH: So I’ve interviewed several defenders of the Chinese government, Chinese defenders of the government. They’re very specific about their defense of what’s going on in Xinjiang. They say “We’re not anti-Islam. We’re not anti-Muslim. We’re not anti-Uighur. We are anti-extremism, anti-terrorism, anti-separatism.” They’re obsessed with these three ideas, terrorism, extremism, separatism, and the measures that they’re taking in Xinjiang Province, they say, are no different to other countries who have done anti-terror measures and anti-terror laws and states of emergency. What do you say in response to that?
Because there have been Uighur militants who have carried out terror attacks in China and abroad. There were Uighur guys who ended up in Guantanamo Bay, that’s undeniable. But what do you say about the wider Chinese defense, the Chinese argument which is well, you know, who are you to criticize us? You know, the West has Guantanamo Bay. France had a state of emergency after their attack. We’ve seen successfully prevented any terrorist attacks in China by taking measures to stop “Islamic extremism” in Xinjiang. What do you say to them?
NT: The Chinese national security policies is based on a perceived threat, not on an actual threat. They can claim that they’re doing this under the guise of, you know, fighting against extremism. But when you look at the period that they often invoke, it’s basically 2012 through ’15. Post-2015, there is no single violent incident that they can report. And also —
MH: They say that in their favor. They say “See? It’s our measures that have prevented a single terrorist attack.”
NT: Actually, it’s the opposite. When you look at the events, the incidents, the violence that they cite, it’s no different than the ones that happen regularly in the other Chinese province and they don’t do the same method. But this is all about racism. This is all about racism. This is all about opportunistic approach, hijacking, some of the legitimate concerns expressed by people around the world.
MH: And jumping on the War on Terror bandwagon.
NT: Yes, when you look at the New York Times revelation last month, one of the five key takeaways cited was Xi Jinping’s directive to come up with even harder response than the 9/11 response that the United States showed. And he also cited U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and other areas as a reason for beefing up. This is all about —
MH: They’ve certainly gone beyond the response to 9/11. We all got worked up around the world when Guantanamo Bay was opened. Guantanamo Bay’s a walk in the park for actual accused terrorists compared to what’s happening in Xinjiang where somewhere between a million and three million, the numbers are astonishing.
NT: Pentagon, a senior official in charge of Indo-Pacific region, Randy Schriver, said in late May that he believes, his agency believes up to three million have been —
MH: And that’s Uighurs, plus I believe Kazakhs, other minority groups also.
NT: And then, we need to point this out to your listeners, there are four types of camps, maybe Randy was citing one of those camps. The first one is the daily re-education that people go as part of their daily report to work, spend 8-10 hours listening to Chinese propaganda, study Xi Jinping Thoughts, that is actually the most favorite daily re-education. The second type is mass detention, you just disappear. And this is the one that I think that people generally focus because the number three million is based on how was the population of the certain pocket of an area and what is the remaining population? So, Adrian Zenz recently modified his figure. It’s also not exactly the same accurate number, but it’s close to 2 million now. And then the third is the actual prison. They initially take you in and then charge you from anywhere from 10 to 15 years. In some instances, we’ve been reading that former well-known scholars imposed death penalties. And then the last one, the last one is the labor camps that they’re showing on this state media, showing to the sympathetic government representatives from mostly Muslim countries, and they’re coming up and phrasing, including MBS. MBS was very pleased that the way that Xi Jinping is treating the Uighurs. So there are four types of camps. If you add them all together, I’m sure that it’s more than 3 million.
MH: Wow. We hear a lot about Chinese communism in the West. But these days, what Beijing seems to be doing to the Uighurs to me, seems driven more by kind of nationalism than communism. The kind of hard right nationalism, ethno-nationalism that we’re seeing across the world, from Russia, to India, to Israel, to the United States. Do you put China in that same league?
