TRANSFIGURING MINDANAO: Complexity and Hope

(Keynote address delivered by Fr. Karel San Juan, SJ, President of the Ateneo de Zamboanga University on 3 August 2022 during the forum on Building Mindanao Communities and the Zamboanga Experience at the university’s FWS Multipurpose Hall. The livestreamed forum is part of the Transfiguring Mindanao Conversation Series)

The freshly-released book Transfiguring Mindanao is a magnum opus and a significant achievement. I congratulate the authors, and most especially the editors, Jowel Canuday and Joey Sescon, for the great organizing and scholarship work that went into this. 

Fr. Karel San Juan, SJ, President of the Ateneo de Zamboanga University delivers keynote address on 3 August 2022 during the forum on Building Mindanao Communities and the Zamboanga Experience at the university’s FWS Multipurpose Hall. Photo by MARK FRANCIS FRANCISCO

The book captures the breadth and depth of themes and topics, issues and interests on Mindanao, with an expanse and exploration never before attempted by previous works. One however senses a continuity and enrichment of these previous works, richly-cited, scanned and integrated as useful references of thirty-four articles. These thirty-four chapters are preceded by a comprehensive introduction by the editors, providing an excellent overview, summary, and synthesis of the whole collection. This introduction itself, entitled Transfiguring Mindanao: Translocal Histories, Transcultural Peoples, Transformative Place, is a valuable orienting piece to a student and reader on Mindanao. 

It is thus indeed a Reader on Mindanao, and the book invites agility in the reader in shifting vantage points and optics in comprehending an enigmatic reality like Mindanao. It swings back and forth from macro to micro perspectives, with meso levels in between. Hence we are provided useful macro synchronic and diachronic analyses of Mindanao economy, political economy, and island history, moving toward meso descriptions of urban settlements, sub-regional conditions, ecological distress, religious history and traditions, language diversity, the fishing-sardines industry, and further on toward micro narratives of specific places, cultural expressions like dance, media hermeneutics of events like Marawi siege, textbook studies, mainstream educational impacts on a specific indigenous community, and a historical-memorial piece of a barangay in Zamboanga City. 

Various lenses are employed, drawing on the broad talent and expertise of its authors, enriching the book’s variety and treatment of content. For an advocate of inter, or trans, or multi-disciplinary pursuits, like myself, the book celebrates such, the fruitfulness of multidisciplinary endeavor, encouraging the reader to do his or her own reflective work of putting the pieces together, appropriate and construct his or her own picture of Mindanao, simultaneously, with consoling clarity and confounding complication. 

The book’s title itself, Transfiguring Mindanao, lends itself to such clarity and complication. The term “transfiguring” provokes deep consideration and contemplation. Since the book is strong in the perspective of history and process, one cannot help situate “transfiguring” in a continuum of past, present, and future dynamic, like configure, disfigure, transfigure. 

For indeed, the articles present how Mindanao was and is continually configured, or constituted in history, society, and culture. They show the coherence of a region like Mindanao, the unity of aspiration and advocacy, the completeness of a design composed of wonderfully different colors, like the beautiful native textiles of Mindanao like those from the Yakan, Tboli, and Bangsamoro indigenous communities. Configuration.

There are also factors that disfigured the configuration. To disfigure is to spoil the configuration, to scar, even to damage. Mindanao contains such, past and present turmoil and tribulation, caused by the complexities like those from its politics, culture, history, economics, and ecology. The book contributes deeply to understanding this aspect of the Mindanao dynamic, from different angles and apprehensions. 

Configure, disfigure, then transfigure. To transfigure is to transform into something more beautiful, more elevated, more luminous. In a Biblical sense, transfiguration portends a new life, a radiant future, a sure redemption, a victory over suffering. The book chooses to be positive by using this as its title and overarching thematic. The features and factors of configuration and disfiguring bind themselves to this, a process, nonlinear, cyclical perhaps, or even more accurately, a spiral dynamic, of transformation, in many dimensions structural and systemic, even in the intricate realm of people’s consciousness, all toward the better, renewing the place, choosing hope and light over despair and darkness, a better Mindanao, a more just and peaceful Mindanao, a Mindanao filled with hope.

The book also made me reflect more deeply on the basic Mindanao question. Why the passionate focus on Mindanao. Why the keen academic, scholarly, and scientific interest in this region in the Philippines, which we do not see much of in other regions and island groupings like Luzon and the Visayas. What is it about Mindanao that invites sustained inquiry and fuels interest and imagination, not just from people in Mindanao, but those from outside Mindanao as well?

These are the core questions that the book tries to answer in a comprehensive way that resulted in this, a basic reference and effectively, a textbook for Mindanao studies. Mindanao is, and will always be a relevant and critical area of knowledge, understanding, research, action, advocacy, and commitment. And the reasons are comprehended through the thirty-four chapters, organized in the following six major themes: 1) history, historical detours, historic memories; 2) divergent religions, shared faiths, consequential ministries; 3) colonized landscapes, agricultural transitions, economic disjunctions; 4) disjointed development, uneven progress, disfigured ecology; 5) mediating truths, contested communities, making peace; and 6) exclusionary symbols, celebrated values, multilingual future. 

