QUN FAYA QUN: Diversity of ‘Truths’ within the Bangsamoro

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 20 March) — Opinions about the ‘Moro Problem’ often start by outlining the historical injustices committed towards the Bangsamoro people in their struggle to self-determination. These injustices were committed by the waves of colonizers and by the so called ‘Imperial Manila’s crafting and implementing policies that were prejudicial to the rights of the people. In these narratives, there are two basic actors: the oppressors and the oppressed, or the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’.


A recent article by Dr Abraham P. Sakili published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on 15 March 2015, entitled “Historical truth and Bangsamoro autonomy,” caught the interest of netizens. Dr. Abraham Sakili analyzes the conflict through a historical lens. According to him, “the complexity of the “Moro problem,” or underlying root cause of it, “of this multidimensional system problem, is the fact that the Muslims in the Philippines constitute a nationality or a bangsa that is culturally distinct from and historically older than Filipino nationality”. While this might be true, I would like to expound on this more and give my reactions to Dr Sakili’s article.

First, the term Bangsamoro, when referring to an identity, does not represent a monolithic group. History will tell us that the two sultanates, Sulu and Maguindanao, were two distinct nations before the arrival of the Spaniards, along with the Rajahnates of Manila, Namayan, Butuan, Cebu and the Lanao Confederation. Therefore, to lump these two Mindanao sultanates as one Bangsamoro nation is somewhat misleading.

In another article that I wrote, I mentioned that there is a prevailing belief that the Muslim nationalist identity was forged over the three hundred years of Spanish colonial rule and was refined under the US colonial administration. However, Thomas McKenna, a political anthropologist who produced scholarly work on the Muslims in Mindanao, interprets the evidence differently saying that Muslim separatist identity, known to be Islamic and anti-colonial, began during the American period and was periodically encouraged by them.

McKenna found out during his time in the field that the central symbol for the Muslim separatist movement, the idea of a Philippine Muslim nation (Bangsa Moro), did not really resonate with the rank-and-file, ordinary people.  In fact, some of the ordinary people did not even see themselves as “Moro” or fighting for a new nation.

Historically there have been early Filipino Muslims who followed a separate narrative compared to today’s contemporary advocates of the Bangsamoro nationalists. Early Filipino Muslim leaders like Datu Piang, Datu Sinsuat, Datu Udtog Matalam, Datu Bara Lidasan (Iranun), and Datu Buttoh (from Sulu), were appointed/elected leaders in Mindanao. They were the early leaders of the Muslims during the American period and postcolonial era of the early Philippine state. They were also active partners of the Americans against the Japanese during World War II. They organized the “Bolo Battalion” that led the uprising against the Japanese in Central Mindanao.

The question now is how did the Bangsamoro identity evolve?

According to Thomas McKenna in his book, Muslim Rebels and Rulers, it was Najeeb Saleeby, a Syrian-born Christian physician who came to the Philippines as a U.S. Army doctor in 1900 and was assigned to Mindanao, who outlined the colonial genesis of Moro-hood. Saleeby was more knowledgeable about the history, culture, and contemporary political culture of the separate Muslim peoples of the Philippines than any other colonial administrator during the US administration. He knew that the various Muslim ethno-linguistic groups were in no sense united, nor did they possess—jointly or individually—a politically potent oppositional Islamic consciousness. He urged the promotion of Muslim unity, not through the preservation or restoration of individual traditional polities (i.e., by means of straightforward indirect rule, but through the invention of a new transcendent Philippine Muslim identity called Morohood. Thus, the name of the “Moro Province” in Mindanao from 1903–20.

As a result, Saleeby’s Morohood set in motion a process of erosion for which eroded Muslim identities. It began with the southern Philippines. It started by lumping together all the Muslim Filipinos under the derisive moniker “Moro”:” – a word formerly used by the Spanish and the Portuguese to denote all peoples and nations that show even a little similarity of practice with that of the Muslim Moors, Moriscos, Mauros or Mouros of Africa, especially those with Arab or Berber descent.

This erosion of Muslim identities was further sustained (except for some token recognition that began during the Marcos period) by successive Philippine colonial administrations.

To compound and confound the situation, Muslim Filipinos parvenus of Central Mindanao in the 1970s, working in collusion with confused and restless members of the Sulu nation and other Muslim ethnic groups, adopted the colonial aberration of “Moro”. On this name they staged an insurgency that seemed justified then because of the mounting feeling of injustice by Muslim people in the face of Christian migration from Luzon and the Visayas. In doing so the Bangsamoro nationalists have subsequently drowned out the diverse identities that comprise Muslims in Mindanao and Sulu through the mobilization of an armed rebellion premised on an ill-conceived “Bangsamoro”.

The Bangsamoro nation narrative is one of many within the Filipino Muslims psyche. We need to reflect on the present context in Mindanao. Like any other identities, Filipino and Bangsamoro represent two denominations of identities that are often at loggerheads. Also, as identity markers, but like any other identities, they are not static, and instead very fluid and dynamic.

To address historical injustices the Filipino and the Bangsamoro people need dialogue to connect these two identities. We need to understand that transcending difference does not happen through the application of abstract universal principles. Neither does it succeed by forcing one group, or the other, to accept what we “know” to be the unmediated truth. Rather, to transcend differences a shared activity in a shared context is of importance. Passing the Bangsamoro Basic Law in Congress and having it ratified by the people will mean that we all recognize the historical injustices of the past and we are working hard to build a better future through this Bangsamoro political project.

In seeking the truth, I believe that identities are not insurmountable blocks. Identities are locations from which we define ourselves and over time they can contract to limit and shape our possibilities or expand to enhance our desires and perceptions. To say we have an identity is to say we have a location in social space. Our ways of defining Filipino and Bangsamoro come from our checkered past. Increasingly, they are becoming a site from which we attempt to know the future of this nation and our place in the world.

My second point is that using an historical lens of describing the Moro problem is not enough. I agree with Atty. Soliman Santos in saying that we need a holistic perspective of the Mindanao conflict. Holistic, according to Atty. Santos, means looking at the Mindanao conflict in all its aspects, not just socio-cultural and political but also historical, economic, educational, religious, moral, ideological, legal, psychological, interpersonal, and even, militarily.

Third, what is the power play in the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao? How do the two narratives of being Filipino Muslim and Bangsamoro interact with one another? Both claim historical “truths” and both have resulted in different elite groupings in society.

Overall, I admire the article written by Dr. Sakili especially on the part where he said, “the reconstructed Philippine history is without significant meaning to the Muslims because an essential portion of the past, that of the history of the Muslims in the Philippines, has been exteriorized, if not excluded in the mainstream writing of Philippine historical narratives”. All Filipino Muslims can connect to this line of thought.

Lastly, on top of working for interreligious and intercultural dialogues for long lasting peace in Mindanao, we also need to focus on intra-faith and intra-cultural dialogues. The intra-dialogue will require much work. Because no matter what political setup might arise, if we have deep divisions in our communities then violent conflicts may still exist. 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.]