Interconnectedness and hope

Amina Rasul

Posted on May 22, 2015

Last Friday, 200 participants came together to discuss the threat of international radicalization at the Edsa Shangri-la Hotel. The conference was organized by the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy (PCID), the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) of the Nanyang Technological University, the University of the Philippines Law Center, the University of the Philippines Center for Integrative and Development Studies, and the Mindanao State University (MSU).

Ambassador Ong Keng Yong, deputy vice-chair of the RSIS -- a leading center for the study of regional security -- and former ASEAN secretary-general led a delegation of six experts: Ahmad Hashim, Bilveer Singh, Joseph Franco, Professor Kumar Ramakrishna, Alistair Cook, and Ustadz Muhammad Saiful Alam Shah Bin Sudiman.

Local speakers included former Senator Santanina Rasul, Dr. Macapado Muslim, Danilo Concepcion, retired General Ben Dolorfino, Brigadier General Carlito Galvez, Jr., Assistant Secretary Nina Leong from the Office of the National Security Adviser, Professor Moner Bajunaid, Edicio dela Torre, and Maria Ressa.

In his opening message, UP College of Law Dean Danilo Concepcion expressed his hope that the conference would provide a better understanding of the reasons Islamist movements have been able to expand their influence in our region and how we can counter their pernicious effect. The RSIS team gave us much food for thought and encouragement, that as serious as the threat of extremism and radicalization is, there is a way to build resilient communities.

Dr. Muslim, president of the MSU and co-organizer of the conference, grounded the discussions with a reminder of how the armed conflicts in Muslim Mindanao started: “A war of independence had been waged by armed Moro groups since the time of Spanish colonization.”

He added: “The only effective strategy to neutralize violent radicals is to address these root causes. This has been the foundation of the peace processes conducted by the Philippine government with various armed movements.”

Our RSIS colleagues emphasized the interconnectedness of the events in the different parts of the world to domestic politics and how issues in Mindanao could have implications for the region and the international community. The rapid growth of Islmaic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), expanding from Iraq and Syria to Nigeria (with the Boko Haram swearing allegiance), is a major cause for alarm. ISIS has taken a more radical position compared to other groups and, unlike the decimated Al-Qaeda, actually has territory it controls. ISIS is more and more a state. Southeast Asians are reportedly joining ISIS and they would be dangerous when they return to the region.

Journalist Maria Ressa explained how extremists like ISIS have been adept at using social media to lure the marginalized, particularly the isolated young who are angry with society. Using social media to deradicalize the youth or to counter the lure of these extremist groups is a strategy that we have to work on.

Anti-terror expert Kumar Ramakrishna said that ISIS influence is expected to spread since thousands of Filipino Muslims are now exposed to this while studying and living abroad. Those going back to the Philippines, says Ramakrishna, may have already been influenced by ISIS.

The RSIS experts see a dim future if the current peace process in Mindanao fails. Our ASEAN neighbors -- particularly Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia -- are worried about the setbacks in the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front following the Mamasapano debacle. The spillover effects of the conflict and the attractiveness of a conflict area for terrorists is a concern for the international community, particularly ASEAN. Will the doors open wide to ISIS, if the peace process fails? What can make the peace process fail?

Retired General Dolorfino, former head of the Armed Forces’ Western Mindanao Command and chair of the conference, said that “growing exasperation with obstacles to the peace process may lead a younger generation of rebels to radicalization. “

He added: “It must be noted that many members of local terrorist groups such as the Abu Sayyaf, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, Justice for Islamic Movement, and Kilafah Islamiyah Movement are orphans of rebels and frustrated members of Moro fronts.”

Ahmad Hashim, military studies program head of the RSIS, confirmed that there is a growing number of Muslims in Mindanao and several countries in Southeast Asia who adhere to the radical ISIS belief. The Philippines, Hashim said, has the potential of becoming a fertile ground for the spread of ISIS due to the raging indigenous insurgency.

However, there is hope in neutralizing the lure of extremist groups. Alistair Cook and Ustadz Muhammad Saiful Alam Shah Bin Sudiman shared how religious leaders, particularly Muslim leaders, together with government and community leaders have succeeded in developing practical strategies to de-radicalize the recruits of violent extremist groups and reintegrate them into society. It is encouraging to know that there are good practices to learn from our neighbors in ASEAN on how to disengage imprisoned or detained suspected violent extremists from the insidious ideology -- if we can call it that -- that had led them to terrorism.

Clearly, a strategy founded on interfaith and multicultural collaboration is a model we can work on. A strategy that is based on unity in diversity is indispensable in our multiethnic, multifaith and multicultural communities. Rehabilitation and reintegration are indispensable, as experience has shown that individuals wrongfully detained for terrorism actually become extremists through daily contact with incarcerated detainees.

In the Muslim communities of the Philippines, our colleagues have expounded on the crucial role that our religious leaders and teachers, both men and women, play. Prof. Moner Bajunaid shared the work that PCID had initiated to strengthen and organize the Muslim religious leaders, particularly in building the capacities of our religious leaders to serve as partners in outreach. The PCID has developed a outreach strategy, which calls for the madrasah (Islamic school) to be the center of change. It is called the Action for Madrasah-based Advocacies and Learnings (AMAL). “Amal” is an Arabic word that can mean action or hope and is premised on Surah 13: “Lo! Allah change that not the condition of a people until they (first) change that which is in their selves.” In other words, God helps those who help themselves.

In the Philippines, the door to radicalization and more armed conflicts can be closed with the successful conclusion of the peace agreement between the government and the MILF. The passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) is key to closing that door. If the BBL is unacceptable to one of the negotiating parties, the key will not fit the door.

The ad hoc committee on the BBL, chaired by Congressman Rufus Rodriguez, finished voting on the draft bill that will be presented to the plenary. It looks like there are sections of the bill that have been watered down, such as the deletion of the “opt in” provision that allows contiguous barangays and municipalities to join the Bangsamoro after the plebiscite.

Will the MILF accept the amendments? MILF peace panel Chair Mohagher Iqbal has said that no BBL is better than a watered-down BBL, that the MILF would rather go back to the negotiating table than accept a BBL which will merely give the Bangsamoro what it already has -- a dysfunctional and weak autonomous region, tied to the aprons of national government. Iqbal has said that the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao had been offered to the MILF three times in the past -- and rejected.

Let us hope that our legislators can find a way to provide a law that will strengthen autonomy, guaranteed by the Constitution and agreed on by the negotiating panels. -- instead of providing a mere amendment to RA 1954 (the Autonomy Act), itself a watered-down version of the 1976 Tripoli Agreement and 1996 Final Peace Agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front.

Amina Rasul is a democracy, peace and human rights advocate, and president of the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy.