Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.
Nico Perrino: Hello again, and welcome back to So to Speak, the free speech podcast where every other week we take an uncensored look at the world of free expression through personal stories and candid conversations. I am your host Nico Perrino, and today I am at the Cato Institute in Washington D.C. to speak with Mustafa Akyol. Akyol is a senior fellow with the Institute Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, he’s also an author of many books and a regular contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. Mustafa, thank you for coming on the show today.
Mustafa Akyol: Thank you for having me, it’s a pleasure.
Nico: Before we dive in to the main reason for our conversation today which is to kind of shed light on the persecution of the Uyghur Muslim minority in China, which I think is vastly overlooked by most in the west. I want to start with a little bit of your background, you’re from Turkey.
Mustafa: I’m from Turkey, indeed. I used to be a figure in the Turkish media, I had a newspaper column, I had TV show.
Nico: There’s a lot of people who used to be figures in the Turkish media.
Mustafa: Yeah, there are a lot of people who used to be and what used to be the Turkish media, which is now, 90% of it is just different colors of the same pragma I can say, unfortunately. So, I’m an author writing mostly about religion and public life, and freedom and how can we have a more, let’s say, liberal understanding of the stuff. Liberal in the classical sense of the word. And I used to champion these ideas in my home country, in Turkey, with my public presence column, books, but I tilted toward the U.S. side in the past couple of years. Partly because Turkey became a little bit inhospitable to…
Mustafa: …these ideas. And especially journalists with the ideas that I’m dealing with.
Nico: In what ways were they hospitable, did you deal with what a lot of what the journalists in Turkey are dealing with, any jail time?
Mustafa: Well I mean, actually I’m lucky and I shouldn’t complain. I mean, I know hundreds of journalists in Turkey went to jail, some are still in jail, others have been detained and banished. So, I didn’t go through any of that so far in Turkey. I went through that in Malaysia unexpectedly, that’s a whole different issue.
Nico: Yeah, I kind of what to get into that to because there’s a reference to that in your bio.
Mustafa: Yeah, me and my wife sometimes joke, like we were expecting where I would get arrested – oh, surprisingly it turned out to be somewhere in Southeast Asia, we weren’t expecting that. Anyway, what happened is that people like me lost their presence. I mean, you get a phone call from Ankara who says to your editor, “This guy shouldn’t write anymore.” That happened to me, that happened to hundreds of people that I know, because there’s a whole new ideological line that the government wants to promote and impose, and you’re not a part of that line. Especially you’re a bigger problem, if you used to be supportive of the government in the beginning. Then you have to some that are not supporters, but then it takes a different line and you said, “No, no, no, this is wrong.” Then you become a bigger problem.
So, through that mechanism a lot of people lost their jobs in the media. I lost jobs in the media as well. Again, I’m not complaining from that, worse thing happen to people, but ultimately Turkey is also in a very polarized state of affairs too. I mean, I wouldn’t be maybe feeling fully comfortable, and so position circles as well because it’s all about division of polarization and nuance analysis was not very welcome.
Nico: Were you ever supportive of the government in any way?
Mustafa: Oh, yeah. I mean, I –
Nico: So, you say it’s like apostasy, if you were a supporter of them and then you kind of reversed, that’s what they don’t like.
Mustafa: Yeah, there’s a little bit – they call it treason. And well, this current government led by President Erdogan he was Prime Minister in the beginning, and his party, Justice and Development Party. Well it’s no big secret, I was a big supporter for a long time. I was a supporter because this was a party that was founded by conservative pais Muslims, but it came to the scene in the early 2000s and it’s like, we want to join a European union and we will realize all the necessary reforms. And these were liberal reforms, more rights for Kurds, more rights for minorities, they changed the legal code, I mean the penal code. Women gave more rights in social reforms in 2004. The synthesis I always wanted to see in the Islamic worlds, is synthesis where conservative Muslims still be true to their faith can accept the broad framework of liberal democracy which includes freedom for everybody, freedom of speech, freedom from religion and off religion and all those values that I believed in.
So, it went one fine for quite a while, but then we realized that. I mean, we, being the Turkish liberals who supported this government. Well this government did these things because it needed. Because it had to save itself from the wrath from the secular military. So, clinging onto a European union rope was the safest way out. But once they established themselves, they consolidated their power, they started to change. There were people in the party who wanted to remain loyal to the early let’s say, liberal line, they were all pushed out. And President Erdogan gathered around him an ideological cadre of anti-western, anti-liberal, sentiments, most of them, there are a few exceptions. So, just if you turn into something else. And I started to say, well this is wrong.
Nico: When was this change happening would you say?
Mustafa: I think by 2011 when the Erdogan won a very decisive election, he felt more comfortable. After that we started to see a shift in narrative, and a clear turning point I think was 2013, there were big, massive anti-government protests. And Erdogan in the face of those protests could have said, well you know so far citizens have a problem, so listen to what they’re saying. No, he said this is an international conspiracy, you know, and these are spies of western governments.
Nico: And there was the coup d’état, or then alleged –
Mustafa: And then coup d’état came later, which made everything much worse. So, Turkey went into downward spiral and I remember writing columns saying, no, no, no, this is not a conspiracy, you should try to understand that societies like yours, and there are people who have a problem with you because of certain thing you say or do. So, do not demonize the opposition. That was my line and it didn’t work. I mean I got a phone call, my editor in chief got a phone call from Ankara that I shouldn’t write anymore, so that was the end of it. And my editor in chief got fired a little –
Nico: Yeah, I was going to say what happened to some of your colleagues?
Mustafa: Because he was still too sluggish in obeying these commitments so, he got fired to. And the newspaper I was writing for which is called Star turned into a – to me, today, disgusting, but like unabashed propaganda machine, but it was more nuance of course.
Nico: Would you say that there is a free press in Turkey anymore?
