Uyghur-American lawyer Nury Turkel was unanimously elected chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a bipartisan and independent federal government body. In a long career in advocacy, Turkel, who also serves as chairman of the board for the Uyghur Human Rights Project in Washington, he has played a major role in raising global awareness of the plight of the 12 million Uyghurs in the Chinese-controlled Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). China’s targeting of Uyghurs in XUAR in a crackdown on the minority group and its language, religion, and culture that intensified in 2017, has been declared a genocide by the United States and other western governments. The 50-year-old Turkel, who was born in Kashgar in a detention camp during China’s Cultural Revolution and in 2020 became the first Uyghur-American appointed to the USCIRF, was welcomed as “a tremendous asset to both USCIRF and the mission of protecting religious freedom,” in a statement by Campaign for Uyghurs Executive Director Rushan Abbas. He spoke with RFA Uyghur Director Alim Seytoff about his goals as 2022-23 USCIRF chair.
RFA: As a Uyghur American who’s elected as the USCIRF Chair, what does this position mean to you?
Turkel: It’s simply humbling to be elected by my fellow commissioners to lead the US government agency. But, on the other hand, I feel incredibly proud and privileged to be a citizen of this wonderful country that has given me so much– freedom and now a leadership role that is both substantive and symbolic. It is one of the great American stories for someone with my background—an immigrant and indirect victim of the Uyghur genocide.
RFA: What are USCIRF plans to address China’s destruction of Uyghur Islam and genocide against Uyghurs?
Turkel: As part of our legislative mandate, we will continue to monitor China’s atrocities against the Uyghurs and other vulnerable ethnic and religious groups, making sure that our government continues to call China out for the ongoing Uyghur genocide and advocate for a strong policy response to stop the atrocities committed against the Uyghurs and others in communist China.
RFA: Will the USCIRF work with its counterparts in other democracies to address the Uyghur Genocide?
Turkel: USCIRF has advocated for multilateral and bilateral responses to the Uyghur crisis in light of its complex and global nature. As a result, the U.S. has led the efforts to raise awareness and press China to end persecution, shut down the camps, and end the enslavement of the Uyghurs.
RFA: Will the USCIRF reach out to the Muslim countries and ask them to raise China’s genocide against Uyghur Muslims?
Turkel: We have [worked with] our State Department counterparts to engage with Muslim majority countries to speak out against China’s atrocities and join the US-led efforts to end the Uyghur genocide.