CRUCIBLE: Religion and Politics in the Philippines: Asset and Liability

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QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 18 March) – Today is March 18. It is a commemoration day of the Jabidah Massacre – that infamous event that triggered the Moro struggle in 1968. I got five invitations from different agencies and organizations that organized their activities as part of (directly or indirectly) their commemoration of that day. It includes the US Embassy – albeit indirectly connected with the event – that invited me to join a group tour of the USS Blue Ridge at the Manila Bay. The most pertinent one is the invitation from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) at Lupah Sug in Sulu. I thought I wanted to accept the latter’s invite. I consider myself a theoretical rebel; my heart goes with the powerless, although I don’t quarrel with the powerful.

Prof. Rommel Banlaoi, the organizer of this forum, should give me a commendation as I prioritized his invite over others. I could not refuse Prof. Banlaoi’s invitation; we were friends since our student days in the class of Dr. Clarita Carlos, although I am not Dr. Carlos’s star student like him. And I don’t intent to pluck that star from him. Kidding aside, so that I won’t swerve from one point to another in explaining my thought, allow me to read my paper.

Asset-liability matrix

As deadline for filing up income tax return is fast approaching, submission of SALN (Statement of Asset and Liability Net Worth) becomes necessary for all government employees in the Philippines. What’s new in this year’s SALN form is an entry requiring each government employee to take an oath before an office’s administrative officer to affirm that what one writes in the SALN is true. I am not sure what weight this new requirement of oath taking amid today’s uproar over the PDAF (Priority Development Assistance Fund) scam when the supposed vital source of public officials’ information is the SALN.

I don’t know, too, if it is timely enough to speak of asset and liability matrix as measure to assess such an age-old issue like Philippine politics and religion and their generally malleable (some say hypocritical) relation. It is probably a sign of the time that we become too economically or development-inclined that we are prodded to assess such an age-old question like the relationship between religion and politics through SALN-like accounting. In High School, for instance, students were trained in their Practical Arts subject how to maintain a balance sheet with main entries – asset and liability. In the 90s, Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, and Threat (SWOT) analysis becomes quite popular among NGOs and some institutions when they assess their strength and weaknesses, and so on. To say the least, these techniques are quite relevant in providing basic data; but as today’s PDAF scam revealed, SALN is unreliable source of information about the real worth and lifestyle of Filipino politicians.

On the contrary, there is a need to assess or to continuously assess political development that matters. And what can be more relevant than understanding a pestering issue whose reverberation continues to resonate or define the life of the nation? Obviously, Filipino politicians do not represent the Philippine nation-state system. Thus, the failure of SALN to reduce corruption does not imply that asset-liability assessment technique is irrelevant in determining the fate of nations including knowing how much politics and religion play part in advancing national interest or impinging national development as the case may be.

Failed State

So, what is religion and what is politics and what is there relationship? How could these realms and their connectedness be viewed as measures in assessing Philippine state of affairs?

Incidentally, the Philippines scored poorly in the Failed States Index Rating by the Fund for Peace (FFP) in 2013. The FFP describes itself as “an independent, nonpartisan, non-profit research and educational organization that works to prevent violent conflict and promote sustainable security. [It] promotes sustainable security through research, training and education, engagement of civil society, building bridges across diverse sectors, and developing innovative technologies and tools for policy makers.”

The Philippines with 82.8 score is ranked under the “very high warning” sign sandwiched by both Mozambique (82.8) and Madagascar (82.7). The next ASEAN country ranked with “high warning” is Indonesia (78.2) and Thailand (75.1). The Philippines has a score of 83.2 in 2012. This paper is not concerned with FFP’s findings, its theory and methodology; it simply impresses that doing assessment involving asset-liability matrix of politics and religion is contextual. It means choosing variables in measuring aspects of religion and politics have to take into account equally important findings by refutable, non-partisan groups so that assessment is presented as realistic and objective as possible.

Incidentally, too, the FFP’s variables measured are: demographic pressure, refugees, uneven economic development, group grievance, human flight, poverty and economic decline, state legitimacy, public services, human rights and rule of law, security apparatus, factionalized elites, and external intervention. The FFP findings might be surprising to some observers.

With this appalling finding, it bears mentioning that some years ago, the Philippine Human Development Report (2005?) where I happened to be one of the reviewers reported that the ARMM (Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao) like the Sulu Province, for instance, is in the category of some African countries like Zambia as far as poverty level is concerned. It is one thing to read vociferation of statistics that ranked the Philippines or any province for that matter far from our preconceive notion of things; it’s quite another when we see increasing reflection of such statistical description with what is happening on the ground.

Religion and State: some crucibles

In this regard, asking question on supposedly hard issue like the relationship between politics and religion may as well be easily understood through simple asset and liability approach. Perhaps, the easy part starts simply when we say it is easy. Truth is, we are faced with a number of crucibles.

