COMMENTARY: The Bangsamoro Narrative: Inputs of interest in foreign policy (1) By Michael O. Mastura

The content of security and interests in Obama’s statement, in our view, lies first in the change for ‘the battle for the Muslim minds’ identified with a democratic positive project in Washington from ‘inordinate fear of Islamist threat’.  This tension oscillates between the shapers of U.S. foreign-policy opinions on “Islamism’s democratic compatibility” and America’s fixation with Muslims and Islam including its mainstream and revolutionary facets. 

I believe it harkens back to what former State Secretary Collin Powel posed at the height of the U.S. presidential election upon his crossing party lines: “The question is not that Obama is Muslim, [for] he is not.”  But, “what if he is Muslim”?  This is a manifestation of suspicion, if not the extent to which Islam and Muslims have a grip on the American imagination with influence on U.S. foreign policy to shape mutually intelligible framework for interaction.  Yet like ‘intention’ or ‘purpose’ the qualities of sovereignty and territorial integrity must be grasped as patterns in human behavior of unit actors.  Washington’s more nuanced approach towards Islam with the leeway for “mutual respect” for Arabs and Muslims is relevant to the Bangsamoro narrative as inputs of interest in foreign policy. 

It is to say, in the second place, the issue of identity and interests draw us to the choice in practices rooted in conduct (cognition) rather than the deployment of material resources. The moral precondition to a material commitment to a ‘perfect union’ is a Country mythology that takes account of the historical experience of the ‘Bangsamoros’ as a people.  The Moro version of nationalism is not a dead end, whether it is repressed or concealed.  The shadowy status of Bangsamoro proto-statehood stemmed from the legacy of the sultanates but now transformed into political mass basis for the liberation movements.  When the U.S. intervened in “the unincorporated Philippines Islands” at the turn of the previous century, the Jesuit Superior Pio Pi submitted to the American authorities, in 1902, a projection of phenomenon: “Morism is and exists as a distinct sovereignty to be eliminated.”  How often have we felt, too, that the Moro-Islamic idea of reality is being left behind in the narrative of Philippine history as national culture over a century? 

The strategy of writing (or producing) the Bangsamoro people in the MOA-AD (after a lapse of one hundred years) is ultimately decidable on the question of self-determination.  This predicament is not a Muslim or Christian dilemma but a Filipino one.  The answer is not “Moro pride” (or Catholic guilt) but for the “Bangsamoros” as a whole to determine their future political status in a popular consultation ending in referendum.  Interestingly enough, the idea of referendum as “a principle of choice” appeals to some Christians and Indigenous peoples who resist dogmatic mindlessness.     

Thus MILF’s argument has deep historical antecedents.  As a foreign factor in the Philippine Independence Question, the “Moro problem” featured prominently in public debates (though Christian Filipino nationalists often played it out interchangeably with “Moro bugaboo” with a slurring of nuances).  Under early phase of American tutelage up to 1916 the Moro people were finding their own voice in matters of governance under the Moro Province.  If past attempts in the U.S. Congress during WWI up to 1924 (when American business interests wanted to separate Mindanao from the Philippines) has helped to legitimate the present struggles: the MILF hold it as axiomatic the liberation argument against unjust dispossession from the Moro homeland. 

Chances are, in our generation, we may be watching the closure of what Filipino officials have continually offered as endless deferments of Bangsamoro self-determination. Beginning 1935, the Philippine Commonwealth stood for tolerance and accommodation under “full Filipinization policy” until independence in 1946.  With limited representation for Mindanao—and with no Moro plebiscitary consent for home rule—their ancestral domains and landholdings were parceled out as “agricultural colonies” to settlers and migrants from Luzon and the Visayan islands with increasingly unyielding control within the Christian power structure. 

Ask yourself: what would you find in the tone of my analysis disquieting?  War has not changed anything about the Moro autonomy question and, it is right to think, that policy will tend to revert to earlier options.  After WWII to 1996, under the Republic of the Philippines, the Muslim South has had to endure under “a cycle of abolition” of agencies dealing with Muslim affairs. 

Contemporaneous with the reductive “national integration policy” of the 1960s and 1970s, the Moro and indigenous populations became demographic minorities in their own homeland.  Martial rule saw other parts of Mindanao dominated by settlers and migrants gerrymandered into local government units of the highly centralized unitary republican state.  If we kept in mind that the Bangsamoro juridical entity is a new formula, we might gain a deeper insight of the sources of various discontents.    