Mustafa: Well we can’t speak of press freedom much, I mean there are few still independent newspapers that are still critical, but they are all shrinking. They get their editor in chief arrested for a while or let go. Or for example, there are a few newspapers that are there and if companies give advertisement to these newspapers, those companies get phone calls from Ankara saying that these are traitors, why are you supporting them, this will be bad for you. So, those papers are kind of trying to survive, but all the major media, the papers that Turkey knew and read for decades, the big Hürriyet, Milliyet, these big newspapers, imagine them the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, they’ve all become one party line, and that is the line that manorates the president.
Nico: So, I’ve heard that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan does have considerable support in the country. Is that true?
Mustafa: It is true. I mean, here is the thing –
Nico: The same way Putin has a lot of support in Russia.
Mustafa: Yeah, maybe a little less than Putin, but yes. I mean, here’s one point before we even get into that, I think a lot of people have a simple freedom or dictatorship dichotomy, which was maybe the case in the 20th century. In a country where you have elections, you would assume it’s a free country. Well actually there’s a spectrum right now in the world, there are countries that are liberal democracy, there are countries that are full dictatorship, and there are countries that are somewhere in between. And I think Turkey is in that somewhere in between category.
President Erdogan is popular among a certain part of the population, which is half of the country roughly speaking. Sometimes a little more and that allows him to win the elections, which strongly identify with them. President Erdogan is religious conservative, his wife wears a head scarf, he’s coming from the heartland, and there are lot of people who live like him, who look at him and see their own values, own narrative, own language, and Erdogan is their president. And they almost venerate him, they look up to him and before Erdogan those people had certain problems in what we call the old Turkey now.
I mean, there was a ultratarian secularism that I was critical, actually of. So, wearing a head scarf and getting a public job was not possible, so there was some discrimination against religious conservatives. So, Erdogan saved them from that and gave them power, and glory, and revenge and all that. So, these people are into Erdogan like Chavez had any credible popularity in Venezuela. But then you have roughly 48 persons – I mean, these figures of interest, he has been winning elections with 51, 52, 53 –
Nico: And these are fair elections in your opinion?
Mustafa: Not very fair, but they’re not rigged. I mean, not fair in the sense that he controls the propaganda resources, the media is all about praising Erdogan.
Nico: There’s political intimidation if they’re calling –
Mustafa: Political intimidation, I mean, you can go to jail if you’re a position figure. Like the Kurdish parties leaders sent out and they are in jail. Sometimes when in the Kurdish providences when somebody wins the election from the Kurdish party, the government can declare that person to be allied with terrorism, so they can just take them out and put their own position there. So, you can’t speak of fair elections, but also the balance that really counted, I mean, with a position party people there. So, I think it is very unfair elections, but at the end of the end they are not rigged, at least so far. That is why Erdogan lost two major cities just recently, Ankara and Istanbul.
Nico: Oh, really.
Mustafa: But they’re not trying to give Istanbul right now, they’re asking for a re-run. I mean, there were minuscule elections in Turkey two weeks ago and Ankara the capital went to the opposition candidate now and after 25 years of domination by Erdogan’s party. The same thing happened in Istanbul too, but now in Istanbul the government is trying to push for a re-run of the elections. They are finding some, you know…
Nico: Technical justifications.
Mustafa: Yeah, they’re trying to find a pretext to do that and they’re still working on that, I don’t know what’s gonna happen. Maybe you’ll see it in the next couple of days. So, the ballots so far have been at least, honestly counted, but everything else when you go to Istanbul, you see just the posters of Erdogan, right?
Mustafa: And you open the media, I mean, 19 of the 20 news channels are pushing Erdogan. Actually, the fact that the has not been controlling the ballots, made them so willing to control the propaganda resources.
Mustafa: And that gives you what people call an illiberal democracy. Of course, the bigger problem is in Turkey, freedom of speech has come to such dramatic levels, like there is a law about insulting the president and if you “insult the president” you get a few years jail time for that.
Nico: Even if you’re not in Turkey. Wasn’t there a situation in Germany where a poet wrote something critical of Erdogan.
Mustafa: Yeah, even if foreign country for an individual does that they try to take care of that, but the question is what is insulting the president? And people just say strong criticisms of social media and the police is at their door. I mean, 60,000 people have been prosecuted in the past five years for “insulting the president”. And I think probably none of them would be under any legal proceeding in a place or a country where you have free speech.
Nico: And he’s very petty too, I have a colleague who’s very critical of him on Twitter and his Twitter account blocked her.
Mustafa: Yeah, Twitter gets blocked… and like there are stories in Turkey, like for example this happened, on a bus two people were speaking about Erdogan and one of them was very critical of Erdogan and one of the people on the bus called the police and said they are right now insulting our president on the bus. And the police arrested that person after that bus ride.
Mustafa: And also, that’s the thing, some of those people are behind this, it’s not people versus the state. Well, the people who support Erdogan think that of course the traitors should be punished, and they want more of it actually.
Nico: So, it’s not so much that the economy’s doing well and so the administration’s doing well. The economy’s doing pretty good in Turkey, right?
Mustafa: It was. Actually, it is going down lately, and that costs President Erdogan some votes, that’s why he lost Ankara and Istanbul. But there are people would vote for President Erdogan no matter what.
Nico: Because he’s just – personality? Speaks to the heartland.
Mustafa: It’s like yeah, Perón is in more, it’s like this cult-ish personality, and when the economy goes wrong, those people believe that there is an economic attack on Turkey, by these conspiratorial powers. And I think the power of conspiracy theory is such an amazing thing, I’ve seen it all my life, especially in Turkey. President Erdogan is all about conspiracies against Turkey. Like whatever happens, tomato prices go up, President Erdogan speaks of a tomato conspiracy, and I’m not making it up. He uses those words, like well it’s just a conspiracy against Turkey, or something. Well, prices go up because prices go up, right there are reasons for that.
