In March of this year, I had the pleasure of visiting Uyghurs residing in Istanbul, which is home to the largest population of Uyghur diaspora outside of East Turkestan. For those who may be unfamiliar, Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group hailing from East Turkestan in Central Asia. They therefore share similarities in their ethnic, religious, and linguistic roots with the Turkish people of Türkiye. For this reason, Türkiye is closer to home, theoretically, than other places in the world where Uyghurs are living in exile. In the city of Istanbul, approximately 50,000 Uyghurs have sought refuge.
As I arrived in the city, I instantly felt a sense of serenity – seeing minarets in the distant hilltops and hearing them proclaiming the call to prayer. Istanbul is a city that undoubtedly carves a space in the heart of many Muslims for its magnificent history: being the home of the Ottoman Empire; its stunning unmatched architecture combining both Byzantine and Ottoman aesthetics; and the city’s undeniable aura of Islam echoing through the hills. I have never seen the sun envelope a place where it sets as beautifully as it does in Istanbul, as if all the elements are exerting their remembrance of Allah, like the people.
The first meeting
I was fortunate to be invited to visit members of the largest network of East Turkestan organisations in Türkiye – the International Union of the East Turkestan Organisations (IUETO). This umbrella body brings together over 60 organisations, including an organisation called the Nuzugum Family and Culture Association, which is catered towards aiding Uyghur widows and orphans who are resettling in Istanbul. I will specifically discuss this in another post.
As I travelled to the district of Zeytinburnu with my good friend who lives in Istanbul, they were able to show me around. I found that this neighbourhood is home to many Uyghur residents, organisations, and shops, and is around 25 minutes from the popular Fatih district where the famous Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque are located.
As we arrived at the gates of the Nuzugum office, we were warmly welcomed by an array of traditional Uyghur snacks and Turkish tea.
In our company were three Uyghur women who happened to be leaders of the Nuzugum Association, as well as a leading representative of the IUETO, Abduresid. We discussed a range of topics from the challenges that the exiled East Turkestan community face, to the response of Muslim-majority countries to the same.
Uyghur people’s interaction with Pakistan
Abduresid shed light on the volatile relationship between Uyghurs and Muslim countries; I was surprised to hear what he had to say. While today we see Muslim nations like Pakistan silent on the plight of the Uyghurs, this was not always the case.
He spoke to me of an influential leader of the East Turkestan community called Abdulhakim Khan, a student of the great scholar and mujāhid, Haji Abdul Hakim Mahsum.
Abdulhakim Khan fled to Pakistan after spending much of his life in jail following his attempts to resist Chinese persecution. After 1990, the Uyghur population in Pakistan had a stronghold of 3,000 people from as young as 8-years-old to much older. They established businesses, educational institutions, and fully immersed themselves into society.
This all abruptly changed after 2000, when Pervez Musharraf came into power as president of Pakistan, and began deporting Uyghurs back to the place where they were being persecuted. This step followed his agreements and deals with China.
Today, we find that Pakistan have abandoned their relationship with the US for China, in order to help them with their socio-economic development, which plans to be facilitated through the “Belt and Road” Initiative. For this reason, the government’s stance on the plight of Uyghurs has become weak.
Abdulhakim Khan eventually travelled to Egypt and then Turkey, where he established grassroots East Turkestan organisations. He sadly passed away from a heart attack in 2016, but his legacy lives on through his work and his students who are dispersed across the globe.
Uyghurs’ relationship with Saudi Arabia
We also spoke about the Uyghurs’ long history with Saudi Arabia, who Abduresid expressed as being the first country to support their cause in 1950.
There are approximately 10,000 Uyghurs in Saudi Arabia, many of whom have integrated into all levels of society, including ministerial positions. And up until the period of 2006-2008, Saudi Arabia had funded and helped establish many East Turkestan organisations within the country and even abroad in places like Turkey and Egypt.
This funding abruptly stopped in 2006. Today, Saudi Arabia’s policy towards Uyghurs is unclear, given their evolving relationship with China which is being strengthened through the “Belt and Road” Initiative and associated deals. Moreover, we have seen recent reports of Uyghurs in Saudi Arabia who are at risk of being deported back to China, where they will once again be subjected to persecution. 
Response from the Muslim world
The relationship between Uyghurs and other Muslim nations continues to fester geo-political complexities.
Abduresid mentioned that while they have attempted to build activity and relations in places like Indonesia and Malaysia, the support does not extend beyond a grassroots level, due to pressure from the Chinese government. You will see this across the board, even in neighbouring countries like Kazakhstan, where Uyghurs fear being deported.
Bosnia was among the 43 countries that signed the recent UN statement against China, but again, their stance is weak due to there being three separate governments and presidents within the country, particularly with the Serbian one having stronger ties with China.
Nevertheless, in the Gulf region, Kuwait and Qatar remain countries where there are possibilities for co-operation and negotiation.
Muslims in the West
After hearing of the many struggles and obstacles faced when attempting to bring the East Turkestan cause to the mind of the Muslim world, I felt an increased sense of responsibility to use our advantages in the West to harbour support and activity for our brothers and sisters.
While keeping firm in our principles and maintaining the Muslim narrative at the forefront of our activism, we must continue to be a voice of solidarity for Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims being persecuted in Chinese-occupied East Turkestan.