CRUCIBLE: Conversations with Bishop Ben. By Julkipli Wadi

The project of UP-CIDS was organized in consonance with the “mandate of mobilizing the multidisciplinary expertise of the University in search of new paradigms, policies, strategies and programs which will help the nation address issues of national concern.” More specifically, the Center recognized the underdevelopment of Mindanao and consequently organized the Mindanao Studies Program (MSP) in 1994 “to undertake both basic and policy-oriented research on various issues affecting Mindanao.”

In tandem with other units of the Center like the Education Research Program (ERP) and Program on Peace, Conflict Resolution and Human Rights (PPCRHR), a peace research team was organized to study the SPCPD and members of the team were tasked to do field work particularly to conduct random survey and interview in selected areas in Mindanao. While the rest of the team was assigned to other parts of Mindanao, Dr. Samuel Tan, the head of MSP and myself were assigned in Zamboanga City and Jolo. The late Bishop Ben, Dr. Hanbal Bara and Mrs. Piang Albar and a couple of MNLF commanders were among my respondents in Jolo. Consequently, the book, “The SPCPD: A Response to the Controversy” was published in 1997. 

From the date written on the cassette tape that recorded our conversation, my interview with Bishop Ben happened on August 9, 1996, barely six months before his tragic death from alleged Abu Sayyaf assassin in the town of Jolo. 

Bishop Benjamin de Jesus was born on July 25, 1940. He was ordained as a Catholic priest belonging to the Oblates of Mary Immaculate on December 29, 1967. He was appointed Vicar Apostolic of Jolo on October 11, 1991. The Vicariate Apostolic of Jolo was elevated on July 12, 1958 after it had been erected as a Prefecture Apostolic of Sulu on October 28, 1953. Since 1954 until today, five bishops had overseen the Apostolicus Vicariatus Ioloensis. 

After serving Sulu for practically the rest of his life, Bishop Ben was killed in Jolo in 1997. The assailants were allegedly Abu Sayyaf members in cahoots with some politicians in Jolo. Twelve years since, the case of Bishop Ben’s death has remained a mystery and the culprits have remained scot-free.

While I was relishing the scenes surrounding the Carmelite Hall, the man with a big smile emerged from his room and went directly to the side of veranda where I was standing.  He sensed that I enjoyed the sight around. Without me having to fully introduce myself, Bishop Ben immediately opened a conversation regarding the project of the Oblates in Sulu, his plan to develop Bus-Bus, a coastal area fronting the Carmelite compound, including his plan to buy lands in other parts of Jolo as part of the Vicariate’s expansion project outside the town. As we stood in front of the Carmelite Hall, we talked as if we were real-estate developers talking about Sulu’s development and other surrounding islands. At this juncture, there was no issue of religion intruding into our conversation: everything we talked about was “development.” I was practically caught flat-footed with Fr. Ben’s spontaneity; I was not even able to put on the tape recorder for fear that he might be distracted. I remember vividly though this part of our unrecorded conversation. For about thirty minutes, he lectured on the long-term objective and projects of the Jolo Vicariate. 

I had to usher him to an iron table and three chairs in the corner of the veranda and started to open a different topic: the SPCPD. And it was there where I was able to ask permission if I could record our conversation and he willingly obliged me to do so. While we discussed the SPCPD, we also dwelt on other topics like Mindanao resources, Muslim leadership, Darul Iftah, ARMM, MNLF integration, humanism, Muslim-Christian relation, education, and so on. 

JW: Is Nur Misuari capable of running the SPCPD?

BB: He may be able to motivate other people to help in terms of development especially when they realize that w
e have lots of deposit of petrol, gasoline, diesel and kerosene. There is a future here [in Mindanao and Sulu].

JW: Is it true Father? 

BB: It is what the Chairman (Nur Misuari) is talking about. So I would take it na totoo yon. Plus the mines, gold, silver, nickel. Mayroon tayong mga ganoon resources. Kailangan lang ang mga tao “kapangandulan” (trustworthy). In order na yong ating kayamanan will really be used for our people. Like for example in Sulu, dito dumadaan ang mga tuna fish. Kung yun ay maha-harness, magagamit ng mga tagarito sa atin, hindi yung taga-Taiwan o Korea o people from Manila

JW: So foreign vessels do really come here? 