Nico: Famines, yeah.
Mustafa: And the market goes up, and your actual policies are posing that because President Erdogan had economic policies lately that are quite populous, and I think harmful. But if you believe in this conspiratorial narrative that everything is a plot, doctors plot, you know. And so, those people are in those ideological universes and they do not look at the president in any critical terms.
Nico: So, when did you come here to the states?
Mustafa: Well I mean, I’ve been going back and forth for 20 years.
Nico: Yeah, you’re a public figure.
Mustafa: Right. The more I say, move to the U.S, I began living here at the end of 2016, by the beginning of 2017. I came as a visiting fellow to a Freedom Project at Wellesley College.
Nico: Yeah, in Massachusetts.
Mustafa: Yeah, Massachusetts. So, that was like a three-term stay there, then I came to the Cato Institute to join as a senior fellow.
Nico: The Wellesley Freedom Project is an interesting project, one that we at FIRE have followed and we actually created a video about it because there are some folks on campus and off campus who tried to get it shut down. I mean, it’s a project that seeks to expand the divisive ideas on campus, talk about freedom both at home and abroad, and the students there just come under tremendous political and cultural pressure for being a part of it. But, perhaps even more concerning than the pressure they receive to not be a part of the Freedom Project is what would happen if the project actually shut down? I mean, it’s a haven for foreign scholars who don’t feel safe in their countries. Right?
Mustafa: Yeah. Well I mean, I came to the U.S. and of course I knew of U.S. politics, but on the campus I saw something different. I mean, I thought wow, there are some freedoms of speech issues in the U.S too, you wouldn’t think of that.
Mustafa: And in particular in Wellesley, I had a great time in Wellesley, I appreciate Wellesley College for hosting me there, I appreciate Thomas Cushman, the head of the Freedom Project, who was at the time the founder and the president of the Freedom Project for hosting me there. But I also in Wellesley I said, wow, there are people here who call themselves liberal, but they use the term liberal in a different sense than from what I mean. I’m coming from more European tradition where the term liberal means classical, liberal means maximum individual freedom, right, in a rule of law of course. But here in the U.S. I said, oh the liberals are trying to silence somebody for being hurtful or for being somehow disturbing the students.
And I personally faced that, and I couldn’t even believe. I’ll tell you an example, in Wellesley when I was there I gave several public seminars on the campus, which were jut generally well received, and I was happy to do that. One lecture was titled: Is Islam compatible with freedom?
Nico: Oh, I remember seeing a flyer for that at Wellesley, it was defaced.
Mustafa: Yeah, I mean, it was titled: Is Islam Compatible with freedom? Because this is the issue I’m dealing with. I mean, there are blatancy laws, and apostasy laws in Pakistan people get killed or executed or jailed for saying something critical of religion. That is not very compatible with freedom, but as a Muslim myself I believe yes, we have these problems, but then there are solutions in Islam. There are liberal movements as well. These evil bands that are lasting in apostasy, even don't come from the Quran, it’s just come from Medieval interpretations, Christianity has dealt with these issues –
Nico: Same thing, yeah.
Mustafa: We can deal with these and there are promising signs for change as well. So, that was my broad thing. And I gave a talk which was well attended, more than a hundred students at Wellesley and I began with reminding [inaudible] [00:18:25] whose words have been pointed out as one of the early steps for freedom of speech because he had this interesting line, he was critical of Iman Gozali, he said when you are refuting an opponent always give them a fair share of their opinion, cult them in full, them put your ideas, otherwise It’d be unfair.
Nico: Yeah, restate their position better than they even could.
Mustafa: Exactly, so, [inaudible] wrote that and some people said wow, he was actually speaking about what we call freedom of speech today. So, that lecture which can be found online was an attempt to highlight the forces of freedom within the Islamic tradition that maybe haven’t flourished enough, but we can go and discover them. But however, the title of the event, Is Islam compatible with freedom? Faces some protests on the campus, not big protests, but I’d say some objections. And at the end of the conference one of the students who didn’t like the title came up and said, well I like the content of what you’ve said so far, but your title is so offensive. I said, “Well why is it offensive?” She said, “Because you’re asking the possibility whether Islam and be even not compatible with freedom.”
Nico: Was she Muslim?
Mustafa: She was not a Muslim.
Nico: And you are.
Mustafa: And the Muslim students were actually happy with – they loved it. they got my signed copies and I established some good connections there, a few of them still write to me. And I said, “Listen, well I believe Islam is compatible with freedom, but there are Muslims who do not think like that.” So, this is a valid question. We could have a conference here, is Islam compatible with democracy? I’ll tell you, go to Taliban, they will say it is not. They will say democracy is kufr, it’s heresy, I mean, it’s unbelief. And so, this is a valid issue to discuss in Islam, and I think if you can’t have this discussion, then we can’t understand even what’s going on. So, to me that was like wow, this idea that you shouldn’t “offend” people, of course I don’t believe in offending people, I’m not a rude person. I don’t encourage people being rude, but to ask a question is Islam compatible with freedom, that’s a valid question today and some people already ask this, so as a Muslim my job is to ask this question and go through my answer of it, so that was like, to me it cannot be compared to Turkey levels, of course.
Mustafa: But freedom of speech can be challenged with different perspectives and sometimes it can be challenged for nurturing a culture and more liberal society, but liberal in a – it’s a kind of liberalism in way that I didn’t think of as liberalism.
Nico: Yeah, it’s they don’t even want to have the debate. At Wellesley I recall Laura Kipnis a feminist scholar tried to come to campus, and I think she was protested, and I think it even resulted in some faculty members saying that there should be some sort of prior review committee before speakers are invited.