First, politics and religion are unlike other entities like economic variables do not operate in a blank sheet where one can simply assign measurable entries then do cost-benefit analysis.

Second, the domains of both realms (i.e., politics, religion) while distinct (being legally viewed as separate) are per praxis inter-connected, at times, selectively “disjunctured” following Fr. Bulatao’s term “split-Christianity.”

Third, religion and politics are like two wings that sustain political system like the case of the Philippines. While they flap together harmoniously, they can contest virulently against each other; at times, they can be locked up in deadly embrace altogether. Given the web of interconnectedness of the two realms, perhaps the issue is best handled not by raising philosophical questions like where is the line that separate religion and politics or the end where one of the two begins, but by identifying critical variables into which they play critical roles.

For this paper, the following are considered critical variables in assessing religion and State relation; namely: (1) religion and nation-building; (2) representation and empowerment; (3) reform and governance; and, (4) policy and strategy.

Religion and nation-building

When the framers of the 1987 Philippine Constitution emphasized in the Preamble the phrase “imploring the Almighty God” than the 1973 Constitution’s Preamble that reads “imploring the aid of Divine Providence,” whatever is the motive for the change, it is quite clear that there was an attempt to identify Filipinos to more specific notion of God than a conception that may be interpreted as too general and identified with understanding of God as identified with nature or natural order of things.

Despite the fact that the Constitution enshrined the basis of separation of Church and State, impression has it that such a secular principle is actually framed or anchored with belief on Almighty God. It can thus be viewed that the framers do not see any contradiction in invoking the name of God by superimposing the whole corpus of fundamental law of the State and government. Such a view does not only reflect the fact that Filipino spirituality is consistent with secular values, it impresses too that religion and State are viewed as mutually inclusive instruments for nation-building.

Like any law however, the test of its relevance is on actual operation. It can possibly be asked if religion as a set of moral code that must be taken seriously by the State, yet why is it too flimsily applied, say, in curtailing corruption given its serious effect on nation-building as a whole? Fr. Bulatao’s “split-Christianity” syndrome explains vividly this contradiction of values among Filipinos. Is there a State failure to curb corruption? If the State is unable to do so, is the Church in the position to morally persuade the faithful to do their own self-checking instead? But isn’t the Church faced too with her own morass given its internal issues like allegation of sexual abuses and so on? On both counts thus, both the State and the Church have their limitations as instruments in curbing corruption and in bringing about real process of nation-building.

Despite these limitations, the Philippine Church and the State worked in tandem in mutually sustaining their positions. The latter is viewed as too pliant to the former given the gratitude in recent history, for instance, to the myth of “people power” where it is viewed in some circles as “God’s miracle” despite that US intervention is actually more critical in determining the outcome of the so-called EDSA People Power revolution. Somehow, it is this myth that sustains the so-called “Cory magic” since then until today and, by extension, it explains the hurdle ironically faced by RH Bill in both Congress and the Supreme Court.

While the Philippine Church is responsible in maintaining such “myth,” it raises the question however whether the Church is a party in making the Philippines as a failed state with “demographic pressure” as a major variable as she continued to take staunch position against RH Bill. Today’s burgeoning population reinforced with more than half of the national population living below poverty line where economic growth hardly trickles down and is hardly felt by the poor with major State and Church institutions gripped by their own contradictions smack on any promise of nation-building in the country.

The support of many Protestant sects and Christian fundamentalist groups on RH Bill, for instance, speak of variation of positions among Filipino religious groups. Except for Iglesia Ni Cristo that has shown consistently as a critical force during national election, other Christian groups have not really showed their weight on major issues.

Representation and empowerment

Shifting to Muslim concern, many people hail today’s Bangsamoro project as continuing indication of government desire to empower Muslim minority in the Philippine south. It is also viewed as the implementation of the Constitution for cultural communities to be properly represented in their own locale. Apart from devolving more political and economic powers and allowing them to have their own ministerial form of government that is somehow different from the Philippine unitary set-up of government, the project envisions said minorities to have their own national identity as Bangsamoro even if they remain as Filipino citizen. These are just some of the promises that today’s Bangsamoro project try to project.

On the contrary, it bears asking if mere creation of sub-state in certain area like the ARMM is already enough to translate the true meaning of representation and empowerment among minorities. As it is, the sub-state arrangement simply addresses the division of power dimension (i.e., national-local relation) of the question but hardly affecting the separation of power dimension (i.e., Executive, Legislature, Judiciary). If that’s the case, the arrangement simply pushes power into the periphery without necessarily altering or empowering said minority at the center of power where the separation of powers is critically involved. Unless both loci of powers are altered, real representation and empowerment could not happen. State domination will continue to operate over local sub-state areas. During critical time, it is always the three branches of government that determine the fate of local areas (e.g., postponement of the ARMM election).

