COMMENT: Islamophobia: Perception vs. Reality

I. In the Philippines

GENERAL SANTOS CITY, September 1, 2014 – The article, “A Second take on Islamopobia” (MindaNews, August 22, 2014), is strikingly interesting. The author, Prof. Yusuf Morales, Muslim Concerns Coordinator of the Ateneo de Zamboanga University and member of the Board of Advisers of the Ateneo de Davao University’s Al Qalam Institute for IslamicIdentities, is drawing attention to what appears a problem of national and international concern.

The article may be divided into two parts – the first, Islamophobia in the Philippines; the other, Islamophobia seen in the Arab world. Part I of our comment will focus on Islamophobia in the Philippines; Part II will be on Islamophobia as seen in the Arab world.

Islamophobia Defined

“Phobia” as a combination form means, in Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, (1) “exaggerated fear”: or (2) “intolerance or aversion for”. In the present discussion, the second meaning is more apt. Compounding “phobia” and “Islamo” forms “Islamophobia” meaning intolerance or aversions for Islam.

Professor Morales defines “Islamophobia” as “bigotry and prejudice coupled with malice and hate whether conscious or subconscious focused on one particular race or distinction”. Like “Anti-Semitism [which is] anger and hate directed towards Jews … Islamophobia is [anger and hate] directed towards Muslims and Islam”.

Professor Morales expands the Dictionary meaning of Islamophobia – intolerance or aversion for Islam – to acts of bigotry, prejudice, malice, anger and hate toward Muslims and Islam. These five acts of intolerance and aversion against Muslims offend Islam. Islamophobia is necessarily a religious offense against Islam and Muslims, its believers.

Corollary Perception

Corollary to this definition of “Islamophobia” is the perceived divide of prejudice created by western media – international and national – in the Philippines, the Manila media. On one side of the divide are “People Like Us (PLU), the dominant Christians; on the other, are “People Like Them” (PLT), the Muslims.

Professor Morales explains:

People Like Us are those people influenced by media by a concept of uniformity and conforming to the globalized scheme of things.

People like Themare those that do not conform and possess the same cultural values norms or traits that media project of a globalized culture, the demonized enemy or ‘the other’

“This divide sparks the issue of prejudice and bias towards people looked upon as ‘the other’.

“This divide also can refer to institutions that may subscribe or conform to the global scheme on one end as opposed to institutions that are ‘different’. In a way this is a ‘culture control’ that subconsciously discriminates and segregates those that subscribe to a different worldview, in the end perpetuating bias and eventually phobia,”

To restate the explanations, this divide of prejudice is of two categories — one category between people (PLU and PLT), Islamophobia concerning non-Muslims and Muslims; the other, between Muslims and institutions. Muslims are subjects of Islamophobia not only from PLU but from institutions – government, schools, hospitals, etc. Muslims are subjects of discrimination, bias, hostile acts and attitudes, and other forms of Islamophobia.

Addressing Islamophobia

Islamophobia generates conflicts. According to Professor Morales, the PLT’s or Muslims are portrayed “as an implacable enemy, lacking civilization and being the subject of demonization”. He further says that “marked differences between PLT and PLU are played up – “like culture landscape, physical features and most crucially religion. The more pronounced the differences and the more marked it is, it is easier to get support and drumbeat for hostile action against them as a perceived threat”. (Bold Italics ours)

To address Islamophobia, Professor Morales enumerates five areas of concern which he calls “Pressure points of Discrimination and Islamophobia”, namely: “(1) Employment; (2) Hate crimes; (3) Prisons and Hospitals; (4) Bureaucratic Inaction on Grievances aired by Muslims; (5) Policies and legislation that allow less protection or disenfranchisement of Muslims or incite hate and bigotry against them.”

He says, “Combating and addressing Islamophobia should be done [by] Muslim organizations, civil societies and governments as well.”

He elucidates:

[1]. Governments should continuously enable legislation that would aim to eliminate bias and ensure protection of Muslims’ religious rights, policies that would ensure that government monitors and security bodies would be more capable in handling Muslim issues and mitigate if not eliminate discrimination.”

[2]. Government shouldappoint “Muslims to government posts and positions that require the participation of Muslims as well as to areas where Muslims form a significant portion like hospitals, prisons and community schools”.

[3]. He did not predicate it so; but, we believe, he means this: “Interfaith/intercultural initiatives both at community, academic and corporate landscapes” should be done by civil societies, Muslim organizations, and other concerned groups.

The Reality

By his article, Professor Morales appears to present Islamophobia in the Philippines today as an alarming or acute problem. Is it? It used to be that Muslims were discriminated against. But it is fair to see the picture as having significantly changed.

Islamophobia in the Philippines must be associated with the century-old Moro Problem. Under the American rule and the succeeding Philippine Commonwealth, the Moros were unjustly treated. While Islam was respected, politically, they could not rule their own people. They had been deprived of their lands. Lands laws discriminated against the Moros. Social services were nil. They were shut out from civil service. History books portraying the Moros as pirates and fearsome people widened and deepened the PLT-PLU divide.

That must have been etched as Islamophobia in the minds of the Moros generation after generation. While things have changed, the memory and the scar of the injustices have remained.

Let us look into the five areas of concern that Professor Morales has enumerated.

1. Employment

This had been a common complaint. This had been a subject of studies showing disparities against the Muslims that were readily interpreted as discrimination. Let’s divide employment into three areas: (1) Government or civil service; (2) private firms; and (3) domestic help.