Nico: And Alice Draeger, there were protests that she shouldn’t be able to come. She’s another feminist scholar, used to work at Northwestern, it’s this culture of conformity and often it manifests itself in what Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff calls as this vindictive protectiveness whereby people are offended on behalf of other people.
Nico: Like this person in front of you, wasn’t even Muslim, but she was offended on behalf of Muslims, and had even the audacity to talk to you, a Muslim, about how offensive your talk was.
Mustafa: And can I add one more thing on that. I mean, I also have seen in the U.S. in the past three years, the people who are trying to bring this religious, I’m sorry, non-policing on the campus, they’re saying oh, it's the right wing that is using freedom of speech as a code word or something. Well I would say this is because you are the establishment here, if it was the other way around, if you had a campus which was 95% of everybody was republican, probably the 5% who would be arguing for free speech because their events would be problems.
Nico: And we see this with –
Mustafa: Whoever people – I mean, people have this tendency to listen and hear what they like. And in Turkey for example, I was once protested in a campus, Galatasaray University in Istanbul by a left-wing group because it was a time that NATO was discussed in Turkey and I said, “Well I’m glad Turkey’s a member of NATO and Turkey should remain a member of NATO,” and they thought I’m a CIA agent or something like that.
Nico: Conspiracies have power.
Mustafa: Yeah, and they chanted for 10 minutes saying go away you imperialist, Zionists, whatever – I mean, not Zionist, but like let’s say CIA or imperialism, which is nothing to do, I just thought Turkey should be included in the West. So, well that campus was most dominated by the left, and if you go to another campus in Turkey it would be dominated by the right-wing Islamists, let’s say Nationalist crowd. So, they would maybe shout out at something which they don't like. So, therefore freedom of speech can be challenged by people who have power, people who don't have power too, but especially people – but that power can be very different from one campus to another one, one state to another.
Mustafa: One country to another. And so therefore, freedom of speech is not anybody’s value, it’s a universal value I think under which we should operate, because if you sacrifice it for our own benefit here then you won’t have the basis to support it somewhere else.
Nico: Yeah, it’s an insurance policy of sorts for when you need it.
Nico: I want to ask you before we pivot to the Uyghurs in China, you we jailed in Malaysia, you took your hat to this earlier. Can I just hear that story quickly?
Mustafa: Sure. I mean I was jailed just for a night, so I’m lucky again on that as well.
Nico: But it’s astounding, I mean we talk about the situation here in the United States of cultural conformity, freedom of speech on college campuses, it’s kind of petty compared to what you’ve experienced.
Mustafa: Yeah, I mean, I’ll tell you, I sometimes when I hear freedom issues in the U.S., I think first world freedom issues.
Mustafa: They are important.
Nico: You need to challenge hem there though before they get to.
Mustafa: Yeah, they’re important also because they create whataboutisms elsewhere. For example, in Turkey I didn’t say that. For example, a lot of people have been jailed in Turkey for “terrorist propaganda” Well, the terrorists propaganda that the Turkish government’s going after is actually the critique of the antiterrorism measures the government. I mean, by Turkish standards, Noam Chomsky, would rot in jail forever because he criticized U.S. governments, you know, antiterrorisms measures let’s say. So, Turkey is taking you to a very extreme position. However, once in a while they’ll find something in the west and they love that. “Oh, you see in America, this guy got jailed as well.” Like Assange is a very popular thing in Turkey.
I’m not a very big expert on the technicalities of the Assange case, but people like Assange, “Oh you see, they are jailing journalists as well. And their case is much more extreme than that, but they use these things as – it was in the Soviet Union called whataboutism, right?
Mustafa: What about this? What about that? So therefore, preserving freedom standards in the west is certainly very important because then if you lose it here it will be double, it would be multiplied by 10 in some other places. But what happened in Malaysia – Malaysia has been kind of a hub for me. In the past decade I’ve been there five times, my books got published in Malay, it’s a Muslim society that is struggling with these issues of freedom. There is enough conservatism to be worried about and there is enough room to speak about it. So, it’s interesting case, at least I thought so. Actually, from Wellesley I went to Malaysia to give a series of lectures, but one of them was on the issue of apostasy, abandoning Islam and becoming a secular person and taking out a religion.
And I gave this lecture in 30 minutes to a Malay audience mainly, I said, well apostasy is not a crime and should not be seen as a crime. People can change their religion and you can’t do anything about it. I mean, you can advise people against it, but you shouldn’t force and encourage – and I’ve heard to the chronic words, no compulsion in religion. Again, I said religion cannot be policed. It’s a matter of the heart, you can’t police religion. And then five men walked in and said we are the religion police.
Nico: Oh geeze.
Mustafa: And they said they heard complaints about my talk, and they were listening there and now they will start an investigation, they took my photograph and got my ID information. They let me go that night, but the next day when I was leaving the country they apparently issued an arrest order, so arrested me at the airport, and they said you violated the law which bans teaching Islam without permission from the state, so the term for that is two years in jail. So, we’ll arrest you tomorrow, we’ll take you a prosecutor and your verdict will be given based on that. Like it was a bad night.
Nico: What was running through your mind?
Mustafa: I said like, why did I come to Malaysia, I could have just done Skype right? I mean, I had family back in Wellesley I was really stressed. It was a bad night, and they arrested me at the airport and took me to different places and ultimately locked me at the – they have a religion police establishment. I mean, it’s a police department specifically for “religious crimes.”
Mustafa: And so, I was jailed that night, and then next morning I was taken to the court in it, two hours later they interrogated me with long questions. They let me go at the end, but that was partly made possible with some phone calls. Turkey’s former president is a friend of my father.
Nico: Not the current president.
Mustafa: Yeah, but my father called him, he called the Sultan of Malaysia and the Sultan’s advisor called the court and whatever they said helped, so that was some kind of diplomacy on behind the scenes that helped me get out of jail.
