Militant Islam’s Expansion in the Southern Philippines

Militant Islam’s Expansion in the Southern Philippines

Militant Islam’s Expansion in the Southern Philippines

 

Anastasia Pentzakoff

 

            The rise of militant Islam in the southern Philippines poses catastrophic consequences for the future of the Philippines and the world in regards to the escalation of terrorism. Militant Islam plays a major role in the southern Philippines, terrorizing that region as well as the Philippine government. It is the purpose of this paper to expose the gravity of militant Islam in the Philippines and its significance in relation to the threat of terrorism. This paper provides an underlying background of how Islam evolved in the Philippines, tracing its development from the traditional religion of Islam to its present state and practice of militant Islam. This paper discusses three militant Islamic groups in particular that prompted the rise of militant Islam, thus creating a welcoming environment for terrorist groups, namely Al-Qa’ida, to further their terrorist goals. Included is an explanation of the specific factors that set the Philippines apart from other countries, making the Philippines more susceptible in playing a greater role in the acceleration of terrorism. Based upon the information and arguments of many distinguished sources, my own perspective regarding the severity of militant Islam in the Philippines is incorporated as well. In order to understand militant Islam’s rise to power, it is vital to explore its beginnings.

            It is important to distinguish between the traditional religion of Islam and the more popular ideology, which transformed into the practice of militant Islam. The religion of Islam literally refers to the submission to the will of God and seeks to teach humans how to live in accordance with God’s will.[1] Muslim traders from the Indonesian islands were among the first people to bring the Islamic religion to the Philippines. By 1500, Islam was established in Sulu Archipelago and spread from there to Mindanao; it also reached the Manila area.[2] A Muslim community arose throughout the Philippines; however, it remained centered in the southern Philippines. The people of this southern region are referred to as the Moro people. Over time through their intermarriages, the Muslim population expanded and began dominating. Naturally, the religion of Islam became the dominant religion. However, problems with the Muslims arose when the Spanish came to colonize the Philippines. One of their objectives was to convert the Filipinos to Christianity. The Spaniards succeeded in occupying the islands; however, they failed to convert them completely because of active resistance in the south.[3] By means of intense fighting, the southern region managed to sustain its Islamic religion. Spain’s rule came to an end in 1898 as the result of the United States, which proceeded to colonize the Philippines soon after. The Americans did not try to enforce Christianity with violence like the Spanish; instead they tried to impose it through the education of the Moro rulers in the south.[4] Not only did this prompt Muslim resentment to grow even more, but the education also paved the way for Islamic rulers to enter into the political sphere. Eventually, the Philippines became an independent nation. The Philippine government has attempted quite a few times to disperse its Muslim population by moving Christians into the south from the north. Nevertheless, the south remains predominantly Muslim, while the majority of the Philippines is Catholic. The Muslims only comprise approximately five percent of the population of the Philippines[5]; however, they have strong clout in the southern region, which accounts for their strength in the Philippines.

            The Muslims’ strength derives from their defensive nature that they acquired during periods of colonization when they had to defend their religion as well as region. The Muslims came together as a community, strengthening their identification with Islam. This led to an increased interest to the ideology of Islamism. Islamism is profoundly different in that it is more of a political order with an emphasis on communities aspiring to create a new order.[6] This ideology took control over the south; and the Muslims became a central element in the national policy-making.[7] Islamism is a slightly radical form of Islam, where the goal includes promoting Islam within the political influence. Specifically in the southern Philippines, the goal consists of gaining an independent Islamic state by penetrating the political field with its own Islamic members. From Islamism stems militant Islam, which is a more extreme, fundamentalist practice of Islam that uses combative force to further its agenda. In the southern Philippines, the militant Islamic agenda includes using whatever means necessary to achieve their autonomous state. The Filipino Muslims do not want to be ruled in a secular form of government, rather they are pushing for independence so as to have their own Islamic State, where Islamic law rules them. Many have turned to the practice of militant Islam, using violent measures in hopes of attaining their goal quicker. Militant Islam’s popularity is increasing at a rapid pace.

            The southern Philippines have become a site for violent terrorist actions by separatist Muslim groups, including the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). The disastrous actions taken by these groups clearly define militant Islam. All three of these groups share in the same separatist struggle in the southern Philippines; however, they do have their unique attributes.


