Erosion of Pluralism in Democratic Philippines


Erosion of Pluralism in Democratic Philippines1

By Amina Rasul2

I. Global Crisis negative impact on Islam and pluralism.

In times of crisis, people turn to faith for succor. Globally, we have seen the rise of religious fundamentalism – Christian and Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist. Identity politics and religious politics are becoming intertwined in communities that are under threat, like conflict-affected Muslim Mindanao. Unfortunately, as politics and religion have started to come together, we also see the rise of intolerance.

We have seen growing rigidity in the “moderate” South East Asian region, post 9/11. The governments of ASEAN joined the US led war on terror to eliminate the threats to security and focused on the terrorist cells linked to Al Qaeda, particularly in Indonesia and in Mindanao, Southern Philippines. The over -reliance of governments on a military approach to eliminating terrorism and neutralizing radicalization of Muslim communities has had serious collateral damages and not just property damages.

Post 9/11, pluralism in moderate South East Asia has been under attack. If we are not careful, identity politics, religious intolerance, discrimination, and fear of the other may negate the successes of pluralism in our communities. Last year, for instance, friends and colleagues from Jakarta were severely beaten up as their peaceful rally for religious tolerance was violently attacked.

There is persistent debate on the nature and causes of the recent rise of Islamic sentiment and Islamist politics in Southeast Asia. Some see the rise as a reflection of a growing general interest in religion and a desire to bring Islam into the public sphere. Modern economic development and democratic systems are being infused with Islamic tenets and values. This view holds that the extremists and terrorists are but fringe groups in this general movement.

However, others see it as an expansion of extremist ideology following the events of 9/11, and related to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This perspective unfortunately ignores the plurality of Southeast Asian society and of Southeast Asian Muslims, who base their identities on a complex mix of religious, ethnic and national elements as well. Painting all Southeast Asian Muslims with a radical brush risks skewing any relationship the West would like to have with the region. What is needed is an appreciation for the diversity within Southeast Asian society and among Muslims, and a better understanding of the issues specific to each, such as the ethnic conflict in Muslim Mindanao, Philippines.

II. Muslims in the Philippines.

The ethnic war against the Philippine state waged by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) since the late 60s, finds its roots in the centuries-old struggle against conquest, marginalization, poverty, and undemocratic regimes. For Moros or Muslims in Mindanao, the “war on terror” has compounded the ethnic conflict that has plagued Southern Philippines for decades. It has allowed the government to label the liberation fronts’ war for independence as terrorism, and therefore fair game for counter-terrorism campaigns.

Over the last 10 years, the Philippine government under Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has fully supported the war on terror, “internationalizing” the very local ethnic conflict in Mindanao, with allegations of collusion between Al Qaeda, the Jemaah Islamiyyah and the Abu Sayyaf Group, accusing the MNLF and MILF for cooperating or coddling the terrorist elements. Whether these allegations are true or not, whether the links were at the organizational level or not, the war on terror became the driving force of Mrs. Arroyo’s military operations in Muslim Mindanao. Muslim Mindanao has been the least served region in the Philippines since the 70s, with the highest poverty rates and the poorest human development indicators. While government neglects public services to the conflict-affected Muslim provinces, human rights violations of Muslims, leftist and opposition groups became mere collateral damage in the hunt for terrorists. As the administration is enmeshed in countering allegations of corruption, rule of law has been superseded by rule by arms.

A military solution to the insurgency will not bring peace and stability to the region. Nor will it bring a solution to poverty, illiteracy and lack of education, and lack of human security which are factors that exacerbate radicalization. On the contrary, addressing radicalism solely from a hard security perspective risks creating more extremism by alienating communities, forcing them to retreat behind the banner of faith raised by insurgency groups.

As paranoia rose following the association of terrorism with Islam, Muslims turned inwards to faith. And it is in the arena of faith that we too must turn.

We in the Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy see the growing force of fundamentalism, which has started to reshape our communities. Whereas 10 years ago it was rare to see Muslim women living in hot and humid Mindanao attired entirely in black abaya, today it is no longer unusual.

