On June 29, 2015 little known Turkish footballer Alparslan Ozturk made the headlines for his political stance. The footballer, who left the Turkish Super League side Kasimpasaspor at the end of last season, had been linked to two Chinese clubs. According to his Facebook post (shown below), when he asked that ten percent of his yearly earnings be given to Uyghur Turks living in East Turkestan (an autonomous region in China’s Western province of Xinjiang) the Chinese clubs in question decided not to follow through with the transfer. Mr. Ozturk claims that he didn’t make this announcement for publicity or to attract interest from other clubs:
“Müslüman soydaşlarımızı, müslüman kardeşlerimizi canlı canlı soyan bir millette, ülkede benim nefes almam uygun değildir. Böyle düşündüm, böyle karar verdim. Her gün televizyonlarda ve gazetelerde görüyoruz. Oruç tuttuğu için Uygur Türkleri katlediliyor”
“It isn’t right for me to breath in a country, among a people, that steal from our Muslim brothers. I thought like this and made this decision. We see it every day on the television and in the newspapers. Uyghur Turks are being murdered because they [participate in the Ramadan] fast”.
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. The Turkish government has followed an internationalist foreign policy based on Islam in order to increase its influence in Africa and Central Asia, and Mr. Ozturk is well aware that making such comments ingratiates him with fellow Muslims who are football fans. Indeed the Hurriyet news story cited above was shared on Facebook 1.9 billion times. In order to understand how this story grew we must take a look at Turkish reporting of recent events in eastern China.
CNN explains that China’s far Western Xinjiang province “was contested among Mongols and Turkic groups before coming under Chinese rule in the 18th century. It has grown more prized since, as the region is rich in oil and minerals.” Incoming migration of Han Chinese has made the native Turkic Uyghurs a minority and, recently, the officially Atheist government of communist China has put restrictions on Uyghurs practicing Islam. The issue came to a head on most recently on June 23, 2015. Radio Free Asia—based in the United States—reported that as many as 28 people were killed at a police checkpoint in southwestern Xinjiang’s Kashgar city. A car sped through the checkpoint and when police came out to chase the car it backed up, breaking the leg of one traffic policeman. Two men then came out of the car and stabbed two other traffic policeman to death. When backup police officers came to the scene three other people had arrived in a motorcycle and attacked the checkpoint with explosives, killing three other policeman, before police opened fire and killed fifteen alleged terrorists. In the end reports vary on the number of dead, ranging from 18 to 30. Yahoo news and the New York Times corroborated the Radio Free Asia report, with the Times noting the religious divide:
“Uighurs, an ethnic Turkic group that makes up more than 40 percent of Xinjiang’s 22 million people, have been struggling to maintain their identity there and practice their religion, Islam, amid increasing controls from Beijing. Some Uighurs want to break away from China and form an independent East Turkestan, and some of them engage in sporadic, deadly attacks against the authorities.”
Radio Free Asia, in a June 29, 2015 story, also noted that the attackers came from a religious family”.
Interestingly, in stark contrast to the Western reports of the incident, Turkish media has underlined the religious divide to a large degree. In Turkish Daily Vatan’s report of the incident they reported that Muslims were not being allowed to carry out the Ramadan fast, one of the five pillars of Islam, and that the restriction caused the violence. I have provided my own translation below Vatan’s article:
“Geçtiğimiz yıl Ramazan ayında Doğu Türkistanlı Müslümanlara orucu yasaklayan Çin, yasağına bu yıl da devam ediyor. Çin’in yasağa uymayan Uygurlara operasyon başlattığı ifade edilirken, şu ana kadar 18 Uygur Türk’ünün Çin polisi tarafından öldürüldüğü belirtildi.
Doğu Türkistan’daki baskıcı politikalarıyla gündeme gelen Çin, Müslümanlara namaz ve oruç da dahil İslam’a dair herşeyi yasakladı. Yasağa uymayan Müslümanlara operasyon düzenleyen Çin polisinin en az 18 kişiyi katlettiği belirtildi.
Reuters’ın Radio Free Asia’ya dayandırarak servis ettiği haberinde, Çin’in işgal altında tuttuğu Doğu Türkistan’ın Kaşgar şehrinde polisin en az 18 Uygur Türkünü katlettiği belirtildi. Çin polisi, Uygurlardan oluşan bir grubun polise bıçak ve patlayıcılarla polise saldırdığını idida etti ve en az üç polisin öldüğünü duyurdu. Yapılan açıklamada polisin saldırı düzenleyen Uygurlara karşılık vererek en az 15 kişiyi öldürdüğü belirtildi.”
“China, who forbade East Turkistan’s Muslims to fast last Ramadan, is continuing the restriction this year. While an operation was made against Uyghurs not adhering to the restriction, 18 Uyghur Turks have been killed by Chinese Police up to now.
China, who has been recognized for its restrictive policies in East Turkestan, has forbidden Muslims to have anything to do with Islam including prayers and fasting. Chinese police arranged an operation against Muslims not adhering to the prohibition and have murdered at least 18 people.
Reuters citing Radio Free Asia reported that police murdered at least 18 Uygur Turks in the city of Kashgar in Chinese occupied East Turkestan. Chinese police claimed that a group of Uyghurs attacked police with knives and explosives and reported that at least three police were killed. A statement explained that in responding to the attack arranged by Uyghurs at least fifteen people were killed by police.”
News outlets in Turkey continue to stoke the fires of Turkish nationalism by linking the situation in China to Islamic/Turkish brotherhood and Today’s Zaman, known to be close to Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, ran a story detailing academics and actors calling for an independent East Turkestan. The Sabah daily, which is close to the government, also ran a story reporting on a delegation from the leftist pro Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) visiting China at the invitation of the Chinese communist party. Along with a blood splattered image of the East Turkestan flag Sabah ran the headline “An HDP delegation is going to China despite the East Turkestan torture”. Such a headline discredits the HDP—who dealt a blow to the AKP by winning 13% of the vote during June’s elections—by playing into Turkish nationalist fears of its identity as a party advocating Kurdish separatism.
Interestingly the leftist news site sol.org responded to the mainstream media reporting of events in East Turkestan by exposing the East Turkestan propaganda proliferating on social media sites in a June 29, 2015 story. Sol.org notes that many pictures posted on social media sites and news sites purportedly reporting violence inflicted on Uyghur Turks by the Chinese government are really old file photos from as far back as the 1980s. They even note that one story, reporting on a beer festival in Shandong, was reported in Turkey with the headline “They forced Muslims to drink alcohol”. Of course every news site has its own propaganda to push; sol.org also claims that the leaders of East Turkestan live in America and are close to Al-Qaeda, part of an American “plan” to destabilize China by using its restive Turkic Muslim minority.
The thing that should be kept in mind is that no news story is free from political bias, even seemingly innocent ones about a footballer choosing to not play in China. When such biases get dangerous, however, is when an ethno-nationalist and religious agenda starts being pushed by media outlets in order to galvanize support for the government in a “rally around the flag” manner.