Religious Diversity: A Chance or a Threat for Peace and Development in the Bangsamoro New Political Entity?
This paper presents a view on religious diversity in Mindanao in line with the on-going peace talks between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Government of the Philippines as well as the challenges of having religious diversity in the region. These two main objectives are anchored on the clamor of the people for peace and development in Mindanao. In the pursuit of working as a peace advocate in Mindanao for more than fifteen years, I had the privilege to experience the realities of religious diversity at the community level. In the line of my work, I discovered key important points about religious diversity. They are as follows: appreciation of religious diversity if not properly handled may become a source of threat to peace and a source of conflict; globalization being perceived as a ground for secularization; “arabization” of Muslim Filipinos poses a threat to religious diversity; intra-faith dialogue among the Wahhabis, Salafi, Sunni, Shitties, and Sufis within the Bangsamoro Region is needed to ensure peace and development; and recognition of historical roots promotes acceptance of diversities of religions.
This paper aims to present two objectives: the current realities in Mindanao with regard to religious diversity in line with development of the peace process between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Government of the Philippines. The people view this development with enthusiasm and optimism. After more than 4 decades of bloodshed on both sides, 15 years of peace negotiations, countless mothers burying their dead, fathers fighting with grief in their hearts, at long last the land of Mindanao sighs in relief.
In this article, I will share my personal experiences and journeys in conducting interfaith and intrafaith dialogue in the past two years working as the Executive Director of Al Qalam Institute. These experiences were taken from a series of peace fora, interfaith and intrafaith dialogue, and round table discussions in Southern Mindanao (Davao City), Western Mindanao (Zamboanga City), and Northern Mindanao (Cagayan de Oro City) with young Muslim Filipinos and interviews with key members of organizations and their local partners. Some are also taken from documentary research comprising data from the different scholars pertaining to the interaction of Filipino Muslims, Christians, and Indigenous Peoples with one another documented in newspaper articles, brochures and online materials.
As I was working in the field, I raised these questions inside my head, knowing the challenges and current realities that Filipinos are confronting in the country, does religious diversity matter? What are the implications of this reality in the lives of the people in Mindanao?
Defining the Local Context
The island of Mindanao is situated at the Southern part of the Philippines. It is also the second largest island in the country at 104,630 square kilometers. It is also the most culturally diverse island where people of different languages, tribes and races interact with one another on different issues and concerns. As a melting pot of different cultures, it creates a more distinct culture which is not present in other island groups in the country.
Philippines has been “described by journalist Stanley Karnow in his book In Our Image as a ―sprawling archipelago of disparate languages and cultures that owed its semblance of unity mainly to the legal definition of Filipino citizenship and an allegiance to the Catholic Church, it was also, tongue-in-cheek if not derisively, often referred to when summing up Philippine history as having spent 300 years in a Catholic convent followed by 50 years in Hollywood. 
In pre-historic times, Negritos were some of the country‘s earliest inhabitants shortly followed by successive waves of Austronesians who brought influences from Hindu, Malay and Islamic cultures. Some of the indigenous peoples kept their religious practices without embracing Islam or Christianity.
According to the 2000 census, the Lumad, made up of more than 30 ethnolinguistic groups, comprise about 8.9% of the total Mindanao population, while the combined Bangsamoros’ 13 Islamized ethno-linguistic groups accounts for approximately 18.5% of the region’s inhabitants.
A number of interfaith and intercultural dialogues have been conducted by the academe, civil society organizations, and non-governmental organizations in the different parts of Mindanao. However, Muslims in this part of the world still feel that they are very much discriminated against. A national daily, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, has apologized for a lead-in caption that labelled a Muslim woman in a front-page photo wearing a niqab as a “Security Risk?”. In the city of Davao (Southern Philippines), the family of a COMELEC official was prevented by a subdivision developer from buying a house and lot. There was no clear reason as to why they were treated that way, except that they are Muslim Filipinos. These cases of discrimination are one of the reasons for the conflict in Mindanao.
