Bangsamoro identity and modernity

ONE OF the things that I find particularly appealing in the Bangsamoro Basic Law is the way it formulates the aspiration to self-government as a modern political project. The document signals an unmistakable resolve to distance itself from the warlordism and aristocratic ascendancy that have historically characterized political rule in Southern Mindanao. As importantly, by projecting the idea of a Bangsamoro people, it has sought to transcend the ethnolinguistic and tribal divisions that have frustrated past attempts to unite the region’s inhabitants around a common vision.

But, for a host of reasons, the BBL finds itself weighed down by many structural strains. To me, these fundamentally arise from the attempt to reconcile two contradictory tasks. The first is the differentiation of the Bangsamoro community along implicitly religious lines. The second is the building of a modern democratic political system.

These two projects feature two contrasting principles of differentiation—one modern, and the other premodern. The political institutions described in the BBL appear to hew closely to the design of a modern, functionally differentiated society. But, by tacitly anchoring Bangsamoro identity on religious affiliation, the BBL follows the premodern principle of segmental differentiation, which assigns primacy to kinship, ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious ties. To a certain extent, this is understandable. In Islam, there is no sharp separation between the imperatives of one’s faith and the rules that one is supposed to follow in the other aspects of daily life.

In contrast, modern societies have progressively eroded the value of such segmental identities by developing institutions that are autonomous of one another and are fundamentally free from the influences of primordial affiliations. All Philippine Constitutions, particularly the 1987 Constitution, are modern documents precisely because, among other things, they do not refer to religious and ethnic identity in their definition of the rights and obligations of citizenship. The BBL does.

Let us agree to set aside, for a moment, the fact that the term “Moro” was originally used by the Spaniards in the Philippines to refer to the Muslims in Mindanao. And let us, instead, use the term “Bangsamoro” as the BBL defines it in Article II, Section 1. This usage, as we will note, makes no explicit reference to religion as a source of identity.

“Bangsamoro People. — Those who at the time of conquest and colonization were considered natives or original inhabitants of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago and its adjacent islands including Palawan, and their descendants, whether of mixed or of full blood, shall have the right to identify themselves as Bangsamoro by ascription or self-ascription. Spouses and their descendants are classified as Bangsamoro.”

But, as one reads through the rest of the document, one is left with the uneasy feeling that what is being created here is a political entity that is torn between the norms of modernity and the imperatives of Islam. The BBL’s Article IV, “General Principles and Policies,” is modern in every way and perfectly secular in tone, except for this: “Section 6. Promotion of Right. — The Bangsamoro shall adhere to the principle of enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong.” This may sound like a rhetorical universal normative principle. When read in conjunction with other provisions, however, it resonates nuances that are specific to Islam.

The commentary “Religious police in the Bangsamoro?” by Araceli Z. Lorayes (Opinion, 6/13/15) alerts the reader to a provision in the BBL that did not mean much to me when I first read it. This is Article V, Section 3 on the “Exclusive Powers” of the Bangsamoro government. Item No. 48 provides for the creation of a: “Hisbah office for accountability as part of the Shari’ah justice system.”

I looked up the Wikipedia entry for “hisbah” and noted that the word does carry a broad range of meanings. As a doctrine, it refers to the obligation of all Muslims. It could also refer to the duty of the state to ensure citizens’ compliance with hisbah. An office to enforce hisbah could be limited to exacting accountability in business matters, or it could have comprehensive powers. In some places, indeed, it could mean a “religious police,” the kind found in societies like Saudi Arabia, as Ms Lorayes fears.

But, maybe, there is no need to worry about such a grim possibility. The same provision makes reference to “the Shari’ah justice system,” of which the hisbah office is supposed to be a part. The Shari’ah courts have been with us since 1977, when their creation was decreed by Presidential Decree No. 1083 during martial law, and are recognized by our Constitution. From what I gather, the operation of these courts—whose jurisdiction is confined to family and personal matters within Islam—has been hobbled more by the lack of qualified judges conversant with Islamic law than by any kind of religious zealotry.

Still, it is important to keep Ms. Lorayes’ reservations in mind. The enlightened multiculturalism that brought us to this stage in our national life is supposed to give cultural minorities enough political space to amplify their voice, protect their rights, and promote their cultural and historical uniqueness. This philosophy is consonant with the preservation of diversity in a world that is rapidly being flattened by the forces of globalization. It was never meant to propel into power forms of tyranny that have long been rendered obsolete.

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