Meet the real Uyghurs

Newt Gingrich needs to read up before he defames my entire ethnic group. By Nury A. Turkel Writing in the Washington Examiner last week, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich warned the Obama administration that a group of 17 Uyghurs, held in Guantánamo Bay since 2002, would be a threat to ...

585655_090520_newt22.jpg
585655_090520_newt22.jpg
Host Jon Stewart of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" tapes "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart: Restoring Honor & Dignity to the White House" at the McNally Smith College of Music September 3, 2008 in St. Paul, Minnesota. The show is being taped in St. Paul during the week of the Republican National Convention.

Newt Gingrich needs to read up before he defames my entire ethnic group.

By Nury A. Turkel


Newt Gingrich needs to read up before he defames my entire ethnic group.

By Nury A. Turkel

Writing in the Washington Examiner last week, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich warned the Obama administration that a group of 17 Uyghurs, held in Guantánamo Bay since 2002, would be a threat to U.S. national security if transferred to American soil. “[T]hey are trained mass killers instructed by the same terrorists responsible for killing 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001,” he wrote. “They have no place in American communities.”

These claims are irresponsible and untrue. And the title of his work, “Let’s NOT meet the Uyghurs” extends the accusation to all Uyghur people. Uyghurs are not terrorists; nor are they a threat. In fact, Uyghurs could be a natural U.S. ally.

Uyghurs are the Tibetans you haven’t heard about. Ethnic Turkic people from the Chinese Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Uyghurs have long faced discrimination and persecution as a minority — a fact recognized repeatedly by the U.S. Congress and State Department, which has noted China’s insidious strategy of using the U.S. war on terror as pretext to oppress independent religious leaders and peaceful political dissenters. Uyghurs’ struggle for self-rule is one against dictatorship and communism, not one to establish a sharia state through violence (as Gingrich claims, in a curious echo of Chinese government propaganda).  

Nothing about the Uyghur cause involves hostility toward the United States or association with terrorist groups. In the case of the detained Uyghurs, this too has been recognized by the United States. In June 2008, a D.C. Circuit Court unanimously ruled that the U.S. government’s designation of Huzaifa Parhat, one of the 17 Uyghurs at Guantánamo, as an enemy combatant was invalid. The U.S. government’s case, they concluded, was insufficient, unreliable, and based on attenuated guilt-by-association reasoning. The panel found no evidence that Parhat was a member of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), that ETIM was associated with either al Qaeda or the Taliban, or that ETIM had ever fought against the United States. Supposed proof that detainees had undergone “terrorist training” is dubious at best. The detainees were able to break down and reassemble a single Kalashnikov rifle. To classify this experience as “terrorist training” would require a radical logic leap.

Every one of the 17 Uyghur detainees at Guantánamo has repeatedly denied being part of ETIM, or of being sympathizers of al Qaeda or the Taliban. They should remain innocent — both legally and in public discourse — unless proven guilty.

As the discussion about the fate of these men goes forward, it is not the danger that the Uyghur detainees pose to the United States that is of greatest concern, but the danger China poses to detainees. Were it not for the grave threat of persecution that these men face from the Chinese government, they would have been returned home years ago. In just one example from 2002, a U.S. Department of Justice report cites claims that U.S. agents at Guantánamo collaborated with Chinese counterparts in the rough treatment of Uyghur detainees prior to scheduled interviews with the Chinese agents.

Finding a new home for the displaced Uyghurs is the U.S. government’s duty. Gingrich finds preposterous the idea of relocating them to a place like, as he put it, “Fairfax Country Virginia, where there is already a sizable (non-terrorist) Uighur community.” But why is the idea so preposterous? The Uyghurs are not a threat to U.S. communities. Just look at the five Uyghur companions who were released from Guantánamo in 2006 and have lived peaceably and productively in Europe for three years now.

I am a new citizen of the United States, but I know enough about the shining ideals that brought me — and millions of other immigrants — here to know that fearmongering rhetoric like Gingrich’s is the real threat to America.

Nury A. Turkel
is a Uyghur-American attorney in Washington.

Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images for Comedy Central

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.