BB: Oo,  protected by people in authority.

JW: Authority here or outside? 

BB: Palagay ko mayroon say ang mga “nakurah” (leaders). That’s the sad part.

JW: Since the MNLF is simply given three years and after three years there will be plebiscite, what will happen to the MNLF after that? I don’t think the MNLF even if it pours in peace and development will be able to get the sympathy of many sectors of society. What scenario can you expect? 

BB: Ang hope ko would be the ARMM to become a showcase. And through his (Misuari) charisma, he is able to motivate the leaders to be united. Therefore, makikita nila yung mga projects na ang budget is so much with specification na talagang magagamit, palagay ko maski yung ngayon nagsasabi ayaw namin dyan, sasabihin pwede ba kami sumali. Yung three years mukhang napakaliit na panahon. Pero kung ma-mobilize talaga marami tayong magagawang kabutihan within three years. Probably eyeing on the rest of the ten provinces and so many cities, baka makuha. Kung sakali ayaw nilang bomoto, maari ang magiging sestima dyan “would be agreed in principle” and the next future time baka gusto na nila sumali; so may opening pa rin.  

“We have to be sensitive to one another”
There are many people who question the so-called Darul Ifta. Why?

BB: I guess it is along the line of separation of Church and State. The religious leaders would have a say just like the Church. Every now and then they would speak up about capital punishment and taxation without representation. Knowing Islam na walang separation of Church and State with the wealth of Islamic theology and history some kind of an [advisory group should be created]  para talagang “buntul dan pa Tuhan in ma-agad” (policy would be in accord with the right path to God).

JW: So you are in favor of Darul Iftah? 

BB: Ang hindi ko alam ay how to do it in such a way na there should be a religious advisory body tulad sa ARMM na 90% ay Muslim. Palagay ko okey lang yun. But when you consider the other provinces na maraming [Kristiyano] siguro if there will be an advisory body it should be composite of the Lumad religious leader, the Catholic’s, the Protestant’s.

JW: Lumalabas kasi dito purely Islamic itong religious body.

BB: Pati yung provision on area agreement about educational system ang dating ay Islamic values should be promoted. I know most of Islamic values are also human values that we also treasure like peace, justice and love pero ang nakalagay Islamic values. Probably it should be amended into human values. That would be the common denominator: yung ating humanity. 

JW: So there is really a distinct character pagka-Islamic values. Are you saying na there will be problem if we integrate Islamic values to our national curriculum?

BB: Palagay ko. Maari pwede sa Muslim ang Islamic values, sa Christian ay Christian values, pero sabi nga ni Secretary Gloria ay dapat may common denominator na human values.

JW: How about the concept of Islamic education to be infused in nationa
l curriculum?

BB: Palagay ko kailangan ng more ironing out. Ang Islam kasi ay surrender to God and all of us want to surrender to God. Kaya kailangan ipaliwanag sa mga tao para they won’t be afraid. “Unu ini?” (What’s this).  

JW: In fact, yan ang impression ni Senator Tatad that the SPCPD is a prelude toward Islamization because of specific provisions on Islamic education. On the contrary, when we see the development abroad, we can see na in many universities now there are established Centers on Islamic Studies like in Pennsylvania University, in Harvard; in Oxford, there is the Oxford Center for Islamic Studies. In fact its patron is Prince Charles of England; in Peru, in Japan, in other European countries, there are many institutions of Islamic Studies in these universities.

