CRUCIBLE: Corruption and Separatist Inertia

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 23 Sept) – During the height of the Zamboanga standoff, I was invited by a Catholic college seminary in Novaliches to lecture about the conflict in the Middle East, particularly the problem in Syria. It was an invitation by student-seminarians with their class on Islam. We had a good engagement. I saw in their faces the eagerness to learn Islam, including the manifold problems in the Middle East. It was quite a long time before I was able to talk with young, idealistic students once again.

I tried to connect with them by highlighting my personal background as someone educated both in traditional madrasa and by the Oblates and the Dominicans at the Notre Dame of Jolo. It was my way to relate with them as they are under the Franciscans, another Catholic group in the Philippines who follow the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi, an important personality in Christendom that has some connectedness with certain portion of the history of Islam during the Crusade.

The idea is to, at least, efface any perceived barrier they possibly carry as I come from Islamic tradition. I related with them the connectedness of our history and certain aspects of our tradition. Thereafter, we had cordial exchange of ideas during the Open Forum. Even though the subject assigned to me is about the Middle East, those young students raised questions related to present problems in the country like the Zamboanga standoff.

I tried to maintain certain posture in helping them maintain their idealism vis-à-vis the need to relate the real score in Muslim society. I felt that young as they are they needed certain ways in molding them intellectually with proper understanding of what Islam is all about and the politics that plagued Muslim society.

This, I guess, is the anchor into which hot issues of the day have to be framed: the need to raise certain perspective where we maintain certain idealism in our understanding so we won’t develop pessimism or cynicism with things happening around.

Pork Barrel Scam and Zambo standoff

The controversy surrounding the Pork Barrel scam, while may be viewed distinct from the new round of war in Zamboanga City, could not be divorced from the latter. They are both national issues of critical importance.

Corruption, as shown with today’s Pork Barrel scam, is a problem that has long plagued Philippine society at the core. It has undermined national development and political institutions of the country. The major branches of government and the agencies and sub-agencies therein have been suspected as involved in corruption in one way or another.

The basic function of any government is to provide services to the people. If government suffers from corruption and other contradictions, the fundamental function of governance would certainly be jeopardized. Corruption has been systemic. We don’t know the extent of corruption in government from higher echelons to lower ones.

In another vein, the new round of wars in the South may be viewed as continuing struggle to address social contradictions, including corruption that flows like contagion to Muslim community. The difference between the two is that, the plague of corruption is a problem within the Philippine political system, while the threat of secession is a problem posed from without. In a sense, secession is a reaction to massive corruption. It is a radical way to address social contradictions and to excise its contagion. There is probably no country as badly affected by these two problems: plague within and threat from outside.

Incidentally, the magnitude of corruption in higher echelons of government is as worst with age-old social contradictions in the Muslim South. There is low accountability in Moro areas; there is no respectable authority; no check and balances. The culture of impunity is entrenched. Traditional politicians have long lorded it over the resources, power and control in Muslim areas. Hence, rebellion and other forms of dissent become usual recourse by Muslim rebels and radicals.

Fasad and justice

Corruption is a strong term in Islamic thought. The idea of fasad or corruption is underlined more than ten times in the Qur’an. It speaks about the abhorrence of Islam against corruption. The Qur’an says:

And do not eat up your property among yourselves for vanities, nor use it as bait for the judges, with intent that ye may eat up wrongfully and knowingly a little of other people’s property. (Baqarah: 188)

In another verse, the Qur’an says:

But seek with the wealth which God has bestowed on thee, the Home of the Hereafter, nor forget thy portion in this world: but do thou good as God as has been good to thee, and seek not occasions for mischief in the land. (Qasas: 77)

These two verses of the Qur’an about corruption are two imperatives that Islam enjoins the believers to avoid.

The tafsir of Ibn Kathir through other Mufassir like Ali bin Abi Talha, Mujahid, and few others provides an idea of how corruption should be avoided through justice. The dispensation for justice in Islam has two layers: justice in this world; and, justice in the Hereafter. These two notions in understanding justice ought to strengthen Muslims’ resolve against corruption.

According to Ibn Kathir the first ayah proves that the judgment of authorities in any case does not change the reality of truth. In other words, dispensation of justice cannot fully satisfy or nullify truth. Dispensing justice while necessary is always relative. Final dispensation of justice is that which comes in the Hereafter. These two modes of dispensing justice should have persuaded leaders with moral conviction and for them to stand firm on justice and to avoid corruption in whatever form. Unfortunately, what we continuously witnessed is the reverse.

With government plagued with corruption, it is doubtful if it could address the problem in the Muslim South. The challenge coming from there is not only based on the need to address social contradiction but the need to empower another group of people who had been neglected for decades worsened with government’s intramurals on corruption.

There is probably no instance of contemporary history where the country has suffered so much. If the very institution that should supposedly be the one that addresses people’s problem, and yet, is now the one plagued with problem, then the country must be suffering from very serious disease.

Who would guard the supposed guardians of the people?

Public officials claim to be the representative of the people, but a lot of them come up with ways to maneuver laws and amass wealth to perpetuate their personal and family vested interests. Ironically, this is happening when the country is deep with the crisis of poverty, unemployment, and all kinds of problems that have accumulated through the years and have not been addressed wholly and systematically.