Readers will appreciate that I write here as an engaged Bangsamoro interlocutor.  It is possible to be uncomfortable with the track of my backdrop narrative.  Government top leaders cite constraints in dealing with nonstate actors (i.e. the MNLF, the MILF, the NDF) on all peace negotiations focused on constitutional fix and territorial fix.  This is a function of the logic of government moves; but the ‘statist negation’ of these autonomous forces, and the ‘compacting of identities’ produce dubious and unclear ends.  Public statements of Filipino politicians and other national leaders hardly take into serious account that since 1973 the Jeddah-based OIC has accepted the MNLF as “the sole legitimate representative” of the Muslims in South Philippines. 

As I gather it, poorly clarified objectives have misled the MNLF Misuari wingers to skew the front-line positions towards radically nationalist goals without the necessity of deploying tactical forces.  So tellingly has illusion obscured the Moro-Islamic reality of a people determined on liberation, but the constitutional system also blocks the changes to put the demands into real test.  But for the radical definition and its sociological facts (realities) it took the MNLF Salamat wingers to signify “what is represented?” in that OIC “observer status” couched in Islamic community interpretative approach.  Any ‘untraceable system of representation’ was front-loaded partly in the MOA-AD and the discursive MILF-paced negotiating positions.  Now what makes the OIC facilitation unattractive has been the diplomatic failure of the Arabs and Muslim officials to draw out the revolutionary avenues for a real dialogue to tackle their political aspirations seriously, and for the Philippine government to address their grievances responsibly (to say nothing abetted by round-about moves or pro-forma resolutions with unfailing media prop).

Our Bangsamoro narrative puts Obama’s speech on Islam in context to America’s salutary intervention in the ungovernable areas of Mindanao and Sulu and its adjacent islands.  In faraway places, leaders and people are virtually seen as “nonentities” to bend to the imperial presidency because no representation of them can be produced.  Yet the discourses on the US-VFA tend to disrupt the narrative of U.S. intervention on “the war on terror” to orchestrate their mutual interests and to maneuver their own special interests. The Philippines remains braced within the U.S. orbit even though its geopolitical stance toward China is somewhat ambivalent about trade policy.  Washington’s ambiguity in thinking on political Islam can be effective in nudging Manila’s Christian political clan and secular elite for broader implications on American relations with Islamists in constitutional monarchy like Malaysia, and in republican states like Indonesia, or Turkey and regions elsewhere.  

Three big powers now hold pragmatic, open policy statements on the Mindanao peace process in which the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) plays a factor for consideration: the U.S., the E.U. and Japan.  Only at the negotiating table is it obvious that something essentialist in terms has changed. 

I can’t prove it in survey data, but the implications for international support are enormous to the peace process.  What we advocate must be convincing to our co-interlocutors from outside the Muslim community or Moro society. Our main target for the narrative trajectory is the thinking Muslim audience.  To be a nationalist Moro Muslim or Moro Islamist is less reflexive.  But it is a purposive, more politically relevant act in the assertion of Bangsamoro people’s right to self-determination than the poverty of labels like ‘modernist Moro’ or ‘Muslim democrat’.  A political question of moment is why?  Semantic problems aside, the current discourse on the political aspect of Islam is unexamined with a problematic of its compatibility with democracy in the Philippines. 

Although bound by its religious roots, the MILF adopts the hudna (truce) argument to avoid contradicting its leading principle of jihad (struggle).  It works as political guerrilla tactics.  One other problematic is about Islamism and democracy in the United States that has spilled over to the Philippine discourses.  It is about existing struggles for democracy and secularism in the Arab and Muslim world.  The term ‘Islamism’ is originally a French description of a form of activism that emerged in the 20th century; it is adapted into Western scholarship context of Islam.  As for the reference to ‘Islamist’, this idiom only came in vogue in the 1990s in the wake of analysis of ‘radical’ or ‘militan
t’ Islam.

 Theoretical distinctions between “moderate” and “militant” Islamists in area studies on political Islam does not apply to the MILF.  Neither does the MILF’s variant of “resurgent” Islamic movement represent “the forces of terror and extremism” associated with the Abu Sayyaf group.  As a homegrown revolutionary Islamist movement, the MILF does not practice hostility to American interests and intense anti-Western vocabulary of terms. [To be continued…]   (Datu Michael O. Mastura is a lawyer, historian, former congressman and now a senior member of the peace negotiating panel of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front).