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Conflicting Loyalties

Filipino Muslims Struggle For Peace and Independence

December 18, 2001


COTABATO, Philippines -- If Osama bin Laden knocked on her front door, Hadja Rhugaya Daud would not turn him away. She would invite him in and offer him a cup of coffee.

"As a Muslim, I cannot say, 'OK, go!"' laughed Daud, principal of a government-run Islamic school. "I would say, 'Here's your coffee. Here's your room."'

Like many in this impoverished southern Philippine city of Muslims and Christians, Daud has no problems with her Christian neighbors. Yet she also sympathizes with Muslims around the world.

"If a person like bin Laden, carrying a lot of money, started funding a revolution here, it would have some following," said the Rev. Eliseo Mercado Jr., president of Notre Dame University in Cotabato and a longtime participant in peace negotiations with Muslim rebel groups. "A lot of people here are sympathetic to the Taliban and Afghanistan. Also to the Palestinians."

This archipelago of 83 million is predominantly Roman Catholic, with an estimated 4.5 million Muslims concentrated on the southern island of Mindanao, where various Islamic groups have been fighting for self-rule since the early 1970s. Their grievances are rooted in decades of discrimination and economic neglect.

The most visible of the groups is Abu Sayyaf, which has killed and beheaded hostages in the past and has held two American missionaries, Martin and Gracia Burnham, and a Filipino nurse, Debroah Yap, since May. U.S. officials have said the group has links to al-Qaida, but they have offered little evidence.

Philippine officials say about 40 members of Abu Sayyaf are holding the three hostages and that the group has several hundred more armed fighters. They are being chased through the jungles of Basilan island by more than 6,000 soldiers. The military has said they will be captured by the end of the year.

"It's not a hope. It's an assessment," Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes said.

With Abu Sayyaf on the United States' list of terrorist groups, American military advisers have come twice since Sept. 11 to observe and train the Philippine forces. President Bush pledged nearly $100 million in military aid when President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo visited Washington last month.

Yet while Abu Sayyaf has been grabbing the headlines, the Philippine government has its hands full negotiating peace with the well-armed Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF, and finding an economic solution for the long-standing Muslim conflict in Mindanao.

MILF, formed in the late 1970s and now supported by an army of about 15,000 soldiers, is probably the most militant and ideological of the rebel groups. Its main goal is an independent Islamic state.

"The greater majority of the Bangsamoro people want independence as the solution to the problem," said Ghazali Jaafar, a top MILF official, using a local term for Filipino Muslims.

Then-President Joseph Estrada launched an all-out war against MILF last year, driving nearly 1 million people into refugee camps. This year, President Arroyo has entered into peace talks with the group and hopes to launch development projects in Mindanao.

MILF was founded by Salamat Hashim, who studied at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, where he reportedly became a close friend of Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, now a Pashtun commander in the Afghan Northern Alliance. In the 1980s, the MILF sent about 600 men to Afghanistan for military training. Bin Laden is said to have visited Mindanao in the late 1980s.

Jaafar said all ties with Afghanistan were cut after the Taliban came to power. But Mercado, the university president, said some of his Muslim students went to Pakistan and Afghanistan for training as late as 1999. With peace talks under way, the government says it is not looking into whether MILF has any terrorist connections.

The MILF runs a parallel government structure in many areas of Mindanao, especially remote rural communities, offering some social and legal services. Jaafar says it has 80,000 assorted firearms.

Until it was overrun by Estrada's forces last year, MILF's center of power was Camp Abubakar near Cotabato. It was essentially a small city complete with its own mosques, military academy, and a "shura," or group of religious elders. Women were fully veiled in burqa-like garments, and justice was dispensed in Islamic "sharia" courts.

"The MILF has been imposing their Talibanic form of religion, which is alien to what our people are used to," said Zamzami Ampatuan, now administrator of the Southern Philippines Development Authority. "If they are given power, they will impose their rigid form of Islam."

Although Ampatuan once supported an independent Islamic state in Mindanao, he says he changed his mind after careful study of the Quran and has since become a vocal critic of the MILF. He has been the target of a car-bombing and an ambush, which he believes were attempts on his life by MILF.

Most Muslims in Mindanao are moderate. Intermarriage between Muslims and Christians is common, and many Muslims attend Catholic schools.

Daud's sympathies for bin Laden does not mean she supports the Taliban. Although Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Islamic countries fund many philanthropic projects in Mindanao, her school does not take foreign subsidies because, she says, it does not want to follow their strict requirements, such as separation of girls and boys and full veils for women.

Even within the MILF pragmatic forces have gained influence, Ampatuan said. The peace negotiations center on how the group can control government development funds, not how to implement a referendum for independence.

Still, a small number of Filipino Muslims continue to go overseas for religious study -- mostly to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Kuwait, and some to Libya and Pakistan -- and some come back radicalized.

"Students have gone overseas and come back as mujahideen," said Jesus Dureza, the presidential assistant for Mindanao. "That's known. That's a concern, but we're handling it."

Abu Sayyaf's original members trained in Afghanistan and had a goal of creating an Islamic state. But people who've left the group say it lost its ideological aims and became more interested in making money through hostage-taking. It gains members by paying 50,000 pesos, or $1,000, an enormous sum in this impoverished land, to anyone who wants to join. Muslims interviewed in Cotabato condemn Abu Sayyaf's actions as decidedly un-Islamic.

The military has been criticized for taking so long to capture a relatively small group. Suspicions of military collusion have long existed. Not long ago, a senator and a priest in Basilan alleged that elements in the military received a chunk of recent ransom payments. Reyes categorically denies any soldier or officer took any payment.

But Mercado said most people assume the allegations are true. "Nobody doubts the involvement of the armed forces of the Philippines," he said. "The question is how deep, how far."

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