This is, in our view, a fundamental defect that plagued this country. It raises the separatist inertia anew. Certainly, a house that suffers with disorder cannot create, let alone pretend, to provide order and build another house for others. The State has to examine itself seriously and re-assess its fundamental assumption.

The two vociferations of events – one happening at the center of power and the other at the periphery of Muslim secessionism – is something that have to be taken and understood seriously if we want to get out from this mess.

Two-pronged approaches

In the case of Islam, the approach to fighting corruption has always been two pronged. The first is, addressing the root of corruption in terms of curing the sickness of the heart.

The premise is that, every individual carries the essential goodness imbued on him since birth. It is such that through time and through varying circumstances that goodness could be contrived by the ego, when the lower soul reigns over the higher soul and pulls man to carry the attributes of animal or beast. Morality is hidden in this stage of man. It would remain in its state of potentiality. The notion of right and wrong becomes blurred. A person could hardly see he is committing wrong even when others consider it so. Everything he sees is through the dictate of the ego. And the ego, by nature, has the propensity to accumulate and to satisfy itself to the extent that it would not know the limits of its desire. This is the first stage into which fasad or corruption could happen.

The light that has been given to him would be closed. It would probably need some kind of shock or severe difficulty before he would realize his chagrin or pitfalls. This is the reason why, since time immemorial, the subjects of ethics and morality have been part of discourses not only in Islamic thought but in western and eastern traditions as well. Morality and ethics are elements that provide the formation of total man. If missing, a person would take the character of sarru d-dawab or “worst of beast.”

The other dimension into which corruption is usually addressed is through institutional mechanism or reform, a subject we’ll discuss in our succeeding khutabah.

There are many concepts and principles on management and administration that Islamic thought have provided in order to, at least, temper the tendency for corruption. It is such that in the Islamic world, the tradition of governance that becomes prominent was monarchy. The ulama’s approach was to tame kings, prince, and princess with moral suasion so their governance is not divorced from ethics and morality. But it is not enough. Institutional reform hardly works in polity with strong tradition of authoritarianism. Injection of moral precepts in governance can only go that far. Man is man. He could probably change to a certain point, but the grip of the ego is not easily warded off. The two approaches should go hand in hand. While moral strengthening continues, there is a need for sustainable institutional reform.

Corruption and colonialism

Due to long colonial onslaught, the culture of corruption has been imbedded in Philippine political culture. Moral precepts that the Church would usually teach to the faithful hardly sipped in. Instead, there creates a kind of dual psychology amongst Filipinos – a view that one can be moral at one point, but can also engage in corruption at another. Fr. Jaime Bulatao put it well in his concept “split-Christianity” among Filipinos. It creates a serious moral tension and religious paradox in this country, the supposed only Christian nation in Southeast Asia; but hardly do people embrace and imbibe the basic teachings of morality in Christianity.

As contagion from above, culture of corruption flows directly or indirectly into Muslim community despite that the latter has their own precepts, their own principles of good governance, and so on. The problem has thus become culturally infectious and politically systemic. What happens in higher hierarchy of government is eventually translated to lower realm of government in Muslim community. The problem of corruption in government reflects even more seriously in Muslim Mindanao.

The issue is not only about Pork Barrel. The problem is also about the Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA). Local politicians have long lorded it over this allotment that should supposedly be used for development of Muslim Mindanao. Because they suffer with the same sickness, weak political institutions, and so on, the ulama like the Church are also in difficulty in imbuing morality into Muslim leaders. The contagion is widespread.

We could not close our eyes into this plague. It has eaten up the resources of the national government and engendered the problem posed by Muslim secessionists in the south. This is not to justify secessionism, but given the immensity of corruption and worsening social contradiction in the country, you could not stop, especially those in Muslim community, to rally around certain cause even if it means severing ties with the Republic. If they would be able to have their own government, they believe, Muslims would solve their own problems. They would be able to insulate the contagion of corruption from above. They could fully apply their political and ethical precepts that would help them govern themselves and ward off corruption in their midst. However they wish to become morally and ethically upright, if their umbilical cord of subservience remains and their political institution weak, the contagion of corruption would continue and they would always be challenged to suffer with the same morass.

In short, the Muslims in the South suffer with dual pressures, except that while the Pork Barrel scam would just last for days or months and would soon be forgotten, the problem in the South will continue to pester with no appropriate solution ahead. The logic of resistance in the Muslim South is partly explained by worsening corruption in the country. Secessionism is driven not simply by a cause inherent in Muslim community; it is even more aggravated by the failure of the State to do some self-checking of its own social contradictions worsened with recurrence of corruption-related scams in the country.

This is the way by which we look at in a broader picture the problem that besets us. We don’t have any interest except to maintain that idealism we still have as our own way in getting out from this mess. This is my anchor when I saw the eyes of students at that Catholic seminary who are eager to understand Islam; yet, who are too concerned with the problem in the South amid the intramurals with the Pork Barrel scam. My heart bled how I’d be able to provide them with the right explanation. I could only exhort them to continuously study hard and learn Islam further and pursue with their idealism. It is an effective way to insulate them from the morass of corruption.

(MindaViews is opinion section of MindaNews. Julkipli Wadi is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of the Philippines.)