Admission to employment in the government is subject to civil service regulations. When the regulations were strictly enforced in the last century, very few Muslims were employed in government even in their own municipalities and provinces. About the last quarter of the last century or earlier, the regulations were relaxed for the benefit of Muslims. Now the picture is very different. In Muslim areas, most of government positions, particularly the top ones, are held by Muslims.

In Christian areas resident Muslims have equal opportunity for employment and promotion as the Christians. This can easily be verified.

To clarify, it is not just the relaxation of the civil service regulations that enables more Muslims to enter government service. Conditions have changed. Access to more and better educational opportunities since the 1950’s has enabled Muslims to catch up the Christians. In fairness to Muslims today in government service, especially those in top executive positions, they are there not just because of the relaxation of civil service regulations but because they are well qualified.

Why does Professor Morales not make a study and compare the findings with similar studies in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s?

2. Hate crimes

I don’t like to second guess what Professor Morales mean by “hate crimes”

It used to be that in media crime reports in Muslim areas, the perpetrators or suspects were identified as “Muslims”. That no longer happens. Perpetrators or suspects are now identified by names or organizations.

3. Prisons and Hospitals

Does he mean that Muslims are not employed or are discriminated against in the Department of Health and Bureau of Jail Management and Penology? I suggest that he visits government hospitals, health centers and prisons in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and in adjacent provinces.

In Cotabato City in the late 1980s, there was a demonstration by Muslim student nurses and religious leaders against the prohibition of the wearing of hijab when on duty in hospitals. But the wearing of the nurse’s cap was the regulation of the Department of health and a worldwide practice. The controversy must have been ironed out by the DOH. In 2005, when I visited Notre Dame Hospitals I saw Muslim female nurses wearing white hijab instead of the white cap

4. Bureaucratic Inaction on Grievances aired by Muslims

So far as I know, both Muslims and Christians are victims of these.

5. Policies and legislation that allow less protection or disenfranchisement of Muslims or incite hate and bigotry against them.

We would like to ask Professor Morales to cite specific instances. This was very true during the American Period and early 1900s. But so much have changed especially after the 1970s.

Employment in private firms must be properly understood. Labor is part of investment. To be employed workers must qualify to meet profitability. Christians or Muslims must possess the proper skills and other productive qualities.

Employment as domestic help presents cultural barrier. The “cultural control” that Professor Morales perceives as dividing Christians and Muslims is not just perception but a reality. It is unfair to charge affluent Christian families of discrimination – hence, Islamophobia — if they refuse to hire Muslims in their household to avoid cultural conflict.

6. Addressing Islamophobia

Propfessor Morales proposes: “Combating and addressing Islamophobia should be done [by] Muslim organizations, civil societies and governments as well.” Is this not being done now? Has this not been done since about the last half of the last century or earlier?

The still ongoing 17-year peace negotiation of Government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front is part of the Government-Moro negotiations since 1976 to address the political, economic and cultural grievances of the Moros (Muslims) spanning the Spanish, American and the Philippine Republic. Significantly, the Moro rebels – both the Misuari MNLF and the Salamat MILF groups – have made it clear that the Moro Problem is not a religious conflict.

Muslim Holidays have been recognized and observed. On important occasions like the opening of the Session of Congress, the President’s State of the Nation Address, etc., Imams are part of the ecumenical invocations. The same is being done by local governments and schools.

In Catholic schools, colleges and universities, Muslims are admitted and their religion respected. Muslim and Christian students live as a community without religious or cultural barriers. Muslim religious teachers are hired to teach courses in Islamic Studies. Islam is not only respected but promoted. For instance, Notre Dame University in Cotabato City has a Muslim prayer room; Notre Dame of Dulawan in Datu Piang, Maguindanao has a mosque in its campus. I believe the same is true in Notre Dame schools in Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.

Inter-faith and inter-cultural dialogues are present facts. At the highest level, Christian bishops and Muslim ulama have formed the Bishop-Ulama Forum to promote Muslim-Christian unity.

There are more instances.

The Core Issue: Islmophobia

Islamophobia is intolerance or aversion for Islam. The intolerance or aversion is against Islam. Professor Morales defines Islamophobia as “anger and hate directed towards Islam”.

It should not be denied that many forms of discrimination, bias, prejudice and injustice have been committed against the Moros (Muslims) in the Philippines. Perhaps, to some degree, these are still being committed. These are facts of history; these have been subjects of studies. But these were – and perhaps still are – committed against the Moros who, incidentally, are Muslims.

Is discrimination against a Moro who is a Muslim necessarily “intolerance or aversion for Islam? When government during the American period passed land laws unjust to the Moros, was that “anger and hate directed towards Islam”?

Two students in a Catholic school — one a Christian, the other a Muslim — are vying for the honor of valedictorian. The school board chooses the Catholic. The choice may appear to be discriminatory. But is the discrimination “anger and hate directed towards Islam”?

The syllogism is this: “A Muslim is a believer in Islam. Any act of discrimination, bias, injustice, etc. against a Muslim is anger and hate directed toward Islam – an act of intolerance or aversion for Islam?

Is the syllogism correct? Any act of Islmophobia must be condemned.But it must be premised correctly. [“Comment” is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz’ column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Mr. Diaz is the recipient of a “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the Titus Brandsma for his “commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate.” You may e-mail your comments to]