QUN FAYA QUN: Studying the Muslim Communities Post 911

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/02 September) — The Muslim world has indeed changed after the 9/11 bombing in New York. We may want to ask ourselves, why did it happen? The next question we may ask, what happened next? In search for an answer, I encountered an article by Tony Gaskew, which is entitled, “Are You with the F.B.I.? Fieldwork Challenges in A Post 9/11 Muslim-American Community.”

Tony Gaskew is as an ethnographer and criminologist who conducted sixteen months of field research in a Muslim American community in central Florida. The objective of his research is to study the impact of the USA PATRIOT Act, and highlights the unique challenges and obstacles faced by researchers in conducting participant observations or community immersion within Muslim communities in the United States in the aftermath of 9/11.

In the article, Tony Gaskew made mention that law enforcements encountered challenges in terms of gathering data. What he knew of Islam was primarily from word-of-mouth, counter terrorism training, and the media. None of these are unbiased or credible sources of information on Islam. He had never gone to a library and conducted research on Islam, read the Qur’an, or even visited a mosque, yet he was making opinions based on his fear and anger. He further said, “This lack of knowledge and understanding towards Islam ate away at me, creating more of an impact than I ever could have imagined”.

To fill this intellectual void, on January 2002 he enrolled at Nova Southeastern University to complete his doctoral studies, with the goal of focusing his research agenda on understanding Islam and the events of September 11, 2001. He felt compelled to examine the complexities of Islam from his own perspective as a law enforcement agent.

With that in mind, I saw some similarities in our local setting. How does our government intelligence system work with regard to the Muslim extremism problem? Are the people in our police and Armed Forces aware of the importance of applied anthropology and how to do it in their line of work?

In the article, Tony also mentioned about “gatekeepers” or people who can actually give him the right contacts to get substantive data. The gatekeepers are important actors or key players in the Muslim communities. In our areas, they may be a local datu, a religious leader, or a field commander of the MNLF or MILF. The socio-political landscape that a gatekeeper works on the community shows the complexities of the relationships of the people. Thus, this shows also the culture and the political discourse that a gatekeeper has to handle. Most of the time, a gatekeeper is someone that the community either respects or fears.

The methodology that he used was participatory observation and he did a number of key informant interviews. His tasks, however, was not that simple. He had conflict within his own identity because he wears a lot of different “hats”, whether he is a criminologist, a researcher, a professor, or a law enforcer.

The good thing in his work is that he was honest right from the start. He mentioned the need to be totally honest with his key respondents. He needed to divulge all information about himself. It was not easy because the Muslims in the area were suspicious of his intent and motive. He was also not allowed to use recorder or even a camera. These gadgets may only worsen the doubts and fear of his subject.

After reading the article, it made me realize that need to have more research and studies on Islam and the Muslims in our areas. At the offset, many Filipinos are still ignorant or lack knowledge about Islam.

Although may be considered “outdated”, in a 2005 Pulse Asia survey which showed that 55% of respondents think that Muslims “are more prone to run amok”, 47% think that Muslims are terrorists or extremists, but majority of the respondents do not have actual engagement with Muslims. The study concluded that “a considerable percentage of Filipinos (33% to 39%) are biased against Muslims.”

Aside from the issue on religious matters, the issue that the government is confronting with the Moro fronts is likely an issue of the Muslims being a Moro and not a Filipino, hence, an issue of political identity or political interest which benefits only the few who have articulated this through armed struggle of the MNLF and the MILF. (Lidasan, 2012)

In a conference abroad in 2009, I explained that the government has been dealing with the Moro Problem for several years already. This problem forms only a part of the equation of the entirety in ever coming near a solution in Mindanao and for the Muslim Filipinos. It does not address the grievances of Muslim Filipinos in their own struggle for the right to self-determination – taken in the context of the Moro identity and their struggle against their own corrupt/irresponsible leaders.

Sun Tzu in his Art of War said, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”. But what have we done lately? When the news came out about the ISIS recruitment in Davao City, we had several different reactions. Thus, the need to really do strong intelligence work is needed.

In line with the issue on ISIS, the MILF Luwaran website mentioned that “it is this high hope for the passage of a good BBL and the fear for not being able to realize it for whatever reason that the ISIS’ virus is much to be feared”. They too recognized that the recruitment of extremists/violent groups is happening all over the world. They also said, “The MILF hinders the birth of a truly strong radical group in Mindanao. Without the MILF, it would be free-for-all in Mindanao”.

The MILF is a strong gatekeeper in Central Mindanao. How much study do we have about the MILF ideologies and principles? What are the voices of their communities about ISIS? These points must be discussed not only in terms of the news and mass media. We need academic discussions supported by empirical data to describe our Muslim communities all over the country. This can help us more in terms of moving forward and building a lasting peace in Mindanao. [MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Mussolini Lidasan, an Iranun from Maguindanao, is executive director of the Al Qalam Institute for Islamic Identities and Dialogue in Southeast Asia, based at the Ateneo de Davao University where he is also pursuing his MA Anthropology. For questions/feedback please email: mslidasan@outlook.com.]