These six themes comprise a powerful framework in answering the fundamental questions: why Mindanao, why not Mindanao, what is it about Mindanao. The basic challenge of a book project like this is what framework to use, and through these six categories, it has proposed a compelling one, one that can be further used in future scholarly undertakings.

Another framework that can be used is one that flows from the theory and phenomenon of complexity. Mindanao is intriguing and enigmatic because of complexity. It is difficult to analyze, challenging to behold, but satisfying in achieving clarity of understanding. The VUCA framework that mirrors complexity can be used to organize the VUCA factors of Mindanao, the factors that of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA). Using the popular VUCA template can make the Mindanao question and problematic accessible to many, relevant, contemporary, and easily applicable. 

Volatile. Mindanao is volatile in the sense that historical and current conflicts have led to violence, death, and destruction. The Zamboanga siege, Marawi siege, Mamasapano encounter, bombings, kidnappings, killings – all from recent years, have painted a picture of the region as unstable, fragile, and dangerous, feared by many especially by non-Mindanawons who know very little of the region. The volatility is rooted in historical dynamics of diverse religions and cultures, political structures, economic interests, deep impoverishment and underdevelopment, and other factors, many of which are explored in the book. A few weeks ago, three people were shot in the peaceful campus of Ateneo de Manila University, and these shootings are rooted in conflicts that are based in Mindanao. 

Uncertainty. This speaks about the future of Mindanao, which can be uncertain, unpredictable, precarious. There seems to be consensus that this so-called Land of Promise has been neglected by this country’s leadership for generations, attested to by persistent poverty and suffering of many due to economic underdevelopment and unresponsive politics, cultural rejection, and the sheer elusiveness of long-lasting peace and harmony among its diverse populations. After long years of struggle, the Bangsamoro Autonomous region has been established, but its success and promise as an independent political entity for our Muslim brothers and sisters still need boosting and support. We just saw the completion of a term of the first Mindanawon President and we ask what has it actually done to fulfill the promised progress of Mindanao? The new President in his State of the Nation Address made no mention of Mindanao and the urgency of the BARMM, and with a Vice-President from Mindanao, we watch and pray that the yearned for focus and attention to the neglected region will finally be given. After all the past decades of pain and struggle, we continue to wait. Uncertainty. 

Complexity. Much can be said about the complexity of Mindanao, and the book demonstrates this, both in terms of broad strokes and in investigative detail. A major area of complexity in Mindanao is seen in the great diversity of narratives rooted in the vast diversity of its peoples, histories, beliefs, and cultures. The student of Mindanao is thus encouraged to be strong in open mindedness, inclusiveness, and depth, able to transcend prejudices, as she is invited to dive deeply in appreciating difference, embracing thick narratives, and working out coherence out of chaos, and even being comfortable with chaos itself. Complexity in Mindanao becomes engaging and enthralling, rather than burdensome and problematic. 

Ambiguous. The ambiguity in Mindanao can be seen in the ambiguity of identity of its peoples. The Mindanawon identity – the identity, consciousness, and pride of being from Mindanao, with all its anxieties and aspirations – how is this shared by people from Mindanao? In my nine years of being missioned in Mindanao I have met those who take pride in this, and also those who are not concerned about this, whether they are from Mindanao or not. Is identity and pride more local-specific, hence the stronger affinities of specific place of origin, of being Zamboangueno, Davaoeno, from Cotabato, or GenSan, rather than being in Mindanao itself? Is the Mindanao identity imagined more extensively by the restless minds of scholars and the equally restless spirit of social and political advocates, rather than by the ordinary citizen in Mindanao? Or is it more media-generated, with its tendencies for both fair and unfair coverage and treatment of Mindanao realities from the ground? Or does this define the insufficiency of education itself, the lack of systematic and sustained study of Mindanao history and culture, especially among the millennial and post-millennial youth, a lacuna that the book responds to? Identity, fundamental and necessary, and its ambiguity, with all its promise and possibility for a better Mindanao. 

The VUCA frame can thus organize further our inquiry on Mindanao, now and in the future, and make it more accessible and comprehensible to a wider audience. It can frame a future study that can focus on how agents of change in Mindanao have been proactive, strategic, and creative in responding to its challenges, and in effect, coping with, adapting to, and thriving in the VUCA realities. 

Examples are the following: adapting to volatility through bridging societal and cultural divides, like the divides caused by poverty, health, education, and technology; bridged through dialogue, peace initiatives, intercultural harmony, and social development interventions; adapting to uncertainty through future proofing of institutions and communities through the discipline of rigorous planning combined with reflective, even spiritual discernment; adapting to complexity through continuing sociological and anthropological researches of diverse communities; and adapting to ambiguity through strategic media communications, and reflections and conversations on identity and consciousness.

Many of these initiatives find their home in Mindanao’s universities like our university, the Ateneo de Zamboanga University. They are integral to our mission statements and programmatic priorities in nation building and excellence in the service of others. They define imperatives in transformative leadership and engaged citizenship of Mindanao’s peoples and communities. And I would like to end this keynote this way, a commitment to sustain what this book, Transfiguring Mindanao, has begun – a comprehensive, courageous discourse in Mindanao’s perils and promise, and a message of hope in immense, even audacious possibilities to forge a better, more progressive, more just, peaceful, sustainably developed Mindanao. The Ateneo de Zamboanga University, and our partner institutions and communities, are committed to it. Thank you very much. Muchas gracias a todos.