Securitization in the West and in Southeast Asia

Mathew Bukit

06/July/2016, Commentaries


Securitization refers to the act by which a party, usually a government in the case of Southeast Asia (SEA), brings threats to the forefront of public discussion with the intent to pass extraordinary legislation beyond the scope of established political norms. This process consolidates a perceived existential threat into security policy.  An important part of the securitization process is the use of security language to convince a target audience that there is an existential threat to them. It is important to highlight the subjectivity of this process. Securitization theory is limited in its SEA application, as its framework refers to the institutions of a fully transparent, inclusive and liberal democracy, criteria that are not met by all SEA polities. Nonetheless, it is an important tool for understanding the unique nature of SEA politics due to the centrality it places on engagement between government and society in the securitization process.

The  September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks (9/11) and the subsequent global ‘war on terror’ (WoT) marked a distinct shift in Western rhetoric on terrorism, which led to a significant security refocus in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). U.S. President George W. Bush began to use binaries such as “either you are with us or against us”. This polarizing rhetoric permeated discourse in other countries; in 2002 Australian Prime Minister John Howard proclaimed, “They [terrorists] don’t have an instinct for survival. They have an instinct for destruction and terror. That is their purpose and that is their motivation”.

The conceptually limited WoT discourse is important in understanding how SEA has securitized terrorism. This is because moves to securitize terrorism in SEA were a reaction to it. The U.S. enlisted SEA countries in its global fight against terrorism on a ‘second front’, implying that SEA is hospitable to terrorists. This could relate to the considerable SEA Islamic population

(approximately 240 million) or instances of terrorist attacks, such as the 2002 Bali bombings. When considering the WoT discourse, it appears more likely that there is a pigeonholing of Islamic identity globally. The diverse Islamic knowledge in SEA provides the most theoretically coherent platform from which to juxtapose the WoT discourse with the way terrorism was securitized in SEA.

Islamic discourse in SEA, like in other parts of the world, is incredibly diverse and has been described as “mosaic”. This can be attributed to a range of factors, including history, geography and culture, and is compounded by the decentralized structure of Islam, which can support various different interpretations that vary globally. However, there are examples of interpretive convergence between Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups like Jemaah Islamiah which attempts to establish an Islamic Caliphate in SEA. The overlap between extremist groups like these reflects a shared adherence to the work of historical Islamic scholars like Ibn Taymiyya, rather than collaboration or imitation. This convergence is also unstable; whilst breakoff groups like Al-Qaeda in Iraq were instrumental in the rise of the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda condemns the Islamic State.

There is a wide spectrum of political Islam discourses in SEA that advocate nonviolence and constitutionalism. Elite-driven state building is a central characteristic of SEA governments and is manifested in the drive to capture and construct the political narrative of political Islam domestically. This was particularly evident in the work of Malaysian scholar Naquib Al-Attas and former Prime-Minister Mahatir Mohamad, whom contributed towards the contextualization of Islamic discourse within SEA governance.  This was achieved by challenging Western categories of what constituted knowledge, which allowed states like Malaysia and Indonesia to

regain authorship in the convergence of Islamic narrative and governance. This engagement with Islamic identity in the political realm may have the effect of moderating more extreme discourses, since groups that have a stake in state-building or the electoral process moderate their rhetoric to consolidate their legitimacy and appeal to a more diverse support base. This is well exemplified by Indonesia’s pluralistic and inclusive Pancasila national philosophy, which was chosen over an Islamic-centered political society.

The move to regain authorship of Islamic discourse has been important in the securitization of terrorism in SEA. This is evident in the move by countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia to prohibit support for IS and arrest those who intend to fight for them. However, when it comes to the actualization of counterterrorist legislation there is scope for further consolidation. Many examples of legislation utilized in SEA post 9/11 are anti-sedition laws utilized for counterterrorism purposes. Such examples include the Internal Security Act in Singapore or the Prevention of Terrorism Act in Malaysia (which bears resemblances to the now abolished Malaysian Internal Security Act). These examples of arbitrary legislation can be improved upon by defining the threat of terrorism more coherently, in a similar manner to the Philippines’ Human Security Act, which explicitly defines terrorism in specific legal terms.

ASEAN continues to angle towards regionalism, which has implications beyond economic cooperation. Forming or fostering a shared identity as well as enhancing collective security are also important issues. Only with an understanding of Islamic discourse can the region begin to consolidate a counterterrorism policy that can measure up against current threats to SEA security, such as the rise of IS. An understanding of the multitude of Islamic identities is a significant foundation for a cohesive policy against emerging threats. There are numerous reasons as to why individuals in ASEAN may feel compelled to join terrorist organizations both overseas and domestically. The previous successes of regaining authorship of Islamic narrative in SEA can be consolidated by researching potential weaknesses or gaps in the way people identify with these narratives. This is the first step to stemming the growth of extremist groups.

Greater information exchange is needed regionally in SEA, through platforms like the ASEAN regional forum, to foster an inter-state understanding of the diverse Islamic identities, narratives and motivations for sympathizing with extreme Islamic discourses. Only from this point of understanding can a multilateral approach to counterterrorism be adopted for the future. Neglect to integrate the idea of diversity into regional policy threatens to marginalize people further and may in fact worsen the growth of terrorism both in SEA and globally.

Mathew Bukit is a Research Fellow Assistant at the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies (CISS).