COMMENTARY: Addressing challenges posed by the Abu Sayyaf Group (10): The Role of Religious Leaders

Last of 10 parts
29 May 2017

By definition, the majority of the population of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) are Muslims – 98% in Sulu, 97% in Tawi-Tawi, 94% in Lanao del Sur, 82% in Maguindanao and 80% in Basilan.  As anyone who is even slightly familiar with the Muslim faith knows, Islam is a religion that touches every aspect of a person’s life.  From the moment a faithful adherent wakes in the morning to the last moment before retiring in the evening, from the simple greetings of peace which precede all communications to his conduct of business transactions, Islam influences the actions of the faithful.

For this reason, religious leaders carry great weight in the societies they live in, since they serve to counsel and guide the members of the ummah, the community of the faithful, on which actions accord with the will of Allah and which do not.  They are persons of great influence in their communities.

However, in the author’s view, it is puzzling why, in the face of the unrelenting violence and even the barbaric actions undertaken by the Abu Sayyaf Group – particularly in recent years – the religious leaders of the area have been relatively silent.  One has yet to hear the religious leaders of Sulu or Basilan take a clear and unequivocal position regarding the activities of the Abu Sayyaf in their respective provinces.



True, the National Ulama Conference of the Philippines (NUCP), an organization which has over 1,000 religious leaders as members, has spoken out.  For example, after Robert Hall, a Canadian kidnap victim, was executed by the ASG in June 2016, the NUCP issued a statement, branding the Abu Sayyaf’s act as “un-Islamic, inhuman, and condemnable”.[1]  But the NUCP, as an umbrella organization, serves to hide the positions of individual members or member organizations.  Organizational statements or positions are not necessarily unanimously supported by its members.

When Jurgen Kantner, a German, was killed by the Abu Sayyaf in February 2017, Muslim legislators likewise issued a statement condemning the act as “not [being] in accordance with Islamic religion or way of life”.[2]  The leadership of the ARMM and even of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) condemned this barbarous act.

But, to the author’s knowledge, the religious leaders of Sulu — those closest to the battlefront, as it were, where these and other killings took place, where the bulk of kidnap victims have been held captive over the last six years – have themselves not taken a public stand on the actions of the ASG.

The same observation can be made about the religious leaders of Basilan, the other area where the Abu Sayyaf is deeply entrenched.

Sometime within the last three years, the author was asked to help a family explore options to secure the release of their sibling who had been kidnapped by the ASG.  Thinking that perhaps some of the religious leaders could convince the kidnappers to release their sibling, the family asked for an opportunity to speak to some religious leaders who would be willing to consider this.  Through friends who were close to a number of religious leaders, the author conveyed the request of the victim’s family to some Ulama, but unfortunately the Ulama contacted declined to even speak with the family.

What is behind this seeming reluctance to confront the issue of the Abu Sayyaf frontally?  One realizes that this is a sensitive issue which entails security risks for anyone who delves into it.  And the security risks come from both sides of the conflict.  While there is the possibility of retaliation on the part of the ASG against anyone speaking out against them, there is also the possibility of the government security agencies looking with suspicion on parties delving into issues involving the ASG.

In fact, one of the reasons given by one of the Ulama contacted was precisely this:  that they may be misconstrued by the military for involving themselves in matters concerning the ASG.  An unfortunate incident in the past was brought up as an example.  In 2007, the AFP distributed posters of ASG commanders who were being pursued.  One of those included was Yasser Igasan, also known as Tuan Ya, who at one point was considered as the possible successor of Khadaffy Janjalani as Amir of the ASG following Khadaffy’s death in 2006.  Unfortunately, the poster showed the picture of another person, Ustadz Yahya Abdulla, a member of the Sulu Ulama Council for Peace and Development, as being Yasser Igasan, who is also a religious scholar.  While this was an obvious mistake, it created serious problems for Ustadz Abdulla who had to go to the military authorities to clear the matter up lest someone, not knowing him personally but seeing his picture, mistake him for a wanted person and attempt to either capture or, worse, kill him for whatever reward may have been offered for Igasan.

But is there something deeper than concern for one’s security?  A close friend, a native of Sulu, highly educated and deeply religious, whom the author consulted on this issue opined that there may still be a residue of bias or even resentment among Suluanos against Christians due to the history of the struggle between Muslims and colonial powers, despite decades of efforts on the part of Christians to reach out to Muslims, inter-faith dialogues, and despite the veneer of civility that educated Muslims may display toward Christians.  In the deepest recesses of the psyche of some Muslims, perhaps below the levels of conscious thought, at the levels of the subconscious that are the real influences of one’s thoughts and actions, the resentment may still exist.  This was discussed in the second article in this series.

Major efforts were exerted in the past to explore innovative ways by which tenets of Islam could help shape development efforts.  There was, for example, a program some ten years ago, the Local Government Support Program in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (LGSPA) funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) which aimed at upgrading the quality of governance in the ARMM.  One of the components of the project attempted to harness Islamic teachings for social development and produced guidelines for khutbas, the sermon during the noontime worship on Fridays, covering such topics as leadership in Islam, addressing graft and corruption, eliminating a contaminated political system, addressing social concerns like health and the protection of the environment, preservation of Islamic culture, promotion of law and order, the effects of violence and war in the lives of people, and others.  These guidelines were produced by the Muftis of the five provinces in the ARMM assisted by their Shari’a advisers.[3]

We described in a previous article another program, the EcoGov program, which utilized Islamic precepts to describe how the environment should be protected and preserved.