Nico: That not everyone would get.
Mustafa: And not everyone will get that. Again, so far I’ve been lucky. And after that they banned my book right away. I mean, they let me go, but my book was officially was one of the banned booked and there is thousands of banned books in Malaysia. And now actually this month they’ll be a hearing in Malaysia because my publisher is asking for unbanning my book. It will go to the high court. So, sometime this month we’ll maybe hear it from them what will happen.
Nico: Would you go back there?
Mustafa: My wife wouldn’t allow him to go, at least in the foreseeable future. I mean, I could go there if someone gives me guarantee that you’ll be fine, but right not there’s no big rush for that.
Nico: Yeah. What about Turkey?
Mustafa: Well I don’t – I mean, I went to Turkey last summer, it’s not that I don’t go to Turkey at all, it’s my country, my parents are there. But I don’t see a future for myself in Turkey in such a political environment in such a media environment. And well, it’s a little bit stressful to go to Turkey you don’t know what will happen.
Nico: Yeah, I haven’t been as critical of the government, at least as publicly as you have. And there’s a lot of history in Turkey, I’d love to visit Turkey, but I’m also a free speech advocate who’s interviewed many people about what’s happening in Turkey and you just never know.
Mustafa: I mean, in Turkey, the problem is not clear what is crime and what is not. I mean –
Nico: That’s the worst sort of thing.
Mustafa: That’s the thing. I mean, not every critic of government in Turkey is in jail. I mean, Turkey’s not North Korea, I mean, it’s not – there are people who are vocally critical of the government, well they’re not in jail. But then well one of them is in jail. So, you don’t know how that exactly works. I mean, they arrest 10 people and the rest thousand people get an idea. So, that is not what Turkey should be. I hope better days for Turkey will come, but right now it’s really in a grave situation in terms of ultratarianism and political zealotry.
Nico: I want to turn to the situation in China with the Uyghur Muslims, which I think hasn’t gotten as much coverage in the west as it should. The Uyghur Muslims they live in the Xinjiang pride Provence, which is in Western China, and there are Turkish people, if not mistaken.
Nico: And there is this though in China that they are terrorists or could be terrorists, there have been some protests that have resulted in death in the past but starting a couple of years ago the Chinese government went through this huge campaign to reeducate them, which I think is the wrong word for what’s actually happening, they’re interning them in camps and trying to get them to renounce their religion. Stop reform at the basis level, there’s torture, there’s beatings. In some of the Uyghur communities, you have to go through checkpoints it looks like, every hundred meters, or something. And there’s this article that was just published in the New York Times yesterday, I don’t know if you had a chance –
Mustafa: Face recognition?
Nico: They’re now using face recognition technology to determine who is a Uyghur and who is not a Uyghur and I think human rights watch, or human rights campaign came out with this report that they’re actually putting people in Uyghur households with the idea to essentially cleanse the culture.
Nico: The Uyghur culture from China. So, let’s start by just kind of talking about who the Uyghurs are.
Mustafa: Sure. Well first of all, as you say, I’m from Turkey and in Turkey we know the Uyghur issue for decades. Because Uyghurs are a Turkish people, which means their language is similar to modern day Turkish. It’s hard to understand exactly, but if you listen enough you can get to it.
Nico: Yeah, it’s like the dialects of Italy, for example.
Mustafa: Yeah, it’s a dialect. I mean, they are distant cousins of Turkey, let’s say. And since the communist revolution in China, east Turkistan, or Xinjiang the Chines call it, is a region dominated by the Beijing regime and it is China’s northwestern edge. So, it is China’s gateway to Central Asia.
Nico: And it’s pretty rural right?
Mustafa: It’s pretty rural, but it’s become a very important place because of transportation. I mean, just China is building a whole new modern silk road called the belt –
Nico: Belt and Road?
Mustafa: Called the Belt initiative.
Mustafa: It will include roads and natural gas and a lot of investment and everything, so China’s been putting up with this all the way to Europe, it’s gonna go there. China will build highways for its own economic advancement, for other countries it’s gonna help as well. So, it’s passing through this rural region. So, stabilizing this region for China is important. Now the problem is, it’s like Turkey’s Kurdish question, for decades the Chinese majority, Han majority, though that since these Uyghurs are Muslim and they’re Turkish, they’re not Chinese.
We have to be careful about them and that “carefulness” made the Uyghurs feel persecuted and that persecution created a reaction and that reaction created more crackdown, it’s just a vicious cycle. China first began changing the population. Millions of Han Chinese were moved from central China to this region over decades, to change the demographic balance of the place.
Nico: There’s something like 11 million Uyghurs in –
Mustafa: Yes, there’s 11 million Uyghurs, millions of Chinese Han majority, and these people got the government jobs, the better jobs and so on and so forth. So, Uyghurs felt like they’re being colonized by these people, so that led to a Uyghur resistance. Mostly non-violent, Turkey used to be their hub, it’s called the East Turkistan Movement, they have their flag, it’s a Turkish flag like with blue and red. So, campaigning about this and so on and so forth. It’s been going on for a long time.
But in the past two years it got more intense, let’s say three years from 2016 because before that there were a few terrorist attacks because this resentment among Uyghurs ultimately led to the formation of militant groups, one is the East Turkistan Islamic Movement which has a violent strain in it and they bombed a Chinese station, they attacked a few Chinese officials, so terrorists probably emerged here.
Nico: Yeah, there was some sort of attack after Xi Jining visited.
Mustafa: Exactly, after the president went. Now, when you have a terrorist attack, you have a problem. Yes, it’s clear. So, we can’t deny that the Chinese have a security problem here. But, there are differences between how liberal democratic governments respond to terrorist problems and how China response to this problem. I mean, if you are a kind of liberal democratic government in sense of human rights, you would say okay, within this population there are some extremists, so let’s monitor these extremists and let’s look at these small group of people. And also, let’s understand what’s their problem, maybe they’re problem is something we’re doing to them in the first place, right.