BB: Siguro doon sa countries na yon it would be the people who would like to study there that would go there unlike the SPCPD. Plus the pronouncement: “we would like to establish Islamic State. So nag-aalala ang mga Christian. The simple thing like turong (veil). Basta’t nagtratrabaho sa Mindanao State University (MSU) kailangan nakaturong. Implied kung turong Islam which is not exactly true, dati nga yung mga Christian nakaturung yung mga madre nga may belo din. Sa palagay ko we have to be sensitive toward one another. Halimbawa sa aming cooperative sa housing. Tapos na yung mga statement of accounts (utang). Dumating sa panahon sa feast ng Islam Hari-raya yata yun. So tinanong ko yung ibang board of directors. Kailan natin ibibigay ito? Sabi nila huwag ngayon. We’ll wait afterwards. Just like Christmas. Halimbawa we were thinking of holding a general assembly para ma-motivate ang mga tao para sa pagbayad sa utang. Sabi ng isang member yung mga tao magbabayad kung gusto nila. Kung ayaw nila kahit na mag-assembly ka dyan kung ayaw ayaw. Bisitahin natin bahay-bahayin natin. So it worked. Mas more personal; mas maganda. The people appreciated it. We are able to harness the cultural values ng mga tao to do what must be done. 

JW: I should probably ask Nur Misuari for this next question. But I’d like to raise it to you: Do you think Muslims still need a revolutionary movement? Is today the time for Muslims to fully participate in the political process? 

BB: If what they are asking for self-determination will not happen, then let it [continue]. Kung yung pinag-“janjian” natin hindi niyu sinunod, what will happen to you? Papaano kasi kung magdi-dismantle na kaagad di pa natin alam kung talagang gagawin ba ito. So ganoon nagtatantyahan.

JW: Since you know well Misuari, why do you think he shifted from being a revolutionary to a politician now? What is his motive? Does he have hidden agenda? Parang nabigla ang tao sa kanyang decision.

BB: Palagay ko he is just being realistic. Binibigay sa kanya ang SPCPD. It’s like a peace and order council and development council. There are provisions in the accord that he can mobilize like the line agencies to streamline; he can create offices. Pero wala talaga siyang mapanghahawakan. He is so dependent on President Ramos. And his term in office is soon to end by ’98. Unless they make some magic-magic gagawin tulad ng declaration of Martial Law or change the constitution. Pero under normal circumstance, ang kanyang power is so dependent [on Ramos]. Whereas, ang ARMM it is legislated. May mga positive provisions sa Organic Act. At least, he has to follow the principle: start with something small; then if he succeeds, he can go higher. Palagay ko that’s the one that motivated him.  

JW: But looking at the issue from holistic view, the implication of his accepting the SPCPD is that the status of belligerency of the MNLF is already lost. By his act of allegiance through his registration and his filing of candidacy in effect he already recognized the Philippine Constitution and therefore the MNLF as a revolutionary movement has been transformed into an ordinary organization. And the territories that are formerly under the control of the MNLF are now re-attached to the Philippines. That’s why I think as far as the SPCPD is concerned, this is primarily a gain of the government. In fact, kung mayroon pang isang body pwede nilang ibigay kay Misuari ibibigay pa nila ito. So long na mawala ang status of belligerency na yun. 

BB: He is getting old. And other people like the Abu Sayyaf, MILF are [becoming stronger]. Before he would lose control, he might as well compromise. This would be a good experiment. It would show the Chairman’s skill in management than as revolutionary. He will be able to show it now. And the people especially here are really very hopeful. They are tired of fighting, fighting corruption. 

“Feel at home with one another”

JW: How about the possibility of split [in the MNLF]?

BB: Yun ang kinatatakot ko. Baka magkaroon ng sabotage somewhere along the line. Like what happened to (Israel Prime Minister Yitzak) Rabin. He was assassinated by his own people. I hope sana hindi mangyari yun. Para nga yung vision ni Chairman, which i
s also in consonance with the longing ng mga tao, ay mangyari. At sana mayroon second in command who will be able to carry on just in case. 

JW: What do you think, Father? Looking at the hierarchy of the Central Committee. 

BB: I am not capable of answering that. Paano kasi each one of us, we have our own gift. We alone can do it with our own personal gift. So we hope in “Tuhan dihilan pa siya mahabah ummul.” (We pray that God prolongs his life). [We hope] he can deliver. 

JW: The MNLF should have organized the sectoral groups, the professionals, labor, women, youth since 1968. Pero ngayon lang sila nag-umpisa. This is the sad part of it. Kung organized lang ang mga professionals noon pa, things like the SPCPD [would have been easily facilitated by the professionals]. We are talking here about capabilities, technicalities, expertise, administration, economics etc. I don’t know how they chose people to handle these areas. Like the organization of consultative assembly, ano ba ang standard nila? Kung sino na lang ba ang malapit sa kusina? 

