Why pan-Turkic ultra-nationalism is no satisfying answer to the Uyghur struggle: Thoughts from a Brussels demonstration


14 Jan. 2020

By Vanessa Frangville


On this gloomy, freezing Sunday afternoon, I walked out from a demonstration in Brussels puzzled and disconcerted. Like many, I answered the call to "break the silence around the Uyghurs". Attacks on Uyghur scholars and academic freedom, along with the detention of at least one million Uyghurs in camps over the past three years, raised serious concerns among my colleagues and friends from universities and international organizations for Human Rights. I encouraged them to join the demonstration held mid-January, and they enthusiastically did so. 

Like my colleagues and friends, I joined the rally to express concerns about the unprecedented extent of human rights abuses under Xi Jinping, and to show solidarity with a people whose culture, language, religious practices and very existence are threatened by a regime that claims to be a worldwide political leader. Beyond the Uyghur case, joining the protest also sought to reassert the importance of the rule of law, and of the freedom of speech and movement, all of which are inaccessible to the vast majority of Uyghurs. In sum, as a European citizen, my participation was both a message of fraternity and support to my Uyghur friends and a call to our governing bodies in Europe to uphold and safeguard these fundamental freedoms. I was very much looking forward to joining like-minded peers in what I believed was a much-needed event, following the broader protests held on the 1st of October 2019 in Brussels.


I eventually walked along with an engaging crowd, which, however, also included pan-Turkic ultranationalists raising their fists with the little finger and index finger raised, a hand sign representing the head of a wolf. This gesture was banned in Austria last year and is considered reminiscent of the Nazi salute. Unsettled, and, in part, outraged, my friends chose to leave the march after a few hundred meters. A Uyghur friend confessed to me later, with much embarrassment, that his friends, who had made the trip all the way from various cities in Belgium to join the demonstration, also decided to leave even before the march started. They felt that they could not identify with the cause, feeling uncomfortable with the heavy presence of Turkish flags held in some cases by clearly identifiable members and supporters of the Grey Wolves. They simply left. 

The attendance of members of a Turkish far-right organisation was indeed troubling, to say the least. Whether they came as individuals or as an organized group, whether the organizers were aware of their presence or whether they joined the protest without warning, is unclear to me. In any case, their visible presence conveyed an ambiguous message and raised the question: Can you fight a regime you call fascist with supporters of another fascist regime? 

We should call a spade a spade. The Grey Wolves, also known as “Idealist Hearts”, are neo-fascists; and Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long embraced their main causes, promoting nationalism and militarism in education and leading a war against ethnic diversity and the Kurds in particular. In the aftermath of the 2016 failed coup attempt, ten-thousands were jailed on terrorism charges (including critical journalists, academics, lawyers and elected politicians from Kurdish cities). While at a different scale, this use of dubious allegations of terrorist-links resembles Xi’s approach towards the Uyghurs. Erdogan’s government closed down several newspapers, publishers and broadcasters and launched an unprecedented crackdown on civil society organizations. Again, this resembles Xi’s actions in China, not just in the Uyghur region, though certainly more harshly in the Uyghur case. In fact, it could be argued that Xi, Erdogan (and Putin, and Trump) all employ ideologies that merge populism, nationalism and despotism.

I hope Turkish people take no offence, but marching behind the Turkish flag, for many Europeans, currently means supporting Erdogan’s government. That does not mean that all Turks are nationalists or Erdogan supporters. Neither does it mean that Turkish people cannot be proud of their rich culture and history. After all, Erdogan did not design this flag nor is he the first political leader from Turkey to instrumentalise it. A flag also belongs to the people it represents. But a flag is a symbol that can be read, beyond any ethnic or national belonging, as backing a State rather than a nation. That is precisely how some of us read it, and that is precisely how many external observers would read it. I know this is unfair, but that is the reality we all need to face. When, in 2020, Turkish flag holders and people surrounding them raise their fists like the Grey Wolves do, this situation risks misperception and amalgamation.

