2:00 p.m. Militants wrapped in black clothing parade in their trucks waving the flag of ISIS. They bound from the vehicle and kneel, heaving their rifles. They take over the university and the city hall. They post videos burning Catholic effigies. Civilians hide underground or flee to nearby cities. In a matter of hours, the citizens of Marawi City watched life as they knew it vanquished. 

Just 1200 kilometers away, life in the capital, Manila, went off as normal. Fearing for the safety of my home, Mindanao, the island region in which Marawi City is located, I decided to bring up the topic on our lunch table. 

“Oh, I almost forgot about [that],” my friend says as she casually moves on to eat her dish. 

I, still outraged but not surprised by her reaction, was all too familiar with this response. My greatest passion, conflict resolution in the Philippines, specifically its third island group Mindanao, was often an afterthought to most Filipinos. I remember having lengthy chats with my socially aware friends about the issues that riddled our country. For example, when someone mentioned the Drug War, a multitude of overenthusiastic, passionate voices would populate the room; we would spend hours debating. Yet, when I brought up the war in Marawi, there was silence. The lack of conversation was deafening. Filipinos’ silence when their countrymen face the fear of terrorism and systemic abuses is a true indication of how the ignorance of all Filipinos renders them complicit to the rise of extremism in Mindanao. 

When the Anti-Terror Law was passed on July 3 to address acts of terrorism in the Philippines, conversations did not focus on Mindanao, the island that has faced the greatest amount of terrorism. Though all questions on its constitutionality were valid, again, the region most affected by this act was neglected and barely included in the conversation. Thus, before discussing any counterterrorism measures further, one must reflect on how acts of extremism have risen in the last 50 years and how to specifically target its causes.

Images of destruction in Marawi City after the siege
A map to depict the three island regions of the Philippines

Mindanao, home to the Bangsamoro people (Filipino ethnic Muslims), is an enigma to most Filipinos, especially those in Manila. Most Filipinos are often bombarded with competing narratives about Mindanao. In social studies classes, they are often told stories about the majestic Philippine eagles residing in miles of lush rainforests, the expansive pineapple and coffee plantations, and the divine waterfalls that seem to fall from heaven. Students also learn about Mindanao’s people: the Yakan and how its art of geometric weaving is their most prideful heirloom; the Badjao of Tawi-Tawi that dive the depths of 200 meters by holding their breaths for 13 minutes; the Maranaos that view their families as everything. 

However, these images were tainted by news stories of tanks avenging the rebel holds taken in the region. Images of explosions and human shields and videos of terrorist groups asking for ransom for yet another kidnapping filled social conversation about the islands. One cannot research about Mindanao without encountering an article that asks, “Is Mindanao safe?” Often called the “island of promise,” Mindanao has yet to realize its potential due to its unending religious conflict. Many yearn for a day when the island can finally break free from its cycle of war. However, most Filipinos pine for this future mindlessly, paying little attention to the means of resolving the conflict in the region—fearing for their safety or perhaps hoping that the issue will resolve itself. Filipinos fail to realize that this exact idleness and indifference is the reason for decades of armed strife. Academics call it “regionalism,” which encapsulates the decades of governmental malpractice and neglect. To understand the magnitude of these injustices and the motivations behind extremism, one must view this issue through a historical, educational, and economic lens. 

A group of Bangsamoro women enjoy a lesson on peace dialogue

***

Like most minorities whose beliefs were incongruous to Western ideals, Spanish and American colonizers actively worked to erase the Bangsamoro identity. The Americans prominently used settler colonialism to upend the Islamic hegemony on the island of Mindanao. More specifically, through the Homestead program, landless, non-Muslim Filipinos were encouraged to migrate into Muslim-majority areas such as Lanao and Cotabato—even through violent means. However, this attempt at “integration” failed: Muslims began to antagonize non-Muslim Filipinos due to threats against their social and economic well-being. Nonetheless, the roots of ethnic and religious divisions remained. Indeed, after the external colonizers gave the Philippines their freedom in 1898, manifestations of ingrained colonial ideals began to surface amongst non-Muslim Filipinos. Muslim anguish began to mount as the Christian majority government evidently favored non-Muslims, bestowing upon them the best lands in Mindanao and more greatly investing in the development of Christian regions. Eventually, the backsliding of Muslim-majority regions became even more evident as they consistently ranked amongst the poorest in the country. Additionally, the Philippine government refused to recognize the viability of Islamic laws, threatening the Bangsamoros’ fundamental way of life.