Well, the Chinese way of looking at this is, well this population is breeding terrorism so we should transform this population. They’re Islamic extremists, Islam is a problem, let’s eradicate Islam. It is also coming from their own communist ideology that China is not friendly to any religion at all. Let’s Sinicize, let’s make them more Chinese in terms of their culture and language. So, they started a whole campaign of totalitarian transformation of the Chinese Uyghur population. This started when Chen Quanguo was a Chinese ruler and commissar in Tibet, was move from that region to here, to bring law and order as they put.
Nico: Because they had thought he had done a good job in Tibet.
Mustafa: Yeah. He’s subdued there, so –
Nico: “Good Job” in quotes, of course.
Mustafa: Yeah, so he’s a tough guy, so they brought him, and he started these new policies. And they banned religious extremism right, but I mean what is religious extremism? If you say well there are religious groups who teaching for violent jihad, okay you a ban, I mean, I can understand that incitement to others. Well for them religious extremism is having long beards, wearing a head scarf, fasting in Ramadan, just being too religious.
Nico: Just being religious, yeah.
Mustafa: Just being religious according to Chinese standards, and so that policy began. So, if you’re a government official first of all, you can’t have any religious activity, if you’re doing it secretly at homes, the government will come and monitor your homes, and then they started these big camps in the past two years. I call them the new Gulags like reminiscent of the soviet model.
Nico: Yeah, you had an article about that in the New York Times, called China’s Gulag for Muslims, and you draw comparisons to what Alexander Solzhenitsyn talks about in The Gulag Archipelago. About what happened in the Soviet Union.
Mustafa: Thank you. Yeah, I mean, the Soviet Gulags had less technology and were more maybe crude in that sense, but these are similar things. I mean, you accord it. And nobody knows exactly the figures and everything, because everything in China is –
Nico: There’s an estimated one million.
Mustafa: Yeah, one million estimated and these estimates come from reports of what Uyghurs, just satellite photos showing the size of these places because from air you a see a new whole place being built, and all the people being put in these places. So, a million is number. And China first denied that they exist for a long time, didn’t speak about it. And at the end they said, well these are vocational training centers, we teach them skills. Well if you’re gonna teach them skills, you’re going open a school, people can go there and at night they can go back to their family, right. Well no, you lock these people here. And from inmates who are able to get out, we know that it’s not – what they call vocational skills actually forced labor, they make these people work during the day. At night, they are gathered, and they have to listen to the communist propaganda, they have to sing marches and long live President Xi and the communist party.
Nico: They actually have to profess, they have to renounce their previous beliefs, it’s Orwellian –
Mustafa: Yeah, it’s like a cultural revolution in China, I mean culture revolution that was a Maoist time, people had to confess that they are bourgeois or they’re capitalist and they have to like condemn all that and they became new people, right, the new man, new woman. So, there’s a little bit taste of that and China is doing all this in the camps. Plus, now the story you mentioned is interesting. They have not built, as we read in the media, face recognition techniques, that is an interesting thing. In China we’re seeing cutting edge technology serving totalitarian ends.
Nico: That the Nazi’s would salivate at if they had it.
Mustafa: Exactly. And other countries can buy this. I mean, they have created these facial recognition techniques, you know in the west their might be facial recognition when you look in the camera and it knows who you are and opens the door, that kind of stuff. But, they said Uyghur facial feature are put into a software, so if Uyghurs were walking in Beijing, city cameras will map you, so they will know where the Uyghurs are walking. They have drones that look like birds, the look like actual birds and it’s monitoring on especially Uyghur areas.
And I think China may have a legitimate security concern here but it’s going to extricate that because all that oppression will make some Uyghurs more radical and probably they will have more of that, and it gets into a vicious cycle like that. And I think for the broader story in the world, well we should understand that totalitarianism, dictatorship, is not gone, it’s still there. It can come up with cutting edge technology. I mean, let’s not forget that China is the world’s second economy, it’s maybe the first one in the decades to come and it is creating very high-end technological products which may be sold to other places. I mean, if you’re a dictator who is happy with the Chinese way of monitoring your society. You’ll go and buy it from China.
Mustafa: And China will not have any concerns about selling them to you.
Nico: Yeah, it’s a modern-day Star of David.
Nico: What has the response been from the west? And not even just the west, the rest of the world? It’s been pretty muted, is my understanding because a lot of these countries that you would think would protest this, have strong trading relationships with China and they’re worried they will be negative ramifications.
Mustafa: Well the western response actually hasn’t been that bad. Especially in terms of media.
Nico: It’s picking up a little bit.
Mustafa: Yeah, it’s picking up. I mean, the media let’s say The New York Times, The Atlantic, I mean, big newspapers, magazines in the U.S. have written about this and I appreciate that. Western politicians, some of spoken about this, I appreciate that.
Nico: Marco Rubio.
Mustafa: Marco Rubio, has made a case on this. I mean, he’s coming from Cuba, he has an idea of how communism works. And China is I think, not economically, but politically still communalists. So, I appreciate those efforts. In the U.S. there is an East Turkistan Lobby, or Uyghur Lobby here. They’re trying to make their voice hear and I’m glad to see that they’re being heard. So, that is all welcome and fine. That’s very western interest in this issue as a horse being played by China to argue that this is all a western conspiracy or libel, and so on and so forth. Which is not true.
