Islam in the Philippines
Islam came from India to the Philippines in the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries. The religion slowly converted a small population in the Southern portion of the Philippine archipelagos. Rather than replacing the existing culture and social structure, Islam integrated into the traditional way of life in the Southern Philippines. The Moro, the Philippines' main Muslim population, constitute only about five percent of the nation's citizens. Traditionally, the Moro were geographically and culturally separated from the Philippines.
The Moro remained distinct from the rest of the islands that compose modern day Philippines until occupation by the United States near the beginning of the twentieth century. Under US rule, and continuing through independence in 1946, the Moro were the subject of intense discrimination. A lack of political power bred poverty, unemployment, and low education rates in Moro communities.
After independence, the newly formed government attempted to integrate the Muslim population. The government sponsored massive migrations of Christians to traditionally Muslim lands. In return, state scholarships were given to lower class Muslim students to attend universities in the capital and abroad. The migrations, it was thought, would integrate communities while the scholarships would increase education and job opportunities among the Moro.
MNLF and Tripoli
During the government efforts to integrate the Muslim population, anger and frustration toward the Filipino government grew among the Moro. The migrations of Christians to traditionally Muslim lands were viewed as an invasion of culture. Tensions grew between the Moro and the settlers. Both groups, feeling that police were unable to ensure their security, formed self protection forces. These forces quickly turned into paramilitary militias. Bloody conflicts soon ensued.
The scholarship students returned to the Southern Philippines with ideals, charisma, and energy. A small group of them capitalized on the frustration, fear, and anger of the Moro. They formed the Moro National Liberation Front, or MNLF. This nationalist group blurred the boundaries between ethnicity and religion. Through one of its leaders, Nur Misuary, it sought a nationalist movement that united all Filipinos who wanted freedom.
A guerilla war started between the MNLF and the Filipino government. The President, Ferdinand Marcos, declared martial law in September of 1972. The war lasted years with thousands dying on both sides and hundreds of thousands being displaced. Accusations of genocide on the part of the government created international sympathy for the plight of the MNLF.
The Organization of the Islamic Conference and Libya intervened in 1976. Libyan negotiators hammered out a peace agreement that December. Named after the city in which it was signed, the Tripoli agreement was to give autonomy to 13 traditionally Muslim provinces in exchange for a permanent peace. Despite accusations of the Marcos government not fulfilling its part of the treaty, the MNLF was left without a purpose. Factional internal fighting led the MNLF to split into three groups by the end of 1977. The political and military power of the MNLF dissipated over the following years.
Abu Sayyaf Emerges
A relative peace reigned through the semi-autonomous provinces as the Moro were slowly integrated into mainstream Filipino culture. The traditional Moro way of life was transformed into a modern Islamic society. Left without a purpose, many ex-MNLF and their children traveled to Afghanistan in the 1980's to fight the jihad against the Soviet Union.
After the jihad, the fighters returned to the Philippines. Many of them knew only fighting. Upon their return, they were upset at the complacency of the remaining MNLF. In 1991, eight former mujahedeen fighters broke from the MNLF and formed the Abu Sayyaf. The ASG's main goal is to establish an Islamic country based on Shariah. Whereas the MNLF was a nationalist movement, the ASG is a religious one.
Originally led by Abdurajik Abubakar Janjalani, the ASG started a campaign of guerilla attacks and kidnapping. After some minor skirmishes with the military in 1991 and some bombings in 1992, the ASG started their main technique of kidnapping for ransom by abducting a business woman for 1 million pesos. The kidnapping was followed up by the abduction of five year old and his grandfather. Kidnappings were interspersed with military attacks such as the 1995 massacre of Ipil, which left the town leveled and 53 dead.
Over the past decade, the Filipino military has fought with the Abu Sayyaf. The ASG, at its height, was said to have over 1000 fighters. Their forces have been reduced due to heavy fighting to somewhere around 60. Just this last week, the Filipino military, with help from United States forces, attacked over 30 ASG fighters in order to secure the release of three foreigners who were kidnapped. Unfortunately, all but one of the hostages was killed in the attack.
Unlike most rebel groups that tie their actions to political gains, the Abu Sayyaf fights and kidnaps primarily for money. In the most recent example, several foreigners, including Guillermo Sobero and Martin and Garcia Burnham, were kidnapped in May of 2001. Negotiations for over 300,000 USD were rumored to be underway to secure the release of the Burnhams. Under a previous administration of Joseph Estrada, the ASG was in negotiations with the government, resulting in three western hostages being released for over 1 million USD each.
The Abu Sayyaf hides behind the shield of religion. They claim to be fighting for independence. Their demands have, in the past, asked for the removal of Catholic symbols from Muslim communities and for sovereign fishing rights in the Sulu and Basilan seas. Their words, however, fall flat when compared to their actions. The ASG does not hold hostages for the release of political prisoners. The ASG does not attack military outposts to free oppressed communities. They are, as the Filipino President Gloria Macapagl-Arroyo has stated, "a money-crazed gang of criminals."
The Abu Sayyaf tries to draw legitimacy from its roots in the MNLF. The MNLF had a clear, nationalistic goal. Through careful political strategy, they secured the sympathy of the international Islamic community. They proved, through their actions, that the MNLF was serious about independence. The Abu Sayyaf, however, has been nothing but a festering public relations nightmare for Islam in Southeast Asia. Their abductions, massacres, and lack of a clear political strategy prove they are nothing but lawless bandits.