National Policy of Defining the Mindanao Problem
In a policy document presented by the Mindanao Deveopment Authority, it stated a new paridgm of looking at the problem in Mindanao. It clearly made mention of the issue on “Perceived Suppression of Islamic Practices, Traditional Customs and Indigenous Institutions” as one of the main causes of problems in Mindanao. To quote the MINDA 2020 output:
Numerous analyses and prescriptions have been put forward to reconcile these extremes. In the 1990s, it was a popular notion that poverty lies at the root of the Mindanao peace and development challenge, prompting interventions that were dominantly economic in nature. Without underestimating the destructive impact of poverty, historical injustice is now commonly regarded as the underlying root of the Mindanao challenge. This injustice has come in various forms: social, political, economic, cultural and environmental (Figure 1). Thus, attainment of lasting peace and development in Mindanao must hinge on addressing and redressing these various forms of injustice.
Islam and Christianity are two dominant religions in Mindanao. However, these two religions arrived in the island in the 10th -13th century and the 15th century, respectively. The people in Mindanao are indigenous peoples whose attachment to nature is the central point of their religious belief.
The spread of these two religions altered basic institutions, cultural practices, and even the socio-political landscape of the people. The passive reaction of the indigenous people and the conversion of most of the ethnic tribes (Maguindanao, Tausug, Iranun) to Islam, and ethnic tribes in Visayas and Luzon to Christianity manifests their religious tolerance. Some have kept their own cultural practices and traditions and embraced the new religion.
Last October 7th, 2012, President Benigno Simeon “Noynoy” C. Aquino III, presented the Framework for the Bangsamoro Agreement. This framework aims to lay down the road map for the signing of the final peace agreement between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Government of the Philippines. Al Qalam Institute of the Ateneo de Davao University sees this milestone as “(A)n enduring peace agreement between the Government of the Philippines (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has been the long-held clamor of the people in the region. The decades-long conflict has taken a dizzying, ruthless and despondent toll on both fronts: more than a thousand people’s lives wasted, properties and entire communities destroyed, with a multitude of people displaced. With this framework agreement, the people of ARMM hope that it will lead to a Final Peace Agreement that will ensure reforms on its political structure and bring true and lasting peace in ARMM.”
The Framework Agreement (2012) outlines the general features of the political settlement between the Government of the Philippine (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Crafted by the panels of the GPH and MILF, the FAB defines the structure and powers of the Bangsamoro autonomous political entity that will replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). It also sets the principles, processes, and mechanisms for the transition until the regular election for the new Bangsamoro entity in 2016. It is hope that the FAB paves the way for the just resolution of the historical divide between the government and the Bangsamoro.
The FAB is divided into nine sections: establishment of the Bangsamoro; basic law; powers; revenue generation and wealth sharing; territory; basic rights; transition and implementation; normalization; and “miscellaneous”. The last section states that the agreement cannot be implemented unilaterally and that the parties will complete the agreement by the end of 2012.
Political analysts affirm that this framework has a better definition of the word Bangsamoro. It also outlines a brief section on basic rights for the indigenous peoples and Christian settlers. The framework agreement reads:
“The Parties recognize Bangsamoro identity. 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. The freedom of choice of other Indigenous peoples shall be respected”. Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, Section I (Establishment of the Bangsamoro), Article 5.
The FAB also includes the core area or territory of which it will be implemented. The “core area” of the Bangsamoro as:
the present Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM);
the six municipalities in Lanao del Norte that voted yes in the 2001 plebiscite on expansion of ARMM;
all barangays in six municipalities in North Cotabato that also voted yes in the same plebiscite;
Cotabato City (the hub of Central Mindanao) and Isabela City (the main city on Basilan); and
all other contiguous areas where there is a resolution of the local government unit or a petition of at least 10 per cent of the qualified voters in the area asking for their inclusion at least two months prior to the conduct of the ratification of the Bangsamoro Basic Law and the process of delimitation of the Bangsamoro.