BB: There may be some people who would disagree but they are important. Sabi nga if the President and Vice-President always agree, one of them is useless. Kailangan yung discordant voice para marinig, para mapakinggan. Ang step one would be a feeling at home with one another. If you disagree with me, it’s not me [that you are against at] but my particular position ang questionable. Pero panatag na tayo sa ating pagkatao. Okey tayo. Therefore, if I disagree it’s not because I am against you but because my idea baka it would not work. 

JW: It’s not really a disagreement because we do not want the plan to succeed. Pero para mas makita natin pag may problema. Para mas maganda pa ang kahihinatnan nito. Ang nakikita ko kung mayroon ng SPCPD of course you can’t put in the administration MNLF [members who are] not well educated. But people who are struggling since 20 years or more would probably demand: “bakit sila ang nilagay mo hindi naman sila nasa field. Kami ang naghirap.” I think yon yung cultural side. There is need for more information para malaman ng mga tao yung functions nito.  Paghindi maganda ang approach ni Misuari, there can be more possibilities of cleavage. 

BB: Say, for example, when we were told to fight we fought. And we were not asked whether we were high school graduate or not. And now “awn na ridjiki mag-asubu na naka school kaw?” And yet it’s because I fought and many of us fought [that made the government] listen to us. Ngayon pagka mag-si-share na magtatanong na.

JW: Another cultural side. Of course, the MNLF forces that previously fought the AFP will eventually be sleeping together under one roof. Ganon lang ba kadali? Once upon a time they can’t see each other face to face then all of a sudden they will be sleeping in the same room. It’s not a question of number 20,000, 7,500, 500 [MNLF integrees] but the psychological effects [that will result from the new arrangement]. Another is, dapat ba puro MNLF lang ang nandito sa Sulu? O dapat [i-assign sila sa ibang lugar tulad] ng Maynila? Kung puro MNLF ang magco-command dito sa Jolo, anything can possibly happen. On the contrary, if they would be assigned in other places, that would segregate or marginalize the MNLF. 

BB: Now in my understanding those that would be incorporated will have their own Muslim commanders probably Tausug din halimbawa tulad ng nasa Marines. Ang in-charge ng security ni Chairman si Major Maang. It is a composite group may mga PNP, Marines, MNLF. 50 of them. Major Maang is the one [in charge]. Si Major Maang may kapatid siyang Ustadh nagtuturo dito [sa Notre Dame]. So he (Misuari) feels at ease. Something like that could be done to start with. At least [they can say] “we belong to the same agama (religion).” In the past they were enemies; siguro ngayon iba na. They were really fighting for what is due them. Ito na dumating na nga. So pagsikapan nila.  

JW: Since education is my interest, [what is your idea] of madrasa integrated with social sciences? It would not only teach religion or theology but also sciences and mathematics so that when madrasa students graduate they would be able to find jobs?

BB: I guess that’s how the Catholic schools evolved. In the past we had purely Catechism and later on na-realize na maganda ang agama pero kailangan din ng mga bata ang science, communication arts, social sciences; so, na-evolve. Hindi ko ngayon alam yung funding. Hirap kami ngayon. Pagka nag-open up, and say, it’s the responsibility of the State to provide good education sa mga bata therefore we support the madrasa. I hope yung concept naman ay support din tulad ng Catholic school. Sa ngayon the way the State supports the Catholic school ay through the educational service contract where they are able to escape the dilemma about separation of Church and State by saying we are not really supporting the school; we are supporting the individual kid who happens to be a Filipino. And so how much money that kid needs in order to get education kung sakali nag-ooverflow na kung magpapagawa pa ng another public school mas magastos in terms of building, teachers; so ngayon i-absorb na lang sila sa private school either madrasa or Catholic school. Then, maganda sana ngayon ang development. Mukhang mayroon ng steps sa madrasa; they are incorporating na yung ibang mga subjects. 

