The quest for difference

Throughout our country’s political history, there has been a tendency to treat the problem in Mindanao as a seasonal illness to be managed than as a chronic life-threatening condition to be urgently addressed.

Every administration thinks that it knows more or less what the problem is about, yet not one has made Mindanao the main plank of its program of government.  Every presidency seems content with devising palliatives to ease the poverty of the region and the marginalization of its historic inhabitants, while hoping and praying that the dreaded explosion will not occur during its watch.

Mindanao is a complex problem.  This trite observation only means that Mindanao cannot be viewed solely as a problem of economic exploitation and poverty, or of political oppression and neglect.  It is also a problem of culture and identity in a world that is making it more and more difficult for nations to feel different.

My argument rests on the premise that a people that imagines itself to be a separate nation, bound by a shared past and common aspirations, has a need to be different. The avenues for developing and experiencing such difference are multiple: lifestyle, law, education, religion, language, governance, food, music and various other areas of cultural expression.

The more the world looks and sounds the same everywhere, the stronger the need to be different becomes.  The more cultures begin to look alike, the more appealing the symbols of uniqueness.  No wonder, with globalization comes the resurgence of nationalism.  With pervasive secularization comes religious fundamentalism.  With aggressive modernity, the retreat to the simplicity of subaltern traditions.  As more and more avenues for living differently are closed, nations seek guidance in the imagined purity of reconstructed ancestral beliefs and traditions.

With this in mind, we would understand why the Moro Islamic Liberation Front or MILF has been able to develop the organizational vigor that the better-known Moro National Liberation Front or MNLF has all but lost.  Islam lies at the core of the MILF’s ideology, precisely the place the MNLF assigned to Moro nationalism.  Its battle cry is not just the recovery of a homeland, but the defense of what is thought to be a purer way of life against the assaults of materialism and worldliness.

Not surprisingly, the MNLF’s political settlement with the Philippine government, instead of providing the base of its political ascendancy among Mindanao’s Muslims, signaled the decline of its influence as a source of an oppositional Moro identity.  While Nur Misuari was obsessively talking about modern highways as the key to Mindanao’s prosperity, Hashim Salamat was quietly building up his forces on the disciplines of a strict Islam.

It would be a mistake for the Philippine government to think that a military offensive against the MILF today could force them to accept the same terms of settlement imposed earlier on the MNLF.  A war would only provide the MILF the ultimate affirmation of its claim as the sole authentic voice of a distinct Islamic Moro nation.

On the other hand, neither will Muslim Mindanao’s despair be assuaged alone by pouring industries, bridges, ports and highways into the region.  It will not end by building modern dream cities upon the desolation of its plundered forests.  The process of decisively correcting an historic injustice might begin however with a firm resolve by the Philippine government to recognize the Moro people’s right to determine their own path to development.  This means, in the first instance, the readiness on the part of government to allow a wide latitude for institutional experimentation in the region, instead of the constant invocation of constitutional limits as a warning against insolent initiatives.

This thesis is passionately argued in a little-known book titled “A Nation Under Endless Tyranny.”  The author Salah Jubair, in one fascinating chapter, summarizes the fundamental objections to the assimilationist frame underpinning failed initiatives such as the creation of the Commission on National Integration (CNI) in 1957.

“In fairness to the government, it may have fully believed in the effectiveness of the CNI in addressing the Moro problem.  But it little realized what the implications were to the sensibilities of Moros, who were basically Muslims.  The Moros believed that ‘integration’, in essence, would lead inevitably to the abandonment of their beliefs, mores, racial or cultural traits, in favor of the system professed by the state that is suffused with Christian ideology.  The essential result would be a situation where one could not distinguish Muslims from the Christians, and vice versa.  For a real Muslim, this was absolutely unacceptable.  It would be incompatible with Islam.”

Precisely the point I was making at the beginning: When a people is blocked from developing its own identity or from expressing its distinctness through its own institutions, it will resort to any means available just to prevent the total erasure of its culture.  Today the threat of such erasure has intensified with globalization.  We now realize that it is not the differences among peoples that provoke the most terrifying conflicts of our time, but rather the threat of cultural homogenization.  Whether as part of the Filipino state or as a separate Moro state, the historic Moro nation, it is clear, will not rest until it is allowed to achieve its distinctness.


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