Another important feature of this framework is the provision pertaining to Normalization. The International Crisis Group Asia mentioned in their report that, “(N)ormalisation” is a catch-all term used in the negotiations to describe the return to normal life through reconstruction, rehabilitation, transitional justice and improvement of the security situation – all of which are mentioned in the final substantive section of the framework agreement. The said report also mentioned three issues that we need to focus on. These are:
- The creation of a civilian, effective, impartial and fair “police force for the Bangsamoro”, which will be responsible to Manila (Philippine government), the Bangsamoro government and the communities it serves.
- The gradual decommissioning of MILF forces.
- The phased and gradual handover of law enforcement functions from the Philippine military to the new police force. In the interim, the MILF will assist in maintaining peace and order.
The challenge in this framework agreement is that government is giving some political power to the MILF. The MILF is perceived to be a monolithic organization that espouses a particular Islamic school of political thought and in the end, other religious minorities such as the Muslim minority groups like the kamaasan/minatoa (Folk Islam), Sufis, Ahmadiyahs, tablighs who may not have agreement on many things may be subject to both political and religious persecution in an attempt to force them to conform, or other religious groups like the indigenous peoples and Christians who may be forced into accepting a singular form of spirituality, may in the end result in what we try to avoid, religious persecution.
With this development in the peace process, there is a need to define the challenges of religious diversity in the context of the new political development in Mindanao, the Bangsamoro New Administrative Political Entity. This development is the fruit of the decades of rebellion and armed struggle of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
Religious diversity is a reality recognized by the people in Mindanao due to the fact that the people and its environment are diverse in a number of ways. In Mindanao, we have the indigenous peoples or lumads, the Muslim ethnic linguistic groups, and the Christian settlers from the other islands of the Philippines. However, with the impact on globalization and oil control in the Middle East, religious diversity poses a different direction at the local setting.
The view on truth and the existence of God has become a source of debate in religious groupings within and among Muslim and Christian communities. More often it has also led to conflicts and destruction of the sacred grounds of religious minorities, who are bullied by followers of another faith. Surprisingly, in many if not most issues, there are conflicting views among individuals who seem to be equally knowledgeable and sincere that God does exist. However, diversity of opinion, specifically in the area of religious thought, knows no number/population, because even the minority has the tendency to bully the silent majority.
In our present context, dominance of number also leads to an established institutionalized power. But this power is challenged by minor groups who may have a view of their legitimate cause and resistance to other religions. According to Prof. Mucha Arquiza, (T)his is the case where small groups could effectively exercise political dominance even over a bigger group because culturally [i.e. socio-psychically] they belong to or are more similar to the numerically dominant group, hence, also become the politically mainstream. A classic example is that of religious extremist groups who, although few and inferior in number, may be able to exercise dominance and assume greater political clout because they are conferred, at least socio-psychically, with a certain ‘legitimacy’ while sharing commonality with the status quo or prevailing majority culture and politics than other groups who may be bigger in population but are greatly dispersed and socio-psychically marginal”.
In 2008, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front showed its darker side when two of its so called rogue commanders caused massive terror and destruction in the Christian and Lumad communities in Mindanao. The MILF signed the FAB which ensures the government and the Filipinos that they will respect and uphold human dignity and human rights.
In the course of discussion, this paper will unfold these realities and current issues that show what the government might not notice at the moment. I will discuss my recent experiences in conducting peace forum and interreligious dialogue at schools and at the community level, that touches on religious diversity within the Bangsamoro core area.
Recent Journeys with Al Qalam Institute
Al Qalam Institute for Islamic Identities and Dialogue in Southeast Asia is a resource centre of the Ateneo de Davao University. It aims to provide materials for enhancing the curriculum of values education among the Muslim students of the university. The institute is also a research centre. It aims to come up with a research agenda regarding Islamic identities in Mindanao in line with intra and inter faith dialogue for nation/nations building. Also, it aims to support the university in conducting community outreach programs in building relationships with the Muslim communities in Southern Mindanao.
The Institute will also conduct innovative local and international research, focusing on social and cultural issues affecting Muslim communities in Mindanao. Among other things it differentiates itself from other research institutes through its Board of Advisors: a group of leading Muslim and Christian anthropologists, social scientists, historians, and specialists with different academic backgrounds.