Keeping this context in mind, if you protest against the massive illegal detention of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs based on racial profiling and rooted in an ideology around Han- Chinese supremacy, can you walk with those who support political violence in the name of a superior "Turkish race"? If you strongly reject China’s official discourse that assimilates Uyghurs to terrorists and extremists, can you join forces with those who claim to be “the ‘True’ Turks” and call for a Pan-Turkic expansion of their territory?

The answer is quite simple: no, you can’t. In a matter of half an hour, the Uyghur cause had lost the very few non-Uyghur and non-Muslim citizens who had committed to join the demonstration, their determination to undertake future actions shaken.   


In French we use the expression: "to make fire with any wood" (faire feu de tout bois). Some Uyghurs might think they can use any wood as long as it keeps the fire on. The Grey Wolves joined with their own wood, what’s the big deal? Well, some wood burns fast but doesn’t last. Some wood produces less heat. Some wood produces heavy smoke and unhealthy pollutants. Some wet wood may even explode like firecrackers. Thus, if you want a good quality fire that lasts and keeps you warm, you need to select the best firewood. In other words, the allies you choose tell more about yourself than your enemies. So select your allies carefully if you want to convince others that you can be better than your enemies. 

I am not blaming anyone, and certainly not the organizers. They do an amazing job, raising their voices and taking immense risks for their families back home. I share Uyghurs’ pain and struggle. I understand that every bit of support counts, when most governments turn their back on the Uyghur plight. I understand every single voice that speaks for the voiceless is vital, when democratic states denounce China’s abuses while developing tighter economic and diplomatic relations with Xi’s government. I know that the inaction, or unwillingness of our governments to go beyond symbolic or discursive acts to condemn what all scholars, independent organizations and journalists have repeatedly denounced as atrocities, can be disheartening. And I know this is not a Uyghur dilemma, but the dilemma of all those who support justice for the Uyghurs, and for others. We all need to reflect on this dilemma.

Yet it is the responsibility of Uyghurs to understand what is at stake when radical groups join their cause, or when they accept invitations from local conservative parties that endorse anti-immigration policies and securitizing agendas. In France, Uyghur organizers only allow their own flags during some demonstrations, along with the French national flag, to avoid misunderstandings. I am not arguing that this is the only option, but it shows that Uyghurs in France are aware of possible misappropriations and took measures to avoid them. Uyghurs in Brussels do not only address Belgians, especially when the protest ends in front of the European Parliament. They address an institution representing 28 countries that all have different approaches to the Uyghur issue. All 28 countries have, however, unanimously condemned military actions led by the Grey Wolves from the 1990s and human rights abuses perpetrated by Turkish officials under Erdogan.

It is also our responsibility, as European citizens and informed political actors, to offer convincing alternatives to obscurantism and dogmatism, and not to leave space to opportunist radical groups that ruin a just cause by infusing it with their own agenda. This is also our responsibility to show Uyghurs that it is in their best interest to turn to democracy, justice and equality, like Hong Kong and Taiwan do so well. We should not walk away but tell them that some symbols are heavily loaded in the European context, that narratives are important, that messages need to be well-thought out and crystal clear. 

One message that I had wished to see clearly conveyed is that the EU needs to take further steps, in particular the EU commission to introduce a large set of targeted sanctions and visa bans on Chinese officials responsible for human right abuses, and targeted economic measures against Xi’s China. Just like the EU agreed on sanctions for Ankara a couple of months ago. We cannot and should not accept that the EU continues use this double standard. This is a legitimate demand to European countries; this is where we have leverage. We should work towards that, stop dwelling on how Xi’s regime is evil, overcome the anger and despair we all experience, and focus on what can be done to support Uyghurs in the fight for their rights in the most efficient and sustainable way.


Edited by Julius Rogenhofer.