At a gender and Islam conference held in Jakarta last week, one of the panelists (Farish Nooh), spoke of his misgivings about “multiculturalism” when it is used to couch what he calls “religious politics”, which is gaining strength globally. Unfortunately, many religious groups hide their politics or political identity behind the banner of faith, using multiculturalism to justify advancing their agenda or control, at the expense of another group. Farish noted that groups tend to view women as the symbol or the guardian of culture. Rightly or wrongly, zealous leaders (mostly male), impose restrictions on women on such matters as what women can wear. While Hindu women must wear the sari, why is it ok for Hindu men to wear Western suits? While Muslim women have to veil even at the beach (with only face and hands showing), why can Muslim men wear short pants? Thus, women’s rights are often times sacrificed to make the world appreciate how closely the community adheres to their faith or culture.

We need to secure the rights of all groups, regardless of sex, faith or creed. Allow me now to discuss the role of the ulama of the Philippines in the lives of the Ummah.

III. The National Ulama Conference of the Philippines

Post 9/11, the popular images of Muslim clerics in western media were either that of the Taliban or a few virulent ulama exhorting suicide bombers to fight for Islam. These images are reflections of a minute minority of the ulama, but have been popularized by a media that had very little understanding of Islam.

In many Muslim countries, the ulama or Muslim religious scholars are at the helm of movements to establish mutual understanding amongst the followers of world faiths or, like the Mullah of Iran, are immersed in the dynamics of national and international politics. However, there is also a debate on whether or not the ulama should participate in politics and governance.

The ulama have always played an important role in the realm of the political and socio-economic development in the Muslim world. However, those unfamiliar with the ulama tend to underestimate their importance in this area, largely because Islam does not have a hierarchy of religious leaders similar to the Christian faiths. A survey conducted in 2006 indicated that over 50% of Filipino Muslims would follow their ulama’s advice. Around 25% of Catholics said they would follow their priest.

In Muslim Mindanao, there is a growing demand for a wider and more participative role of the ulama; that they get involved directly in the transformation or reformation process.

Over the last 3 years, we in the PCID have been working with the ulama on issues such as electoral reform and human rights. We have been helping then establish a national network of ulama and ulama organizations. During their 2nd National Ulama Summit last January, some 200 ulama and aleemat and other Muslim religious leaders gathered, representing more than 100 organizations, and ratified the charter to establish the “National Ulama Conference of the Philippines” or NUCP. The participants elected an interim board of 153to start the daunting task of organizing the national network. NUCP is the first ulama organization that has provided representation for women. Two seats on the board are reserved for the aleemat. Further, in recognition of PCID’s unique role in successfully bringing the ulama together, we were given a seat on the Board as well.

Why is it so important that our ulama come together?

Role models come from our neighbor, Indonesia: the two largest Muslim religious organizations in the world, Nadhlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, are engaged not only in teaching the faithful about Islam but also in addressing societal problems, strengthening the pluralistic nature of Indonesia society. Both have established their own universities, madrasah (Islamic schools), pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) that propagate the essence of Islam as a religion of peace and tolerance. Both have members4 (Amien Rais and Gus Dur) who have exerted tremendous influence in Indonesian political development.

NU and Muhammadiyah have participated in our two ulama summits5.

Will the NUCP become the ulama’s vehicle for peace and development, similar to NU and Muhammadiyah? The potential is great. Mindanao’s major development partners, who spoke at the summit, realize this potential.

US Ambassador Kristie Kenney, observed: ”You all have a great impact nationally, and together your voice is extraordinary. When you harness the diversity — geographically, culturally, the cream of the many Muslim sectors and voices in this country — your impact can be beyond description.”

Meantime, a press statement from the MILF warned the NUCP to be careful that it might “end up being used to promote the interests of people or groups whose real intention is to destroy Islam in the name of Islam.” Interestingly, the MILF – founded by the highly respected aleem Salamat Hashim and which has an Islamic agenda – cautions that the ulama “are now entering the realm of ‘political Islam’ which is alien to Islam but is largely used by anti-Islamic forces to malign Islam”.