Starting in 2011, Al Qalam Institute organized intrafaith dialogue as well as intercultural and interreligious (interfaith) dialogue, public discussions and deliberations on social and theological issues, inter-civilizational dialogue and peace-building, and Islamic knowledge production, preservation and research. Below are the highlights of these activities that covers the theme on religious diversity.
Summary of the Activities:
I – Voices: Series of Roundtable Discussions
The Muslims’ identity, with Islam as the totality of their way of life, correlated with the culture and traditions handed down by their ancestors, and with the emergence of the Arab – Wahabism culture, must be understood not only by the non-Muslims, but also by the Muslim peoples themselves. Intra-dialogue therefore, is needed in order to broaden the Filipino peoples understanding of Islam and to allow a platform for Muslims themselves to self-critique and to improve.
To understand the recent dynamics on the ground, we gathered one hundred and five (105) young Muslim Filipinos between the ages of 25 – 45 participating in three different areas of Mindanao for focus group discussions. Mostly, the participants came from the Iranun, Kalagan, Sama, and Sangir families. The participants were coming from diverse communities, different Islamic thought, economic profile, and educational background.
The result of the FGDs focusing on religious diversity can be summarized as follows:
- Muslim Filipinos recognized the challenges of religious diversity in the advent of globalization and the strong influence of arab culture in their lives. Several Islamic schools of thought are being propagated by ulamas and religious leaders who gained their Islamic education in Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.
- Intrafaith dialogue is necessary among the Muslim communities. Looking at the different background and religious thoughts of the Muslim population, conflict in viewing religious practices and dogmas may stir up violence and religious persecution.
II – Peace Forum for the Framework Agreement of the Bangsamoro
Last November 26th 2012, Al Qalam Institute conducted a peace forum with a focus on crafting a social conscience program for the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro. The theme of the forum was “Gambalay nga Gikauyunan alang sa Bangsamoro: Suara, Paglaum, Pagkab-ot sa Kalilintad” (Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro: Voices, Hopes, Reaching for Peace).
The forum was enlightening to the participants. It gave some answers to the following questions: What does the agreement mean to people who are not identified as Bangsamoro? How will this translate to genuine development in Muslim Mindanao? How can we participate in promoting the ideals of social justice and peace? What principles of democracy promote the tenets of FAB?
However, the highlight of the entire event was that it created a social awareness that Filipinos are all rooted from the indigenous peoples of the island. Islam and Christianity are two religions introduced to us in recent centuries. Thus, there is a need to review, understand, and appreciate these roots in order for us to live harmoniously despite our religious diversities.
III – Interfaith Dialogue (In line with the Interfaith Harmony Week)
On February 1st – 7th 2013 the Al Qalam Institute celebrated the 3rd Interfaith Harmony Week. The event is in line with the UN Celebration of World Interfaith Harmony Week which is based on the pioneering work of The Common Word Initiative. This initiative, which started in 2007, called for Muslim and Christian leaders to engage in a dialogue based on two common fundamental religious Commandments: Love of God and Love of Neighbour, without compromising any of their own religious tenets.
In one of the activities to celebrate this event, Al Qalam and the Ateneo SALAM (Society of Muslim Students) conducted an interfaith dialogue between Islam and Christianity. We invited an imam and a priest to discuss the harmony and peace in their respective religions.
Both speakers discussed the beautiful qualities of their faith, reaffirming the essence of peace and love. However, there was a conflict with regard to the meaning and philosophical essence of Tawheed and the Holy Trinity.
In brief, the two speakers could not agree that these two concepts are present in each of their religious dogmas and sacraments. Thus, the dialogue ended up with a long debate. The only resolution to address this issue was to look back to our historical roots prior to the coming of Islam and Christianity. Both accepted that we all belong to an indigenous race and religion should not divide us.
Facing the Realities of Religious Diversity
Based on the activities mentioned, I have outlined the challenges of religious diversity on the following themes.
Appreciation of religious diversity if not properly handled may become a source of threat to peace and a source of conflict
Last 2008, when the peace process broke down, MILF rogue combatants caused massive destruction and menace in Christian communities living in the borders of the ARMM. They attacked churches and sacred ground in the guise of expressing religious belief and jihad.
The MILF is perceived to be a monolithic organization that espouses a particular Islamic school of political thought. In the end, other religious minorities such as the Muslim minority groups like the kamaasan/minatoa (Folk Islam), Sufis, Ahmadiyahs, tablighs, who may not have agreement on many things, may be subject to both political and religious persecution in an attempt to force them to conform, or other religious groups like the indigenous peoples and Christians, may be forced into accepting a singular form of spirituality that in the end may result in what we try to avoid, religious persecution.
Globalization being perceived as a ground for secularization
There are schools in Mindanao that bans the wearing of hijab and niqab by their Muslim women students based on the secular view of the school administrations. This view affects the celebration of cultural and religious diversity of the people in Mindanao. Some participants in the focus group discussions, mentioned that globalization paved the way of a new concept of democracy, as being secularization to advance Western interests. For them, the impact of globalization influences the government to view religion as having nothing to do in legislation or in the enforcement of law. In retrospect, this provides a reason why banning hijab in schools is clearly anti–religious, and that democracy of the West is “anti–religion dictatorship”. Mostly, this idea came from the Zamboanga participants.
“Arabization” of Muslim Filipinos poses a threat to religious diversity
The presence of several ulama and clerics that studied in the Middle East, has changed old practices of the Muslims in the communities. The content of this theme lies in the necessity of viewing Islam in a more progressive and inclusive manner. The need for this is due to the strong influence of Middle Eastern Islam. Hence, Islam had to be modified or modernized at some point in order to accommodate itself to the perceived conflict with the Western culture, philosophy, and ideology. In addition, there were also Muslim women who begin to speak their minds and question some verses in the holy Quran that is interpreted or applied by the Ulama/Ustadjes as gender bias.
Intra-faith dialogue among the Wahhabis, Salafi, Sunni, Shitties, and Sufis within the Bangsamoro Region is needed to ensure peace and development
Participants from the FGD shared that they always encounter a debate among Muslims of different schools of thoughts. The typical small group discussion would perhaps gather a soldier, a youth leader, an imam, a Lumad datu, a Moro activist, a Christian settler, and so on. Often, the experience of getting to speak ones views and being listened to by others left a deep impression on the participants. Existing peace initiatives are closing the gap between “dialogue Christians” and “dialogue Muslims”. But it is not clear whether we are closing the gap between the “dialogue Christians” and the “prejudiced Christians”, or between the “dialogue Muslims” and the “armed Muslims.” One way to start intra-faith dialogue is through an intergenerational exchange of views. Challenge: Schools may need to promote dialogue clubs rather than debating teams.
Recognition of historical roots promotes acceptance of the diversity of religions.
During the peace forum, a participant raised the issue of looking back at our commonalities of having roots as indigenous peoples within South East Asia. Looking at our history, we have been divided because of religion or faith. This time we need to consider our indigenous cultural identity. Long before the Spaniards came to the Philippines, Mindanao had a distinguished history of contact with other sovereign kingdoms of the Indians, Chinese and Arabs.
Based from the results gathered, the following recommendations are suggested:
Proactive Response from Muslim Filipinos
This is primarily where the recommendations from this study are anchored. It is fundamental that Muslim Filipinos themselves should have a thorough understanding of the complexities as a Muslim Filipino. It is only then that they can move forward and accept the realities of religious diversity. The FAB have to factor in the different realities.
The government also needs to know the complexities of religions and the diversity of people, culture and traditions. In this foreground, it is highly feasible that they could provide space for dialogue and discussions of the future of the people in Mindanao. However, the solutions addressing this problem should not come from Manila or impose quick solutions.
Alternative Solution through social movement and transformation
Alternative solutions to the problems and issues in Mindanao can be forged. This is through social movement and social transformation which has to be grounded in the cultural ethnicity of the Muslim Filipinos. In effect, this will present significant contributions that connect the past and present more holistically.
