At the UP, where Nur Misuari studied and taught in the ‘60s, we love to say we breed all kinds of characters — heroes and scoundrels, anarchists and bureaucrats, radicals and conservatives, militants and militarists.

The UP will always, like any other school, claim its own share of heroes, but will never disown anyone of its graduates.  What it will insist upon, however, is outstanding performance from all of them in whatever roles they have chosen for themselves.  As a UP alumnus, Misuari has done well, and, though the nation may still be divided over how to classify him,  I have no doubt that his university is proud of him.

Misuari finished his AB Political Science in the early ‘60s.   Upon graduation, he took up graduate studies on a fellowship from the Institute of Asian Studies.  Thereafter he  became an instructor  in Political Science, at the same time that Jose Maria Sison was teaching literature in the English department.  He was a disciple of the great Muslim scholar, Prof. Cesar Adib Majul.  On the latter’s advice, Misuari transferred to the Institute of Asian Studies where he was appointed assistant professor.

As a student in UP Diliman, Misuari always bore his Moro and Muslim identity with pride.  Yet he was never a fanatic or a sectarian.  He never flaunted his faith.  What consumed him then was the need for Filipinos to recover their Asianness, which he rightly felt was being eroded by a pernicious form of Westernization.  At a time when the Kabataang Makabayan (KM) and radical nationalism were the mainstream ideological alternatives on campus, Misuari helped form a marginal group called Bagong Asya.  This was mainly a discussion group whose aim was to promote a deep understanding of the history, culture, and politics of Asian societies.

Though Misuari had joined the KM, he never felt comfortable about its narrative of Filipino nationalism which unproblematically assimilated Moro identity into the concept of Filipino nationhood.  Nor was he comfortable with the kind of Marxism which sought to reduce the ethnic issue into a class issue.

Yet, it wasn’t Islam as such that he was concerned about promoting. It was rather the idea of an Asian identity.  He believed that our last link to the rich heritage of Asia was precisely Mindanao to the extent that, under the umbrella of Islam, it had remained uncolonized and unwesternized.   He talked of the unsubjugated Moro people, unvanquished by either the Spaniards or the North Americans, as our generation’s strategic channel to the Asian community.

Few people cared at that time.  The political, economic and intellectual milieu in the university and in the country was decidedly Western in orientation.  Neither the businessmen nor the politicians nor the intellectuals cared about Asia.  This arrogant inattentiveness of our people was especially severe in the case of our relationship with the countries in Southeast Asia.

As we can see, Misuari was by no means an isolationist or a chauvinist.  He was nurtured in the liberal pluralist atmosphere of the university, where diverse regional identities came into play and mutually adjusted to one another.  He stayed at Narra Residence Hall, a melting pot of the provincial intelligentsia, rich and poor,  where family names and social hierarchies carried no weight.

He could have chosen easily to become a modernized Moro  — reinvented by a liberal state university and relieved of the weight of centuries of colonial distrust and demonization of persons of his ethnic origin.  He chose instead to become a Moro ideologue and warrior, reconstructing the emancipatory narrative of his people and raising an army of national liberation.

The letter “M” in MNLF does not stand for Muslim but for Moro.  There are two reasons for this deliberate use of this once pejorative term as the emblem of the undefeated nation in Mindanao.  The first is to drive home the point that this is not just a Christian-Muslim conflict; the second, and the more important, is that this is the struggle of the people of Mindanao – the Moros – to assert their right to public recognition as a separate community.

Within this social map, there are Muslim Moros, Christian Moros, and animist Moros.  There are Tausug Moros, Maranaw Moros, Maguindanao Moros, lumad Moros, Visayan Moros, Chinese mestizo Moros, etc.  It is not their religion or language that principally defines them.  They want to be recognized as a people that fiercely resisted Western colonialism, and will continue to resist a Manila-based colonialism.   They are the historic people of Mindanao.

To the extent that to be a Filipino meant to carry the imprint of colonial subjugation and de-Asianization, to that extent the Mindanao people that Misuari represented would prefer not to be called Filipino. “Moros, not Filipinos”, he would often stress to those who labeled them Filipino Muslims.

To understand this is also to acknowledge the deep, pervasive, and active yearning for Mindanao autonomy, regardless of the MNLF’s own version of the struggle.  That is why a settlement with the MNLF does not guarantee acquiescence on the part of the other Muslim groups.  And for this same reason, neither does it guarantee acquiescence on the part of the people of Mindanao.

But, the Southern Philippine Council for Peace and Development does constitute a giant and historic step towards peace.  That is why one hopes it will not be just another powerless bureaucratic layer.  And for Nur Misuari, the Moro warrior, registering as a voter and running as a candidate for governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) are certainly a big leap of faith.  That is why one can only hope and pray that in this new role, he will make a difference for Mindanao and for his people.


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