Thus, the ulama who have decided to join forces behind the NUCP need to be clear about their intentions, that the organization focus on strengthening the Ummah in following the straight path and in ensuring that peace, justice and development will be enjoyed by all – not just by one group.

Will they succeed? I take comfort in open letter of the ulama to American President Obama (see Annex A) which states: “in the spirit of your recent pronouncement that “America will start by listening, not dictating,” the Muslims in the Philippines, with equal vigor and commitment to peace and the dignity of humanity, hereby reach out across the ocean to take your outstretched hand and seek to renew and strengthen our friendship with America and the American people”. The ulama recommended to President Obama “To engage the Muslim world, particularly the ulama sector, through dialogue and cooperation that will benefit our communities and humanity”.

We have to look for strategies to shore up the foundation of pluralism. One such strategy is A Common Word. In September 2006, Pope Benedict gave a controversial talk at the University of Regensburg, which drew harsh reactions from Muslim communities6, widespread and swift, pressuring the Vatican to issue a statement that the Pope did not mean any offense to Islam.

Muslim religious scholars and leaders later offered a measured response. Led by Jordanian Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, In October 2007, 138 influential Muslim religious leaders sent an open letter entitled “A Common Word Between Us and You” to Christian leaders and communities. A Common Word stated that a common commitment to love God and neighbor unites Christians and Muslims.

This document has been well received globally, with conferences supported by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and last year by the Vatican. In the Philippines, we have started to discuss the message of A Common Word with our ulama that they and other faith leaders can explore ways in which religious communities can help rectify distorted perspectives Muslims and Christians have of each other and repair relations between the “Islamic world” and the West.

This is a strategy that can strengthen our communities’ acceptance and respect for “the other”, strengthening the foundations of pluralism and thus securing the interests of state and peoples, which military operations tend to weaken. Thus, we should build on that commonality and not dwell on what differentiates us. This is a concrete foundation on which to rebuild pluralism.

Annex A.

1 Presented at the forum on “Islam and Pluralism in South East Asia”, Georgetown University, March 19, 2009.

2 Amina Rasul is the lead convenor of the Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy and Trustee of the Magbassa Kita Foundation Inc.

3 Elected chair of the interim board was a highly respected Yakan aleem from Basilan, Dr. Abhoulkair Tarason. The other members of the board are Dr. Hamid Barra (Vice-Chair), Prof. Moner Bajunaid (Secretary General), Sulu Mufti Sharif Jul Asiri Abirin, Tawi-Tawi Mufti Abdulwahid Inju, Aleem Abdul Majid Said from Cebu, Aleem Ahmad Darping Nooh from Davao, Dr. Abdussalam Disomimba from Lanao del Norte, Shari’a Court Judge Aboali Cali from Marawi City, Aleem Jaafar Ali from Cotabato City, Aleem Abdulhadi Daguit from Manila, Bro. Hassan Garcia from the Balik Islam community (converts), Ustadza Albaya Badrodin and Aleema Khadijah Mutilan representing the Aleemat (Muslim women religious scholars). Former Senator Santanina Rasul, Chair of Magbassa Kita Foundation, Inc (MKFI) and Advisor of the PCID, was given the honor of occupying the 15th seat. She, in turn, appointed Aleem Esmail Ebrahim of the Darul Ifta Assembly and a convenor of PCID, to represent the council on the interim Board. Aleem Esmail was elected Deputy Secretary General.

4 Amien Rais, Muhammadiyah leader, had led and inspired the reform movement that forced the resignation of President Suharto in 1998. Abdurrahman Wahid, the NU leader popularly known as Gus Dur, later became President of Indonesia from 1999 to 2001

5 Muhammadiyah President Din Syamsuddin and NU Vice Chair Masykuri Abdilla were with us last January 2008. Muhammadiyah Secretary Dr. Anwar Abbas and NU Secretary General Dr. Endang Turmudi stayed with us for this year’s 4-day summit, a continuation of their support for this initiative.

6 Pope Benedict said, “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”