The Witness

If you were looking for proof that the American dream is still alive and well, then Nury Turkel is pretty much it. The chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) was born in a detention center in China’s Xinjiang region in 1970 amid the Cultural Revolution, which saw millions of people killed and millions more persecuted. Turkel’s 19-year-old mother, Ayeshe, gave birth with her lower body encased in a cast. Weeks earlier, she had fallen down the stairs of the prison because she was so weak with hunger, fracturing her hip and leg. 

Dressed in Hugo Boss suits with a home in the Virginia suburbs and an intimidating international travel schedule, Turkel is in many ways a prototypical man of Washington. Turkel came to the United States in 1995 to study first in Idaho before receiving his law degree from American University in Washington D.C. In 2020, he was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people for his efforts to raise the profile of China’s systematic repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities in his native Xinjiang. That same year, he was appointed by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to serve on the USCIRF, a bipartisan agency that advises on issues pertaining to religious freedom around the world. 

All the same, Turkel is plagued with survivor’s guilt. Prison camps have once again appeared in his native Xinjiang in northwestern China—only unlike the Cultural Revolution, which was a nationwide purge, the brutality of the state this time has been trained on Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities. More than a million people have been detained in the camps for arbitrary reasons, including having a beard, having contacts abroad, or having attended a Western university. Camp survivors and human rights groups have reported instances of torture, forced abortion and sterilization, rape, and slavery while the United States has deemed China’s campaign against the Uyghurs to be a genocide. Watching the largest arbitrary interment of a minority group since the Holocaust from afar, Turkel grapples with the question: What do you do when “never again” is happening once more?

“I don’t see passion. I don’t see a sense of urgency,” Turkel said about the world’s response to China’s crackdown on Uyghurs. “I don’t see a sense of responsibility that history tasked us with this awesome responsibility to stop this genocide so that we can prevent the next one.”

We are meeting at the restaurant Bostan Uyghur Cuisine, which (like much of the best food in the D.C. area) is nestled in a strip mall in Northern Virginia between a 7-Eleven and an auto parts store. Heaping plates of laghman, thick hand-pulled noodles topped with stir-fried beef and vegetables, and steaming dumplings are a respite from the cold rain outside. Turkel confesses he dined here the previous night. 

One of the most chilling dimensions of China’s crackdown on Uyghurs is how the world has been unable—and in many instances, unwilling—to stop it. Then-U.S. President Donald Trump withheld sanctions over the mass internment of Uyghurs, which got underway in 2017, as he pursued a trade deal with China. Much of the Muslim world, cowed by China’s economic might, has remained largely silent while several states—including Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—have actively cooperated with Beijing’s requests to deport Uyghurs back to China, where they risk imprisonment. 

Turkel tells me his dark blue Hugo Boss suit jacket is, in fact, 10 years old. He favored the brand for suits but broke with it in recent years following reports that it continued to source their cotton from suppliers with extensive ties in Xinjiang—tainted, perhaps, with forced labor by imprisoned Uyghurs. (In a May 2022 statement, the company said it “has not procured any goods from direct suppliers originating in the Xinjiang region.”

“Even as a consumer, I feel complicit and stuck,” Turkel said, who now opts to instead get most of his tailoring done in Turkey once a year. 

As the murkiness over the Hugo Boss supply chain demonstrates, it’s hard to tell who is sourcing from Xinjiang and who isn’t. Chinese supply chains are opaque; because of this, Congress voted with overwhelming bipartisan support in 2021 to pass the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which operates on the assumption that any goods coming from the region should be assumed to be the product of forced labor unless proven otherwise. Since the beginning of 2022, more than 400 shipments with a combined value of almost $24 million have been barred from entering U.S. markets due to concerns that they are tainted with Uyghur forced labor, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. A further $545 million worth of goods are still being held by the agency for screening. 

China’s campaign against the Uyghurs is the most globalized genocide in history. Products produced by slave labor end up in the homes of consumers around the world—including, as of recently, hair weaves seized by U.S. customs that are thought to be the shorn hair of prisoners. 