NT: Yeah, oftentime when you talk about the ongoing crisis and one of the legitimate question is, has been, what is China’s response? They are actually on board for the most part with Xi Jinping because of the growing nationalistic approach to domestic and foreign affairs. If you go online, recently, one of the American journalists wrote on the child separation, and her Twitter account was trashed with a lot of nasty messages and nationalistic messages. Like today, if you go to China, you cannot log into Twitter, you cannot log into other social medias, but they dispatch three most influential ambassadors, UK, Canada, and America to launch nationalistic messages around the world. And the Chinese government has been very effective, actually more so than the Western governments to create this anxiety. That anxiety has been translated into public support.
So, you find very little evidence of Chinese intellectuals coming out in defense of the Uighurs or in defense of their own national interest in the long term. You know, they’re just being short sighted. They support the Xi Jinping’s policy, as if that’s the way of being patriotic for the Chinese state. And we have a lot of pro-CCP people in this country. So whenever you said, oh, this is not in the interest of the United States, UK, or Canada, they took you as if that you’re anti-China, and then it helps the nationalists in China. So, it is a kind of a chain reaction situation.
MH: And of course, you have this geopolitical rivalry right now between China and the United States over trade, at least. As a result of that, I would argue, partly, I mean, you mentioned how Muslim majority countries have let the Uighurs down, I mentioned that in the introduction to the show. Interestingly, Western countries have taken a slightly stronger or more vocal stance in recent months, even the United States. Do you welcome the recent Uighur act passed by Congress which puts sanctions on some Chinese officials involved in Xinjiang and prevents the sale of surveillance technology to Beijing? Will that make a difference?
NT: I, as someone who’s been promoting, working on this bill, and other legislative initiatives, I welcome this move. It is a significant move, and no country ever in Uighur history, modern or ancient history than anything similar to what has happened on the Capitol Hill. The bill in and of itself is very substantive on top of being symbolic. On substance, it mandates the president to apply the global Magnitsky Act. We’ve been talking about sanctioning Chinese officials in the last year and a half, because of you know, I can say this comfortably, Steve Mnuchin, the treasury secretary who was opposing. The administration could not move forward. So this legislation will mandate that to happen.
Two, the export control. It’s very significant. Chinese have turned this prison system, mass incarceration, even violation of their own counterterrorism laws into political economy and potential way of expanding their political influence. So with this export control, we will be able to restrict U.S. tech firms, U.S. businesses, not only unwittingly, but willingly supporting Chinese state security. This is going to be very effective and also something has not been discussed, the Chinese are going crazy, simply because this will create political instability. This will undermine CCP, undermine Chairman Xi Jinping’s authority. Here’s why: these tech companies are invested by Chinese billionaires, the social elites. So, you don’t want to mess up with them.
MH: So, are you hopeful then that the response from China over the medium to long term to this legislation, to the sanctions is that they will loosen up conditions in Xinjiang and start relaxing a little bit in order to kind of get the world off their back? Or will they double down and say “Screw you rest of the world. We’re going to respond with harsh measures again. We’re going to sanction you guys, and we’re going to carry on doing what we’re doing with the Uighurs?”
NT: I don’t think that they will go harder. It’s possible. But they’ve been cornered. Look at how they’ve been portrayed or perceived in the international community. They care so much about the image.
MH: They do?
NT: Yeah, they do. I’ve never seen the level of response from the Chinese government, outside of the country trying to change the narrative, distract from the focus, you know, launching anti-American sentiment all around the world. This shows they realize the pressure that is coming on their way. And then two, they have no choice, Mehdi. What are they going to do? They’re losing the international stance. It’s even hard to find somebody who can come to the media outlet to debate, to discuss who would take a pro-Chinese government stand these days. You used to have a bunch of people dying to go on the shows, you know, TV —
MH: But they know this is a problem for them.
NT: They can’t do it. It’s unconscionable —
MH: Until a few years ago, they had a semi-good news story about the Chinese economy about other “freedoms” opening up the economic space. But now, slowly the Uighur issue is becoming a bigger issue. And the Trump administration has also used the Uighur issue to bash China. We know the Trump administration doesn’t like China for trade purposes. But Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State said over the summer that the treatment of the Uighurs was “the stain of the century,” quite harsh words. Do you worry though, that the minute they sign some trade deal with China, the tariff war ends, they’ll just throw your people under the bus, the Trump administration? It’s not a genuine concern that they have.