Nico: Well early on were denying this, and now they’re just calling them –
Mustafa: They’re denying it. I mean, if western newspapers didn’t write about this, they would even say that this exists. So, they had to admit at some point. Now, the biggest disappointment is of course, but is not a big surprise, is the Muslim world. And Uyghurs are Muslims and the persecution of Muslims typically should be a concern for other Muslims. But on this issue, there is incredible silence. Turkey had to be the first country to speak about this, for a long time the Turkish government said nothing, and we know because Turkey has ties with China, Turkey’s actually now feeling quite at home in eastern capitals and western ones. Turkey’s foreign minister promised the Chinese foreign minister that we won’t allow Chinese propaganda in Tukey, to years ag – about a year and a half ago. So, that made Turkey stay silent for a long time, only until a few months ago, luckily the Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a statement on this condemning the camps and saying that it’s a shame on humanity, so that was fine.
Nico: Just that they don't have a natural constituency, I know there are the Sunni, right?
Mustafa: No, there is a – actually the reason why that acting statement from the Turkish foreign ministry came is that in Erdogan’s own base, there’s growing recognition of this problem and there is some unhappiness with the government saying nothing on this. So, that might have triggered the foreign ministry statement, but still Erdogan himself hasn’t said anything on this, and in Turkey that’s generally what matters. And I mean, President Erdogan doesn’t shy away from slamming Israel when there is an issue in Palestine, and sometimes he doesn’t use the right language exactly, precisely but he’s right in standing up for human rights violations when it is against the Palestinian people.
But here’s a much bigger case in China and President Erdogan said anything about this. Turkish government hasn’t said anything about this. It was just a foreign ministry statement. Which is fine, but not enough. But when you look at the rest of the Muslim world, it is worse. There was an interesting interview with the Pakistani Prime Minister in Ran Han about this recently. It was a western journalist was asking him, “So, what do you think about the Chinese persecution of Uyghurs?” and he said “Well, I don’t know what it is, like we didn’t hear much about this, we don’t read it in the newspapers.” “It’s like not credible, it’s not possible.” Well Pakistan has good relations with China, it’s partly strategic because Pakistan and India are in a big tension for ages. And China traditionally takes the side of Pakistan on that. So, I understand but at least even not without defying China, Muslim leaders can voice their concerns saying that if you do it like then you will only have more problems, we don’t find this right, you can’t blame people for being Muslims, you can’t force them to eat pork in the camps.
Nico: Yeah, force them to eat pork.
Mustafa: I mean, for Muslims it’s a big deal.
Nico: Drink alcohol.
Nico: Cut their beards, there’s a law in China against abnormal beards, which is –
Mustafa: Exactly. And I think this whole China Uyghur issue should be a wake-up call for Muslims all around the world. There are strong anti-western currents in many Muslim societies. The west is the colonial power, the west is the support of Israel against Palestine, and so it’s seen as Islam versus the west and there’s that kind of perspective. And Samuel Huntington wrote about this and he actually said this is where the world is going, Islam versus the west, and he thought China would be an ally of Muslims actually in that civilizational divide. In his book, an article the clash of civilizations. Huntington, people remember The Clash of Civilizations, but they don’t remember that he said the Chinese civilization and Islamic civilization might be together against the west in the future. Now, I certainly don't want the Chinese civilization to be –
Nico: Well that might still happen.
Mustafa: That might happen, but I mean we, in our case, is shows that it will be a very bad thing. I mean, what Muslims need in the modern world, to me they need freedom. They need religious freedom; they need to be who they are. They don’t need to impose it to other people, but they need the freedom to be good Muslims in the way they understand it. While the Chinese universe shows that, that’s not what you’re going to find under totalitarian, their ruler, the totalitarian regime. And that’s why I think that this whole Uyghur issue should be a wake-up call for Muslims who think the west is the problem. Well, if you think the west is a problem then see the alternatives and wake up.
Nico: Well, that’s what China would use. I mean, at first they were denying this was even a problem. Then they tried to frame it under, “Oh, this is just a simulation policy for teaching them about Chinese history and culture.” And then they started going into the whataboutism that you were talking about before. “Oh well, America has racialist and look what they’re doing, there’s shootings of unarmed black men.” So, I don't know, do you see increasing pressure on China? Where do you see this going in the next couple of years?
Mustafa: I don’t see increasing pressure on China.
Nico: There’s no due process either, they’ll just –
Mustafa: Well there is pressure on China by Muslim civil society groups, or intellectuals and so on and so forth. But Muslim governments are really silent on this. It is very clear that China is giving the message that you should not criticize us on this, actually openly right. I mean, reading the Chinese media and there was an article in a pro-government newspaper a while ago, it was saying, if Turkey doesn’t speak responsibility on this issue, this will have consequences. So, even the writer on newspapers I’m sure in private conversation they say, do not criticize about this. Because in the Chinese world view there is no concept of there can be a human rights problem in a country, and other countries can’t criticize. Well, it’s all domestic affairs, right. It’s how their national sovereignty is the most important thing here.
And actually, that plays into a lot of Muslim dictators, right. They also love national sovereignty in the sense that they don't want to be bothered by international norms of human rights and freedom of religion, freedom of speech. Well, I mean, I’m sure a lot of governments will keep aligning themselves with China on this issue. But for I think Muslim intellectuals, Muslim civil society activists, Muslim scholars, this should be a thing to consider. They typically think, oh the world is east versus west, China is a different strategic power, maybe it’s a balance to the west. Well, maybe it’s a balance just to the west, but will it be really good? And you prefer to live in Sinjeon, or in London?
Mustafa: Or where can you be a true Muslim in one of these environments? So, China certainly shows us a world where you will have technology, you will have trains and shopping malls and whatever. But there won’t be freedom and as a Muslim that’s not the world I think is good for me and for my children and for my cool religionists as well. And I think one thing, China shows us that if a government is threatened, it can do anything to feel itself secure, I mean they have a certain rationale, I mean Uyghur region is important for us. There are some Islamist groups, violent, we should crack down on them.