These would be examples of how the tenets of the Islamic faith can guide the faithful in different aspects of their lives.

The guidance of the religious leaders is needed much more today given the inroads that the  Islamic State has made among militant groups in the region.  The IS claims that they are

“…reviving Islam, returning it to its pure form, uniting the Muslim world under truly Islamic rule, and so restoring the dignity and greatness of its people.”[4] 

It aims to “re-establish” a global caliphate but in doing so it espouses the intolerance of Jihadi-Salafism.  Comparing the IS with al-Qaeda, Bunzel says that

“In contrast with al-Qaeda, [the IS] is absolutely uncompromising on doctrinal matters, prioritizing the promotion of an unforgiving strain of Salafi thought.”[5]

The IS views even other Muslims who do not agree with its views as being unbelievers or apostates, deserving death.  Moreover, while Abubakar Janjalani emphasized defensive Jihad or Jihad Deefa, defending Muslim homelands from the invasion of the kafir or unbelievers, the IS places equal emphasis on offensive Jihad or Jihad Talab, attacking the kafir in their homelands.  As Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, the official spokesman of the IS (until his death in August 2016), urged IS supporters in September 2014:

“If you can kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way, however it may be.

“Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him.”[6] 

This call of al-Adnani echoed the threat of the ASG’s Abu Solaiman in 2005 following the police raid on the high security prison Camp Bagong Diwa which resulted in the death of a number of ASG commanders,

“To you people [referring to then President Gloria Arroyo and the Philippine government], you don’t have to bring the war to Mindanao.  We will bring it right into your doorstep.”[7]

It is good to note that in recent weeks there have been two Ulama Summits held to address the issue of terrorism, the first being the ARMM Ulama Summit Against Terrorism sponsored by the ARMM Darul Ifta, held from May 12-14, and the second being the 1st Muslim Religious Summit for Peace and Security sponsored by Joint Task Force Central, held from May 17-19.  This is certainly a good start.  However, as of this writing, the results or specific resolutions/agreements reached during these two Summits have not been publicly announced.  Whatever the resolutions or agreements are, what will be important will be how these will be translated into concrete actions taken by the Ulama on the ground.

Can the Muftis and Ulama in the concerned areas of Mindanao take the lead in guiding the Muslim faithful in addressing the issue of terrorism posed by the Abu Sayyaf and other militant groups in their respective areas?  In the face of a movement which uses religion to promote hate and violence, can they remind the Muslim faithful in the Philippines that in fact their religion is a religion of tolerance and peace?  Can they provide the Muslim faithful the resolve to stand up to the many challenges facing them today?  This is a question that only Muslims from the area and their religious leaders can answer.

(The author is writing a postscript to this series)

[Vic M. Taylor, originally from Cebu, has been involved in various peace and development activities in Mindanao, particularly in Basilan-Sulu-Tawi-Tawi (BaSulTa) in the different positions he has held in government and the private sector over the last 50 years. 

He started as an instructor at the Notre Dame of Jolo College after his graduation from the Ateneo de Manila University in the late 1960s.  Subsequently, he oversaw the Rehabilitation and Development Program for Muslim Mindanao during the early years of martial law under the Office of the President.

Within the last 16 years and upon the request of the families of some kidnap victims, Mr. Taylor assisted these families to help secure the safe release of five victims from the ASG.

Recently, he has been working with a private group that is assisting a community of the Moro National Liberation Front in the Zamboanga peninsula in bringing development projects to their area.

This series is a revised version of a paper written by the author for the Mackenzie Institute, a Canadian security think tank, in light of the execution of two Canadian hostages by the Abu Sayyaf last year]

[1] Karlos Manlupig, “Muslim leader condemns Abu’s beheading of 2nd Canadian hostage”, Inquirer.Net, June 13, 2016,

[2] Mara Cepeda, “Muslim lawmakers denounce beheading of German national”, Rappler, March 1, 2017,

[3] A copy of the publication containing the khutba guidelines can be found in

[4] Richard Barrett, “The Islamic State”, The Soufan Group, November 2014, quoted in Thomas Koruth Samuel, “Radicalisation in Southeast Asia: A Selected Case Study of Daesh in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines”, (Kuala Lumpur: The Southeast Asia Regional Centre for Counter-Terrorism, 2016), page 13.

[5] Cole Bunzel, “From Paper State to Caliphate:  The Ideology of the Islamic State”, (Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution, March 2015), page 9.

[6] Yara Bayoumy, “Isis urges more attacks on Western ‘disbelievers’ “, Independent, September 22, 2014, Also, Cole Bunzel, ibid., page 36.

[7] Associated Press, “Philippine Cops Raid Prison; 28 Dead”, Fox News, March 15, 2005,