Forgotten Wars, 1

In July 2007, when Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was the sitting president, fourteen marines were beheaded in Basilan, ten of them also mutilated. The suspected murderers were members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front ( MILF), reportedly a break-away group of the Abu Sayyaf. On 25 January 2015, when Benigno Aquino III was president, forty-four members of the Special Action Force ( of the Philippine National Police) were massacred in Mamasapano, Maguindanao also by the MILF. They were after the terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir.

In such moments of anguish and confusion, I always turn to history for some kind of an explanation, so I looked for Dr. Cesar Adib Majul’s book, Muslims in the Philippines, not in search of justifications, but for profound insights into ancient problems.

Dr. Majul (PhD) said the coming of Westerners to our shores caused the fragmentation of Muslim peoples. Whether it was for commerce or religion or both as in the case of Spain the intervention of colonial powers from the West from the 16th to the early 20th centuries had a negative impact on the principalities and sultanates that existed then. It was bad enough that they had dynastic internecine squabbles among themselves; at the same time, they had to defend territorial sovereignty and way of life against the onslaughts of foreign colonial powers.

Because Spain (except for a few areas in the north) was under Muslim rule for about eight centuries, it was understandable why they abhorred the Muslims in Mindanao and Sulu. On the other hand, it was Islam that galvanized the local Muslims into a vigorous, cohesive force that warded off the Spanish invaders.

What is glossed over as “Moro Wars” in Philippine history books ( especially for Catholic schools) were, in fact, violent encounters between Muslims and Spanish Catholics. As students, we were taught that Spain’s largely unsuccessful strategy to conquer the Muslims in Mindanao was due to a lack of interest in subjugating Mindanao and Sulu. Nothing could be farther from the truth. According to Dr. Majul, the Spanish colonial government did everything in its power “to cow the Muslims”. Early on, they established Zamboanga, but it took two hundred more years (until the latter part of the 19th century) for them to have another bridgehead in Sulu and Maguindanao. That the “Moro Wars” were launched to curb piracy was only an excuse, affirmed Dr. Majul. Those were systematic wars of conquest and attrition designed to cause major and irreversible damage on the Muslims.

Population centers became so depleted, there was a lack of manpower to develop agricultural resources. Plantations were put to torch, food supplies were endangered, trading vessels were destroyed to dislocate regional commerce which was the lifeblood of Muslim economy. To this day, some islands in Jolo and Sulu remain severely depopulated compared to Christianized areas. Be that as it may, Spain failed to eradicate Islam in Mindanao and Sulu. But, it planted the bitter seeds of religious intolerance and distrust which have poisoned the lives of peoples in this archipelago.

More of Dr. Majul’s words of wisdom: “ Thrust into a partnership with countrymen of the same race with whom they share certain basic cultural traits though not the same historical experience, the Muslims of the Philippines must now learn how they can contribute to the strengthening and cohesion of the national community of which they are a part, for the benefit of all its members, within the context of a free, democratic and pluralistic society, a society in which they can keep and know more about their Faith [Islam].” In other words, the history of a conquered people (Christian Filipinos) who eventually revolted against Spain and resisted the American invasion now has to merge with that of a people who remained unconquered and unbowed (Muslim Filipinos).

Dr. Majul concluded that Muslim and Christian Filipinos should learn more about each other in order to end the enmity and put some direction to our future as a nation-state.