In a previous column, I wrote that while Moros and Filipinos may have sprung from the same racial stock, the accidents of history have made them different nations. I argued that any attempt to arrive at a just and enduring solution to the Mindanao problem must begin with this recognition. But I did not mean to suggest that therefore this difference could only be truly affirmed by the formation of a separate Moro nation-state. I meant to celebrate diversity and tolerance, not an imagined Moro homogeneity and exclusiveness.
Commander Robot, a leader of the Abu Sayyaf group now holding hostages in Sulu, said in an interview that he regarded it his moral duty to the Moro nation to fight for its recognition as a separate Islamic state. He seems to believe that faithfulness to a Moro identity obliges him to form a separate state. But why should states be coterminous with nations? It may be argued that many other nations have made Mindanao their home. Don’t they deserve a place in Robot’s Mindanao? Moreover, would Moros who have decided to live and take up citizenship abroad be less Moro than Robot? Would that be a betrayal of moral duty, a denigration of roots? But what are roots for if you cannot take them with you wherever you go?
The scholar Ben Anderson reminds us that nations above all are “imagined communities.” The nation persists in the sentiments and memories shared by members of the community. This cultural affinity is kept alive and nurtured in various spheres – in language, food, religion, custom, literature, music — but it also tends to seek a distinctly political expression under conditions of oppression, poverty, discrimination and neglect. The politicization of national identity becomes less urgent the more people from different nationalities are given equal chance to become fully human in the same political order.
It is important to remember this because it is not the existence of religious or cultural differences but the persistence of underdevelopment and inequality that provokes the clamor for an autonomous or a separate Moro state in Mindanao. The problem is not that Moros never regarded themselves as Filipinos, so much as successive Filipino administrations never gave the Moros a chance to feel they were part of the Filipino nation-state. A look at the sorry state of Muslim Mindanao or what is supposed to be Moro and Lumad homeland will easily attest to this.
Those among us who refuse to accept this responsibility conveniently point to the quality of past and present Moro leadership in order to argue that the problems of the Moros must be laid at the door of their leaders. There is truth in this, but I think it is difficult to show that we Filipinos have been any luckier with our own leaders. It is truer to say that in general leaders tend to epitomize the fundamental weaknesses and prejudices of their people. Exceptional leaders are those that are able to rise above them.
It is meaningless to blame the people. For they too — their weaknesses and prejudices as well as their optimism and decency — were formed by the contingencies of place and history. Our duty as sensible human beings is to recognize this, and to find ways of governing ourselves so that we can overcome our worst traits, build upon our gifts, and live peacefully with others.
There is nothing intrinsically desirable, or intrinsically wrong, about an autonomous or a politically independent Moro homeland. Statehood is not a moral destiny, as Commander Robot likes to see it; it is only a political instrument like any other aimed at ensuring the collective development of a community. I am not fully convinced that an independent Islamic state in Mindanao is the best answer to Moro underdevelopment. I am only sure about two things: (1) That the existing notion of an Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao is a farce, if not a tragedy; and (2) that a shooting war against the armed Muslim community, such as the one being waged by the Estrada government, will not put down but further stoke the fire of Islamic separatism.
The blood spilled in war only fuels differences based on archaic affinities. It is what made Hutu and Tutsi neighbors kill one another in Rwanda, what made Bosnians and Serbs who lived side by side for centuries hostile strangers overnight, and what makes Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland blind to the civic links they have forged with one another at school, at work, and in the market place. Roads and bridges, schools and hospitals, telephones, television stations and markets should have lessened the importance of primordial identities in a vast and richly endowed land like Mindanao. But instead Commander Robot’s message, framed in the vocabulary of terrorism, finds resonance even in the hearts of Moros who would otherwise have no trouble dissociating themselves from banditry and religious fanaticism.
But on the other hand, it is also scary to see the picture of Filipino soldiers fly the Philippine flag atop a bombed Muslim mosque. I don’t know what purpose it serves; a mosque, like a church or a temple, is not a military target. It is such images, more than any other, that agitate dormant primal sentiments, and exacerbate the gap between nations. Robot must have felt vindicated.
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