It bears asking further how can there be real representation and empowerment of Moros in the Philippine political system with around 10% Muslim population of the country yet they do not or could not have elected representative in the Senate; whereas two brothers or a brother and a sister could be eligible to become senators even if they come from one and the same city. While “winnability” is a factor in choosing senatorial candidate, Muslims should not be made to suffer with their fate as minority. There has to be corrective mechanism to check the Constitutional loophole of representation.

Reform and governance

Good governance has, for a long time, been a mantra in Philippine politics. The frequency in using the adjective “good” in governance is symptomatic in the prevalence of “bad” governance practices in the country. How such good governance is sustained suggests that there can’t be linear or cumulative growth of what is essentially considered as desirable performance of government or public service. There is a host of intervening factors that affect governance like nepotism, patronage politics, political dynasty, and so on. It suggests that governance has to be always in tandem with reform where the latter provides corrective mechanism for desirable practices of governance to continue and to be sustainable.

Unfortunately, different administrations with varying styles of leadership in governance have the propensity in using different policies including slogans and rhetoric. Concepts like Social Reform Agenda, Moral Recovery Program, People Empowerment, Pamathalaan (holistic governance) were only popular during the Ramos presidency. They were never raised and sustained in succeeding years. Angat Pinoy and Strong Republic became mantras on their own. But hardly do we hear them being talked about now. We don’t know the fate of Matuwid na daan after 2016. Incidentally, although they are simply concepts, if transformed into political constructs these slogans can be used to develop policies and could serve as basis for sustainable governance and reform.

In the case of the Bangsamoro project, it is contended that unless there is an overarching reform agenda from above reinforced with “cultural reform” from below wherein the two levels of reform are made to converge at certain point, it is doubtful if said project will succeed as envisioned. It is because forming a sub-state area is simply a dimension of strengthening institution agenda. As it does not operate in a vacuum, holistic approach is needed to make such project work.

The series of failed experiments in forming and abolishing regional, political and administrative offices in Mindanao and Sulu for more than a century need to stop. It is too arduous for the political system to repeat the same process again and again, while too burdensome for Muslim minorities to be subjected to endless political experiments. For quite a long time, reform from below could hardly take effect in Muslim Mindanao as proponents of reform are, in most cases, prodded to take the path of armed struggle and rebellion due to the gravitational pull to address worsening condition in the area. For these to end, it is necessary to erase the social condition that brings them forth originally.

While some ulama (religious leaders) were originally stirred to launching reform, they however were eaten up by the system ending up their reign in catastrophe. Succeeding ones came forward once more but their works and struggle have been directed and controlled through “linkage politics” from either the radical Islamic groups like the al-Qaeda at certain point; or, for the mainstream, they were sustained by petro dollars including financial and neoliberal agenda of US, Europe, and Japan. For reform of the ulama to be effective and their engagement to become credible, it is necessary that they stand on their own feet and independently inspire the faithful on their own and desist themselves in acting like any organization.

State policy and strategy

There is no doubt that the forging of comprehensive State policy and the crafting of national strategy requires the integration of vital elements including the giving of appropriate role to those in the religious sectors or those who nurture positive spiritual thought. The recourse of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to Bayanihan and inter-religious dialogue augurs well in complementing government policy and program that aims integrative or holistic frame. As observed however, there has been discontinuity of policies according to the mood and style of each administration affecting the framing of comprehensive strategy of warfare and community engagement.

When the US war on international terrorism was launched during the Bush II presidency, it was immediately trumpeted in the Philippines dubbing her the “second front of terror” in Southeast Asia with very few Filipino scholars criticizing it. Apart from it almost made the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) the first victim, it instead made the CPP-NPA in the list of Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) of the State Department. If the MILF was included in the list then, the Mindanao peace process would have been jeopardized; ergo, there would have been no Bangsamoro project today.

There is no doubt that the “war on terror phase” helped in quelling the Abu Sayyaf group, but the over-inflation of terror scare is suspect as part of the broader agenda, as what happens now, in making southern Philippines fertile and ready for the eventual entry of the US Pivot amid an increasing row in South China Sea. As the extent of external intervention is a sign of a failed State, there is a need for the AFP to calibrate strategy based on holistic and sustainable policy.

In sum, assessing State and religion through an asset-liability matrix requires nuancing of their relation while objective in identifying critical variables that affect them. The choice of four major variables requires some pertinent data to substantiate them. It will be done when the paper is fully developed and finalized the soonest time possible.

[MindaViews is opinion section of MindaNews. A paper delivered during the Workshop “The Philippines: Responding to Changes in SEA,” organized by the Philippine Institute of Peace, Violence, and Terrorism Research (PIPVTR) held at Saphire Function Room, Crown Plaza Hotel, Ortigas Center, Pasig, Metro Manila, on 18 March 2014. The author is Associate Professor at the Institute of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines Diliman, Quezon City.]

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