Role of Civil Society organizations
The active participation of the civil society organizations are necessary to the process of advocating through organizing meetings between Muslims and Muslims, Muslims and Christians.
Role of the Academe
The academe plays a critical role in exploring the cultural diversities of the Muslim Population specifically those belonging in the field of history and anthropology.
On the whole, the we recognize that aside from the conflict, there is a pervading misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Islam and the Muslims. This disunity of understanding has prevented Muslims from fully integrating themselves into mainstream Philippine society. The mechanisms mentioned above seek to provide a viable solution to this important gap.
The framework agreement is an opportunity for people of different faiths in Mindanao to open doors, to recognize and accept religious diversity. The framework provides the pillars for building lasting peace in Mindanao. Thus, there is a need for a dialogue in action.The dialogue of action involves religious engagement between socially engaged Muslims, Christians, and Lumads in Mindanao. Religious engagement will address the issues of building ethical values, mutual relationship and trust and active pursuit of common good. The aim is to build interreligious cooperation between religious communities in order to prevent social and historical injustice which may lead to ethics of compassion, peace, harmony and hope. There is as yet no peace in Mindanao. Accepting religious and cultural diversity will enable development to prosper at different levels of religion, and communities.
Abat, Fortunato U., 1993, The Day We Nearly Lost Mindanao: The CEM-COM Story .
Quezon City, Philippines: SBA Printers.
Abbahil, Abdulsiddik Asa, 1984, “Muslim Filipino Ethnic Groups.” Salsilah: A Journal of
Philippine Ethnic Studies.
Adas, Michael, 1981, “From Avoidance to Confrontation: Peasant Protest in Precolonial and
Colonial Southeast Asia.” Comparative Studies in Society and History
Adil, Mohammad, 1955, Maguindanao before Piang . Manuscript, Manila.
Agoncillo, Teodoro A., 1969, A Short History of the Philippines . New York: Mentor Books.
Ahmad, Aijaz, 1982, “Class and Colony in Mindanao.” Southeast Asia Chronicle
Bauzon, Kenneth E., 1991, Liberalism and the Quest for Islamic Identity in the Philippines .
Durham, N.C.: Acorn Press.
Beckett, Jeremy, 1977, “The Datus of the Rio Grande de Cotabato under Colonial Rule.”
Beckett, Jeremy, 1982, “The Defiant and the Compliant: The Datus of Magindanao under
Colonial Rule.” In Philippine Social History: Global Trade and Local Transformations . Alfred W.
McCoy and Ed C. deJesus, eds. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii.
Beckett, Jeremy, 1993, “Political Families and Family Politics among the Muslim
Maguindanaon of Cotabato.” In An Anarchy of Families: State and Family in the Philippines .
Alfred W. McCoy, ed. Madison: University of Wisconsin, Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
Bendix, Regina, 1992, “National Sentiment in the Enactment and Discourse of Swiss Political
Ritual.” American Ethnologist.
Bentley, G. Carter, 1986, “Indigenous States of Southeast Asia.” Annual Review of
Jan E. Stets and Peter J. Burke, Identity Theory and Social Identity Theory, Washington State University, 2000.
Thomas Mckeana, Muslim Rebels and Ruler, Cambridge, 2008.
 Wikipedia, Philippines.
 Indigenous Voices in the Philippines: Communication for Empowerment (C4E) ASSESSMENT REPORT ,May 2011
 Ateneo Module design for college students.
 The municipalities are Baloi, Munai, Nunungan, Pantar, Tagoloan and Tangkal. The 2001 plebiscite was part of the government’s unilateral implementation of the 1996 final peace agreement with the MNLF
 The municipalities are Kabacan, Carmen, Aleosan, Pigkawayan, Pikit and Midsayap. They border Maguindanao province
 The Philippines: Breakthrough in Mindanao, Crisis Group Asia Report, 5 December 2012.
 Diversity, Pluralism, and the Politics of self-determination: Prospects for Southeast Asian Ethnic and Religious minorities, Mucha Schim Arquiza, 2012.