The MNLF is an insurgent group that started out as a rebellion group that managed to bring most partisan Moro forces into its framework.  The MNLF fights and conducts guerilla warfare for an independent Moro nation. Quite a few times, the MNLF engaged in talks with the government over attaining an autonomous region, which eventually led to the government’s offer of a fragmented four-province Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). They did sign a peace agreement in 1996 with the Philippine government.[8]


The other two groups have rejected the agreement signed with the government. The MILF is a more moderately active militant group, primarily concerned with the implementation of a fully Islamic State.


            The MILF is the vanguard of the Islamic movement in the Bangsamoro homeland in Mindanao and the neighboring islands. It was formed in 1977 as it split from the MNLF.[9] The MILF is taking advantage of the dissatisfaction expressed by many [Muslims] in the MNLF and the ARMM. They view the agreement and the autonomous region offered as not enough. The MILF is working through the political system, influencing local politics and winning the local elections, then moving upwards. They have continued to wage armed campaigns against the Filipino military.[10]



The Abu Sayyaf Group is by far the most violent of the separatist groups.


            The leaders of the ASG allegedly fought in Afghanistan during the Soviet war and are students and proponents of radical Islamic teachings. The group is largely self-financed through ransom and extortion; and it most likely also receives support from Islamic extremists in the Middle East and South Asia. Its activities include engaging in kidnappings for ransom, bombings, beheadings of missionaries, assassinations, and extortion. Over time, the ASG has geared more towards using terror for financial profit. It is estimated to have 200-500 members.[11]  The group reportedly has links to the broader Al-Qa’ida network. The group espouses violent religious intolerance and the elimination of Christian influence in Mindanao.[12]


ASG is the smallest of the separatist groups, but it is the most vicious in character. Their extremely violent behavior attracts other radical Islamic groups internationally. These militant groups instill fear into the Philippine government and the non-Muslim people through their activist means. The ASG and MILF show no effort to compromise with the government as they continue to deliberately terrorize people with their heinous acts. Reaching this state of autonomy so as to implement an Islamic rule of law is of utmost necessity to them. In the southern Philippines, rampant poverty, the lack of government services, and the actions of the military pushed more civilians to support the Abu Sayyaf.[13] These factors along with other characteristics specific to the Philippines explain the heightened attraction to the southern region. 

            These militant Islamic groups invite an atmosphere for harboring terrorism. The Philippines proves to be an ideal location for attracting other terrorist organizations, namely Al-Qa’ida. The Philippines is not the only country in Southeast Asia deals with militant Islam; however, it is the country that terrorist networks find the most appealing. The Philippines exhibit unique features including the physical geography, a long history of Muslim insurgent movements, domestic groups with domestic grievances, few law enforcement constraints, and already established links with Al-Qa’ida. The Philippine islands are located between the Philippine Sea and the South China Sea.[14] The geographical setting of the Philippines consists of thousands of islands located amid water on all sides. This allows for easy access to the islands. The borders in Southeast Asia, especially the state of the Philippines, are extremely porous. It is simply not possible to police the maritime borders of these states.[15] Terrorists can enter onto many islands without going through any sort of immigration or police checkpoints. They can travel around unnoticed for the most part. This gives the terrorists flexibility to proceed with their agenda without being traced. The long history of Muslim insurgency movements dates back to the Spanish rule. For centuries, the Moro Muslims faced foreign and domestic forces that have tried to infiltrate their region. From these experiences, anger arose and militant Islamic movements formed. Already having such a strong history of resistance and fighting, the southern Philippines invites sympathetic Islamic radicals that are eager to connect with them and fight in the greater name of jihad, which refers to the central doctrine of Islam that calls on believers to combat the enemies of their religion.[16] The domestic groups [factions of the Moro Muslims] with their domestic grievances are now forming international alliances in pursuit of their goals.[17] These domestic grievances provide an opportunity for terrorists to prey on them. Al-Qa’ida links up with these smaller groups on the basis of sharing in their grievances. Al-Qa’ida has been able to exploit these local conflicts[18], using them to further their own specific agendas. 

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