Pleasantly surprising, however, the initial statements from the executive and military called for sobriety and candidly admitted failure to observe ceasefire mechanisms which were precisely agreed upon to prevent encounters between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) while the peace talks are ongoing.
True, the beheading of the Marines is an atrocity that is rightfully condemned. Even the Black and White Movement’s press statement correctly pointed out the mutilation of one’s enemies are proscribed in the Qur’an and, thus, un-Islamic. But while I was quick to join BnW’s statement of condemnation, I was also quick to remind that we must be prepared to condemn any and all acts of barbarity and cruelty. Revulsion at one atrocity while ignoring another will not serve the cause of peace and will only encourage repetitions of such tragic incidents, bearing in mind always that one person’s barbarity may be another person’s revenge.
A related incident that has not been getting as much media and public attention – in fact belated and minimal – as the beheading of the Philippine Marines is the reported mutilation of an Imam in the same village earlier on the day of the encounter. How we react to both incidents or ANY incident involving violations of rights of ANY person coming from ANY faith will determine if communal relations between Muslims and Christians in this part of the world can look forward to a positive future.
I have had many instances to share with Muslims and Christians alike my thoughts on inter and intra communal dialogue and how it is impacted by the issue of "terrorism.” The argument I have always put forth in all my private and public statements is that awareness by Filipinos of what Moros are doing to ostracize those who would misuse Islam may perhaps reduce the resentment arising from the perceived acquiescence of the latter to atrocities committed in the name of Islam. That awareness in turn may move Filipinos to join the Moros' calls for respect for their rights and reduce their resentment at the former's perceived acquiescence to violations thereof.
A common statement among Moro human rights advocates is that if the national public devoted as much news coverage and op-eds to atrocities committed against them, the pages of all the broadsheets from front to back will not be enough. For instance, the kidnapping of Fr. Bossi in Zamboanga Sibugay has been occupying the front pages for weeks now and has been rightly condemned by people of all faiths. But for years now, Imams and Ustadzes from Zamboanga Peninsula to Davao Peninsula have been "disappearing" with nary a footnote in the national consciousness.
In an online discussion forum made up of members of Mindanao’s civil society, I wrote:
“For example, when Christians like Manong Pat ask ‘if the Philippine government will propose a similar plan to isolate and contain the Abu Sayyaf, will Filipino Muslims toe the line?’, wouldn't it be good to let them know what steps are being taken by their Moro activist friends to help ostracize religious extremists and expose them as religious frauds? Imagine yourself as such an activist trying to convince your own community to stand up to terrorists and be more outspoken. Given that most people at the grassroots see themselves as victims of both the ASG and the AFP, generating the right response is not as simple as it seems. Still, eventually one notices the Dar'ul Ifta issuing statements of condemnation, even Khutba. Radio talk shows in the vernacular start talking about the evil of indiscriminate violence, especially if religion is used as an excuse. We also see the liberation fronts not just being outspoken but actually cooperating in operations. Perhaps if more Christians knew of all these steps being taken by Moros themselves, then there might be less resentment for the latter's perceived acquiescence to ASG atrocities. And then, in turn, perhaps more Christians would join Muslims in calling for the AFP to respect the human rights of Moros who would also feel less resentful at the seeming indifference to violations of Moros' human rights in the course of counter-terrorism.
Though clearly tragic, the latest Basilan incidents offers us another opportunity to look at the larger picture, examine the roots of the conflict in Mindanao, instead of taking the beheading of the Marines in isolation from all the incidents of physical, political, economic, and cultural violence during the 100 years of the Moros' incorporation in the Philippine republic. Incidents of atrocities are part of the much larger conflict that has been going on for centuries. Sadly, it is these types of incidents that are given prominence (and only those that are committed by Muslims and not those which are committed against them) and not the earnest efforts of people to settle the conflict via peaceful means, particularly the GRP and MILF peace panels and their respective ceasefire committees.
This is not the first time an atrocity was committed in the course of a decades-long conflict waiting to be resolved. As brutal a war as the Mindanao conflict is, atrocities will inevitably be committed by ALL sides, its occurrence tempered only by the determination of the antagonists to rein in their respective armed forces. But if all attrocities were to be responded with an escalation of hostilities, then the Mindanao Peace Process will go nowhere except lead to a pogrom as what we have seen in the past. Precisely, the proper take on the Basilan incident is that it highlights the need to strengthen the GRP-MILF Peace Process and to increase respect for its Ceasefire Mechanisms, not for its abandonment.
Incidentally, Cito Beltran in his July 13 column in the Philippine Star asked "how much longer before those who mourn (for the Marines) will turn against the 'Muslims' in Metro Manila?". Such a rhetorical question as well as the strong statements that came from some of our honorable congressmen and senators forebodes of a slippery slope and the only way we can prevent it is if we are able to look at the Basilan incidents in the context of the totality of past and present events in Mindanao.
For the longest time, Metro Manila saw no need to examine the conflict with a critical eye and read between the lines of events in Mindanao as reported. It is high time it does so. Of course, I may be preaching to the converted here. Perhaps, we just need to spread that message. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Atty. Zainuddin Malang is executive director of the Center for Bangsamoro Law and Policy).