Now, probably not much progress will take place in China because the Chinese media will not be able to write about this, and appeal to the common conscience of ordinary Chinese. We actually know that I mean, Chinese media when they write this are, “Government is still cracking down on terrorists and that’s wonderful.” And so on. And that’s all that they hear.
Nico: Probably can’t find counter narratives because they sensor the internet.
Mustafa: Exactly, and that is why to come back to the issue that we were speaking about, freedom of speech is so important. I mean, if the western societies are not necessarily nicer than other societies, or western people are not necessarily more compassionate or this and that. But I think freedom of speech is a key thing. Freedom of speech has allowed western societies to go forward in human rights. If your country’s opens Guantanamo Bay and imprisoners there, it’s a human rights problem. But you will have newspapers writing about this. You will have civil society activists; you will have people protesting in front of the White House and that will have some effect on the government.
How slavery was abolished because people wrote about it, people wrote novels, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and some people had a “Wow, yes, there is a real something that really comes to our conscience here.”
Nico: Yeah, John Lewis the congressman, a civil rights activist said that without freedom of speech, the civil rights movement would have been a bird without wings.
Mustafa: Exactly. And that is what civil rights movements in many countries are because you are a civil rights movement, you make a few protests, the government comes and beats you and puts you in jail. I know that happened to people in the U.S. to. But still, they would have the ultimate right to organize rallies and so on, and appeal to people and appear in the media. In a society, if you don’t have that, you won’t have any progress. You won’t have any conscientious progress in the society because people will not hear about it.
I mean, I know this from the Kurdish scene in Turkey. For example, in Turkey for decades the Kurdish language was banned. You couldn’t speak Kurdish in public, that itself was a crime, it was called separatist propaganda. And the overwhelming majority of Turks didn’t know this. I mean, there didn’t know there are people called Kurds in Turkey. It’s 10-15% of the Turkish population. Nobody writes about it. I mean, I didn’t as a child growing up in Ankara, I heard the term Kurd a few times, maybe I thought it Afghanistan or something.
Nico: Yeah, they’re southern Turkey right?
Mustafa: Yeah, they’re in southern Turkey now in big cities as well, but the Kurdish issues, I mean, the reality that, wow there are Kurds and we bend their language and that was wrong. That became recognized in Turkey in the 90s when you had first time free media. Not just government newspapers, but free, like private newspapers. Sorry, private TV channels. Discussion programs on – and you could see Kurds speaking on TV with an accent that different than yours, and wow, these people are there.
So, that’s why freedom is not the solution to everything, but freedom is the medium in which only we can find solutions to problems, and if you lose that for any reason we will be really shutting ourselves off to any progress on anything.
Nico: Before we close out here, to kind of expand the persecution of Muslims, I want to just briefly address another situation because I don't want to be seen to overlook it which is happening in Myanmar with the Rohingya Muslims. And in China you of course have these internment camps, you have this technocratic surveillance state, there’s torture, sleep deprivation, solitary confinement. But in Myanmar you have an actual genocide it seem like.
Mustafa: Yeah, it’s more violent. I mean, in China it’s totalitarian, they lock you up. In Myanmar, people were killed, religions were born, women were raped and massacred and so on and so forth because that’s happening through army and also militant mobs.
Mustafa: And you know what’s interesting in Myanmar, what is happening to the Rohingya minority in Myanmar in the past several years is like mass atrocity. I don’t know whether to technically call it genocide, certainly ethnic cleansing, horrific things. And this is caused by mostly Buddhism.
Mustafa: But not the Buddhism that we know –
Nico: In the west.
Mustafa: – that is polite and other worldly and just the way peaceful practice is. It’s a very militant Buddhism turned into ethnic nationalism against the Rohingya. There are Buddhist monks who have been cheering for these attacks, one of them actually made the cover of the Times magazine a couple of years ago as the face of Buddhist terror, and he speaks of Muslims as serpents that has to be eradicated and so on and so forth. Well, this is a militarized militant hateful version of Buddhism, their Buddhism turned into an identity, an ethnic identity. Like the Balkans and the Balkans and serving in and killed each other and they killed Bosnians for being from a different group, the issue was not theology but ethnic identity.
So, in Myanmar we are seeing that with those, that well any identity can be radicalized. Any identity can turn militant. Today there are huge problems in the world of Islam. There are groups that are referring themselves on Islamic texts, they call themselves Jihadists, and so I admit all these problems in the Muslim world, and I think we should focus on these and work on these. However, we should see that well, that’s human nature and I think you can see militancy hate, genocidal tendencies in any community and the right to stand up against that is crucial and that is part related freedom of speech. In Myanmar again, what the people hear in the media is that our government is fighting the terrorists and that’s all what we should know.
Nico: Yeah. Well, Mustafa I think we have to leave it there we’re at about an hour now. I want to thank you again for coming on the show, you’ve giving us a lot to chew on.
Mustafa: Thank you, it’s my pleasure.
Nico: That was Cato Institute Senior Fellow Mustafa Akyol. To learn more about Mustafa’s work you visit his website at mustafaakyol.org, that’s M-U-S-T-A-F-A-A-K-Y-O-L dot org. Or you can catch him in the pages of The New York Times where again he’s a regular contributing opinion writer and his Twitter handle is @Akyolinenglish. This podcast is hosted and produced by me Nico Perrino and edited by my collage Erin Reese. It was recorded on Monday April 15th, at the Cato Institute in Washington D.C. To learn more about So to Speak, you can follow us on Twitter at twitter.com/freespeechtalk or like us Facebook at facebook.com/sotospeakpodcast. You can also email us feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org or call in a question for a future show at 215-315-0100. If you enjoyed this episode please, please, please consider leaving us a review on Apple Podcasts or GooglePlay, reviews help us attract new listeners to the show, and until next time, thanks again for listening.