“With this whole apparatus, the Chinese government system, the communist system, made even consumers complicit in the ongoing crimes against humanity,” Turkel said. In the wake of Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, more than 1,000 companies pulled out of the Russian market. But the costs of boycotting China and its almost 1.5 billion potential consumers are just too high for many companies. 

Turkel sees public education of consumers elsewhere in the world as an alternate route to focus companies’ attention. “This is why I never get tired of even telling five people that they [should] stop buying slave labor through these products. Once the companies start seeing the balance sheet drop in sales, they will look [at] where did it go wrong,” he said. 

It’s a tricky web to unwind. The surveillance and facial recognition system that monitors almost every aspect of Uyghurs’ daily life in Xinjiang was, at least for a time, powered by advanced semiconductors produced by U.S. companies before the Trump and Biden administration cracked down on the sale of chips to China. Having perfected its model of artificial intelligence-enabled repression in Xinjiang, China has now become a world leader in the export of facial recognition technology and counts a slate of authoritarian regimes among its customers

Turkel has not seen his mother since 2004 and is unsure whether he will ever see her again after Chinese authorities confiscated her passport, preventing her from traveling overseas, in late 2016. “We said goodbye to each other a long time ago,” he said. “Saying goodbye to a living, breathing human being is not easy.”

Mother and son spent the first five months of his life together confined to a gloomy Kashgar prison. The experience forged a close bond, so much so that the family used to joke that he was an only child—even after the subsequent arrival of his three younger brothers, Turkel recounts in his memoir, No Escape: The True Story of China’s Genocide of the Uyghurs

After first coming to the United States as a graduate student, Turkel later received asylum, prohibiting him from ever returning to China. Even if he were to try, he would face almost certain imprisonment. When Turkel’s father passed away last year, he was unable to attend the funeral. “I could not even be at my mother’s side holding her hand by my dad’s casket,” he said.

As it is, there is no firewall between his personal and professional life. Turkel was elected chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2022 and is chair of the Board of Directors of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, a nonprofit that seeks to promote the rights of Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang. What keeps him going is the hope that future generations will be spared. “This family time that the Chinese took away from me can never be returned,” he said. “I don’t want my children, or anybody’s children, to go through what I have gone through. It is so wrong.”

One aspect of the Uyghur genocide that has always confounded me is why outrage among the global public has been so muted. There is no equivalent of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, which campaigned for decades against racial segregation in South Africa, nor of Live Aid, which rallied celebrities to raise millions of dollars for famine relief in Africa, as well as no historic marches along the National Mall in Washington. The reasons why one crisis gets more attention and funding than another often reveal uncomfortable truths about people and governments.

I hesitate because it seems almost too pointed, too painful, to ask Turkel why he thinks this is. His answer reveals he’s thought about it a lot. “Three possible explanations,” he said, matter of factly. “The adversary is the wrong kind of adversary to take on.” Second is a lack of public figures, celebrities, and luminaries lending their names to the Uyghur cause. “Hollywood is dead silent. The sports world is dead silent,” Turkel added. During the genocide in Darfur in the 2000s, celebrities—including actors George Clooney, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, and Mia Farrow—rallied to raise awareness of atrocities being carried out by the government of Sudan and its proxy, the Janjaweed militia. The Uyghurs have had no such celebrity patron. 

And third, there’s the fact that Uyghurs are predominantly Muslim, a religion whose adherents have been subject to intense scrutiny and discrimination in the West in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Although the United States has pivoted away from the war on terrorism in recent years, Beijing has invoked its rhetoric to cloak its crackdown in the language of counterterrorism. Chinese officials have claimed that its system of “reeducation” camps are needed to weed out “extremist” sentiment in the region. There is little basis in reality to justify the extreme nature of the crackdown, but Beijing’s claims have (in some ways) succeeded in obfuscating the situation. 

“If a government collectively punishes a Muslim people under the guise of fighting terrorism and extremism, that can affect your thinking,” Turkel said. “That can make you pull back from your potential support.”

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