“We are not enemies. We could progress together”

JW: Malaysia, for instance, is doing well especially with the influence of “Islamization of knowledge” project by establishing the International Islamic university, the International Islamic Center of Understanding, then lately, International Islamic Thought and Civilization through [the assistance of Anwar Ibrahim]. The primary character is that both Islamic education and Social Sciences are combined together. So the curriculum is holistic. This [model] is expected to help madrasa here since there seems to be little role accorded to it.

BB: When we read history there are many Muslim philosophers like Averroes (Ibn Rushd), Avicenna (Ibn Sina) [and others who made enormous contribution in modern civilization]. Arabic numbers and Roman numerals which are useful in today’s computer. We can be complimentary with one another. We are not enemies. We could progress together.

JW: In fact, many of those Muslim philosophers came from Spain; not all of them came from the Middle East. Al-Ghazali came from Iran. Ganun sila ka dynamic noon. I once read the works of Al-Ghazali and I was able to browse some pages of the works of St. Thomas. Except for some points, they were actually discussing the same things like subjects about God’s essence and attributes, role of revelation etc. 

BB: The importance of senses, intellect, and so on.

JW: So there are historical instances where both Muslims and Christians worked harmoniously. I just don’t know why present time is different from the past. This is why reformulation of history is very important so that Muslims and Christians realize that they actually belong to the same origin as they also strive for the same future to reach the state of perfect being. On the contrary, there are dangers in drawing the line between the “we” and the “other.” 

BB: Tao ka, tao ako naglalakbay tayo pareho ang ating patutunguhan.

JW: Recently, Samuel Huntington wrote an article “Clash of Civilizations” where he saw Islam in a challenged pose against the West. I think it’s negative. That’s why the more people should come to terms with each other. I think after the MNLF’s temporary success, I would like to think that some other groups [might pose as new threat] saying tingnan niyo wala rin nangyari. They would probably trigger animosity. My experience during my elementary and high school days was fine [here in Jolo]. But in other places the cleavage is becoming wider. Hopefully the line won’t worsen. 

BB: I was in Carmelite in Zamboanga nine days of prayer before the [signing of the Peace Agreement]. I was talking about the SPCPD. I started [my talk] with a greeting “Assalamu alaykum.” Yung iba nandun sa simbahan nagtanong ano Muslim ba yan? I was trying to explain that our longing is kapayapaan. We don’t have the monopoly of goodness at sila ay evil. Pareho tayo nag-struggle; there is within us the sin and the sinner all combined. My ustadh friend told me that there are two ways of understanding “jihad:” one is to fight for your religion; the other one is to control one’s evil desire. This one is more difficult. And all of us are in that process of struggle. Whatever God wants must be the one that would prevail in our life. 

JW: Thank you Father. I’m sorry for consuming your time. I hope I could come back and talk to you again. 

BB: Have you met Piang Albar?

JW: That’s my plan Father. I also want to talk to her actually. 

BB: I can drive you there [to her residence].

JW: Paalis din kayo Father? 

BB: Hindi naman. But I can bring you there.

JW: Masyado nang abala sa inyo. 

BB: Hindi okey lang yun. I mean it would be good if you can talk to her. Piang would be one who can really help in bringing about development. She knows the pulse of the people. She’s very religious. It is Islam that motivates her action. I can give to you her phone number at home.

On our way down from the veranda of the Carmelite office, Bishop Ben toured me around and explained to me the livelihood and handicraft projects that the Vicariate sponsored especially among the poor but talented Tausug. I saw Tausug women weavin
g “baluy” (mat) and traditional “pis siyabit” (head scarf) other Sulu arts and decors. 

Fr. Ben insisted that he drove me at his Kennedy-type jeep to downtown Jolo. While we were at Bus-Bus Street, for unknown reason I was able to ask him: “Father, considering the peace and order problem in Jolo today, why don’t you hire security guard to give you protection?” He looked at me and responded confidently in Tausug language: “No one will hurt me. I consider myself a Tausug.” 

When I heard the tragic death of Bishop Benjamin de Jesus on February 4, 1997, I listened again to our conversation. I reminisced, too, the panorama of Sulu I once saw from the veranda of the Carmelite Hall, a reason why probably Fr. Ben loved Sulu and claimed himself as a Tausug and eventually gave his life to them.  (Julkipli Wadi is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of the Philippines Diliman).