Beijing has successfully used the securitization strategy to gradually convince most Chinese that the Uighurs, a predominately Muslim Chinese ethnic group, represent a domestic and international security threats. This has allowed the Chinese government to legitimately restrict numerous of the constitutionally protected religious and cultural rights of the Uighurs. While such restrictions undeniably go against the Chinese constitution and laws, which robustly protect ethnic minorities’ cultural and religious rights, the Chinese population considers these harsh restrictions legitimate because they help protect the homeland from an alleged national security threat.
Numerous Muslim communities around the world feel deeply angered by these restrictions that result in the Uighurs being unable to fulfill basic Islamic duties such as praying, studying Quran and fasting. Indonesia’s massive Muslim population is no exception in this outcry against Beijing ’s religious restrictions imposed on the Uighurs, which is reflected in the numerous news criticizing China’s religious policies, such as: “Chinese government should allow Uighur Muslims to fast: Indonesian Ulema.”
Most of Indonesia’s over 220 million Muslims are very sensitive about their Uighur brethren having their religious rights harshly repressed by the Chinese communist leaders. Even the China-friendly Indonesian government is unwilling to fully cooperate with Beijing when it comes to the rights and safety of the Uighurs.
This reticence was shown when the Indonesian government turned down Beijing’s request to repatriate a group of Uighurs that an Indonesian curt had sentenced to six years in prison for “terrorism in Indonesia”. A high-ranking security official explained that Indonesia refused to hand over its Chinese detainees because “giving Uighurs back to China is the same as killing them. Most probably, the Chinese government will execute them instantly”.
This statement clearly reveals Indonesia’s concern over the mistreatment of Uighurs in China. Therefore, China had to find a way to convince the Indonesian people and government that Beijing’s repressive measures curtailing Uighurs rights were legitimate and that the Uighurs did not deserve Indonesia’s empathy.
To legitimize in the eyes of the Indonesian people the harsh restriction imposed on the Uighurs’ religious and cultural rights, the Chinese government has been framing the Uighur people in general as a terrorist threat for Indonesia. For instance, under the headlines “Southeast Asian Terrorism: Rise of the Uighur Factor” and “Is There a Uighur Terrorist Buildup Taking Place in Southeast Asia?” Uighurs are broadly accused of networking with Indonesian terrorist groups and partaking in terrorism activities.
To reinforce the idea that Uighurs are national security threat for Indonesia, China explicitly accuses them of being violent militants: “After shootout, China says Uighur militants a threat to Indonesia.” None of these articles distinguishes between the alleged handful of Uighur extremists and the Uighur community as a whole.
The Indonesian government seems to have been persuaded by China’s sweeping claims accusing Uighurs of being terrorists. Numerous headlines, such as The Jakarta Post’s “Uighur militants infiltrating Indonesia” and The Star’s “Indonesia concerned with ease of entry by Uighur,” reinforce China’s “Uighur threat” discourse without questioning it at any point.
A steady flow of discriminatory articles such as “Indonesia turns to China as ethnic Uighurs join would be jihadist,” “Uighurs look to Indonesia for terror guidance,” and “4 ISIS suspects arrested by Indonesia are Uighurs from China: Police” further construct and consolidate in the Indonesian people’s minds an unfunded fear from Uighurs.
This framing of Uighurs as a whole as a terrorist threat for Indonesia is based on questionable and little evidence, and, most importantly, done without discerning between a handful of alleged Uighur extremists and the over 10 million Uighurs that make up this Chinese Muslim ethnic group. Beijing’s discourse does not provide any neutral or positive statements about the Uighurs, giving the impression to the Indonesian people that all the Uighurs represent an international security threat that needs to be fought as part of the global war on Islamic terrorism.
Ultimately, Beijing is using securitization as a smearing strategy to frame the Uighurs in general as dangerous extremists in the hope that their Indonesian brethren will be desensitized about the harsh and illegal cultural and religious repression that they are suffering in China.
This deceptive strategy might have been successful in partially muting the complaints from the Indonesians in the short term. Nevertheless, it would be a much more sustainable and constructive strategy for Beijing to defuse their tensions with the Uighurs by granting them the religious and cultural rights enshrined in the Chinese Constitution.
The writer,Patrik Meyer is a New America Security fellow and PhD in politics and international studies at the University of Cambridge, is a visiting professor at Muhammadiyah University of Yogyakarta.