NT: It is a genuine concern because we don’t know what president does tomorrow or next hour. It is you know, we have to be mindful, clear-eyed about what the President might be doing or might not be doing.
MH: President Trump?
NT: Yes, I testified in Congress —
MH: I doubt he’s even heard of the Uighurs to be honest, I think Mike Pompeo is probably the max.
NT: Probably, but I give a lot of credit to others, Pompeo, Sam Brownback and Mike Pence, and some senators like Rubio. And today, you know, this interesting Washington environment. David Nunes agrees with Adam Schiff on the Uighur issue. The bill received 407 votes in the House.
NT: And it has all the —
MH: So the Uighurs managed to bring Democrats and Republicans together in a way that no other issue.
NT: Exactly, you can look around, you’ll be hard pressed to find one issue that can even receive 220 votes, let alone 407 votes.
MH: So, you’ve got those votes on Capitol Hill, important legislation was passed. It’s still a mountain to climb. We don’t know how the Chinese are going to respond in the medium to long run. What is your message to people listening at home today, both here in the U.S. and around the world who perhaps had heard the name Uighur but didn’t really understand it, who are now hearing you talk about cultural genocide and invoking the specter of Nazi Germany. This is a big deal. What can ordinary people do to help your people in Xinjiang?
NT: Two things: one, this is not about China anymore or Chinese government. This is about who we are as a people, as a civilization. We were told over and over again that no one should be punished based on their religion, ethnicity. That’s how we brought up. That’s how we get educated. That’s what we follow in our daily lives. So, it’s time for people to show up in the arena to fight with the Uighurs, organize public events, organize fundraisings to help the Uighurs to build professional team, write to their representatives, particularly in the United States. One specific thing that I can ask through your program is to ask Muslim Americans or the people who support the Uighur cause to get on the phone and ask Mitch McConnell, the majority leader to put S178 that has been recently passed in the House and vote. We’re setting a time bomb. The Uighurs are canaries in a coal mine and the American people can show up and at least call Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer in the Senate to get this bill done.
MH: And there are reports, one last question I have to ask you, there are reports of Chinese agents coming to the West, coming to the U.S. to surveil, monitor, even target Uighur activists here. We saw what happened with the Saudis and Jamal Khashoggi, do you worry for your own safety, even here in the U.S., your own security?
NT: Of course, I worry, like my fellow Uighur Americans here, around the world because Chinese have been put on defense. They are no different than Saudi Arabia or Russia for that matter, to, you know, get even with their opponents, critics. So, everyone needs to be mindful and also, they have not physically threatened anyone based on the public information available. But we do know it for fact that they had been trying to recruit informants. They tried to pressure Uighur victims not to speak out. We have been told that in some instance, Chinese officials tried to bring the Uighur activists to Middle East, Dubai, to be exact. A Netherland-based newspaper reported that the ex-husband of this Uighur woman, who provided one of the leaked documents, the operating manual, was lured to Dubai and even asked asked to spy on his ex-wife.
MH: Nury Turkel, we’ll have to leave it there. Thank you so much for coming on the show. Keep fighting the good fight. You have our solidarity and stay safe.
NT: Thank you so much, Mehdi. I really appreciate it. You’ve very popular among the Uighurs because you’ve picked up this fight and telling your audience both at Al Jazeera and here early on when this issue was not even popular. But thank you so much for your persistent efforts to tell the truth to people.
MH: Appreciate it, Nury.
NT: Thank you.
MH: That’s our show! Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
And I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. Go to theintercept.com/deconstructed to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice, iPhone, Android, whatever. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review, a good one – it helps people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at Podcasts@theintercept.com. Thanks so much. Deconstructed will be back in the new year, in a couple of weeks in fact. So, tune in then.