Is a progressive Islamic revolution happening in the Philippines? Impressions from Mindanao

April 17, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

First instalment from my recent visit to the Philippines:

Something fascinating and strikingly promising is going on the Philippines island of Mindanao. It has very little to do with the grisly headlines of extra-judicial killings and President Duterte’s bloody ‘war on drugs’. It looks like a progressive Islamic revolution is in progress, combining elements of religiosity, women’s rights, armed struggle and grassroots civil society organization. I spent a couple of days last week taking a closer look – here are my (admittedly superficial) impressions.

First the background: After two decades of fighting, a peace agreement confirmed by a plebiscite in January and February this year established the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). The deal promises a block grant of US$1.5bn a year to the administration, along with a much higher share of royalties from its plentiful national resources. There will be a new, devolved parliamentary system of government, with the first elections set for 2022. The main protagonists are the Government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (that’s right, MILF – get your sniggering over now please).

To find out more, I met with about ten grassroots leaders – four men and six women. Here are my notes from the meeting:

‘We are excited and worried’. ‘I put my trust in the new leadership, but CSOs should do their part, supporting the BARMM but reminding them of their promises and ultimate objective – to serve the people.’

Islam plays a crucial role in how these leaders see their task: ‘We have to be firm, especially in our faith. All of us, especially the women, will be watching the leaders, praying that Allah will guide them. The role of the Ulama [network of Islamic scholars] is key – the BTA all took their oaths on the Koran, swearing not to commit corruption, violence or evil.’

Accountability under Islam has more teeth: ‘they are accountable to Allah, in the hereafter as well as to the people in the here and now.’ ‘Accountability is to Allah and to the Bangsamoro people. If someone in the transition authority commits corruption, our first loyalty is to Allah, 2nd to the CSOs, and only 3rd to the government.

We are particularly worried about the traditional politicians in the transition authority, many of them nominated by government – they are ‘the masters of all evil things.’’

I go round the room and ask how they became leaders. They are very frank:

  • Families with generations of combatants, with many fathers, mothers and relatives lost as ‘martyrs’ over decades of fighting
  • Nearly all of them went to university, apart from one older woman who cut short her studies to go to the mountains, where she trained as a medic but also to fight. ‘I carried a gun and a stethoscope.’
  • Early beginnings: ‘in high school I was asked to collect a cup of rice per month per family to feed the fighters.’

Later we visit Raissa Jajurie, an impressive human rights lawyer who is now the Minister of Social Social Services and Welfare:

‘I worked in small CSOs for 20 plus years, as an advocate and part of the peace process. Everything happened so fast – I only heard officially that I was to be part of the transition authority when they phoned me up and told me to go to Manila for the oath-taking!

Many of us have never been anywhere near government, and all its processes. Some of us have come pretty well straight from the mountains. The UN has offered to help, but it’s hard even to find time to accept such offers when facing so many daily tasks.

We plan to tap CSOs for cooperation, ‘feedbacking’ and synergies. We have resources, but many limitations – CSOs can help. This ministry was notorious for its corruption and inefficiency, so we need help from outside to make people understand the need for change.’

Finally, regular readers will know that I have a thing about zakat – the Muslim tradition of annual tithing, which seems to me to have huge potential to fund socially progressive causes. So I was pretty stoked when I met Jurma Tikmasan of the Tarbilang Foundation, which is doing exactly that. Back to my notes:

Jurma is a women’s rights activist suffering from a bad cold. So in addition to her headscarf, she is wearing a surgical mask to try and avoid passing it on. But in the interests of sound quality, she agrees to take it off for the interview. We discuss her Foundation’s work, in particular working on women’s rights in Muslim communities and how they work with progressive scholars (the Ulama) to fight prejudice among less educated community Imams.

But later over dinner, she laughingly fills in some important details on how they won over the Ulama (Muslim scholars). When a group of assertive, highly qualified young women started questioning the misuse of the Koran, they got a hostile reception. So they switched to rope-a-dope tactics, demurely asking the scholars for guidance on ‘certain passages we ‘did not understand’’. Forced to read and think about them, the Ulama started coming round to a more progressive/accurate understanding, and an alliance was born. It ended in the Ulama writing a fatwa and a set of sermons on women’s reproductive health. which has been used all over Southeast Asia.

Here’s a quick vlog from me in front of the amazing Grand Mosque in Cobato, Mindanao – apologies for flapping notebook covering the lens!

And an extract of my interview with Jurma (8m)