The only known image of the “Jabidah” commando group

With an already turbulent post-colonial history, the Jabidah Massacre in 1968 is commonly seen as the turning point of the Bangsamoro struggle, which pushed the people to act through violent means and demand for secession. According to Jibin Arula, the only surviving victim of the massacre, the government led by dictator Ferdinand Marcos formed a secret commando group, “Jabidah.” Jabidah was tasked to destabilize and take over Sabah, a Muslim-majority island of close proximity belonging to Malaysia. For reasons debated by historians, the recruits objected against this task and were killed—the exception being Arula. 

In an interview with Rappler, a leading publication in the Philippines, Arula recalls the event. “We went to the airport on a weapons carrier truck, accompanied by 13 (non-Muslim) trainees armed with M-16 and carbines. When we reached the airport, our escorts alighted ahead of us. Then Lt. Eduardo Nepomuceno ordered us to get down from the truck and line up [Nepomuceno was later killed in Corregidor under mysterious circumstances]. As we put down our bags, I heard a series of shots. Like dominoes, my colleagues fell. I got scared. I ran and was shot at, in my left thigh. I didn’t know that I was running towards a mountain…. By 8 a.m., I was rescued by two fishermen on Caballo Island, near Cavite.”

After Arula’s exposé was published, Rashid Lucman, a Bangsamoro congressman, called for Marcos to be impeached. When he failed to get support from his colleagues from Luzon and Visayas, the two other major islands in the Philippines, he started to call for Muslim Mindanao’s autonomy, establishing the Bangsamoro Liberation Organization (BMLO) in the process. 

Thereafter, more organizations called for autonomy, most prominently the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). After a series of violent clashes, peace deals provided the Bangsamoro autonomy over their own region. The most recent form of government established is the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), which establishes a devolved parliamentary government within Muslim-majority regions. However, even with the Bangsamoros’ increasing autonomy, acts of extremism in Mindanao are on the rise. Thus, a contemporary analysis of structural violence in Mindanao and its effects must be examined. 

***

Experts claim that the relationship between poverty and the low quality of education in the Bangsamoro region leads to acts of extremism. The Bangsamoro region has some of the highest rates of poverty and illiteracy in the Philippines. The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (the ARMM) (now called the BARMM) had the lowest secondary-school completion rate with 64 percent in 2013. This is ten percent below the national average enrollment rate. 

Jamal Pandapatan, an emerging youth leader in Marawi City who is an advocate for the protection of women and children in conflict settings, expressed in an interview with The Politic that he was shocked to see the disparity of education between his school in Visayas and his school in Mindanao.  Pandapatan is a member of various organizations notably the Ranao Youth Council, a consultative body for the Marawi government. He originally studied in Cebu City, one of the most prominent cities in the Philippines, and moved recently to Marawi in an attempt to connect more deeply to his religion. 

“When I was in Cebu City, the fight to obtain first and second honors was very competitive, but when I arrived in Marawi City, there’s only a small population of academically-inclined students. When we were about to take the college entrance examination, students failed to understand elementary concepts like long divisions and multiplication. They also faced difficulty speaking in Tagalog and English,” Pandapatan explained.

The disappointing statistics are due to the region’s high poverty, which forces children to support their families economically, and displacement due to armed conflict. The profound socioeconomic stress throughout the province creates an environment in which ignorance and frustration thrive, engendering a breeding ground for extremism. Most soldiers join extremist groups out of economic necessity. Due to a lack of economic opportunities and low education attainment, most Bangsamoros rely on unsteady sources of income. Extremist groups lure poor farmers with financial promises of a regular salary of between 20,000 and 50,000 pesos ($382-$954), far higher than 10,000 pesos, the average monthly income in the region.

A instructor teaches in a crammed classroom in the Bangsamoro region

***

While poverty and low quality of education have largely been viewed as the root causes of extremism for years, with the eruption of the Marawi Siege in 2017, new means of radicalization have come to light. Now, highly educated, affluent individuals are leading extremist groups due to radical education and family ties—a dramatic shift in demographic and motivation. 

For long, terrorism experts speculated that poverty was the major reason for extremism in Mindanao. Notably, former Secretary of State Colin Powell claimed in a speech at the 2002 World Economic Forum that “terrorism really flourishes in areas of poverty, despair and hopelessness, where people see no future.” 

However, studying the leaders of the Maute group Omar and Abdullah, it became clear that affluent Islams can also turn to extremism through radicalization in schools, a key discovery for counterterrorism efforts.

Prior to the establishment of a Bangsamoro region, Muslim students were forced to learn about the Christian values and scriptures embedded into the national Philippine curriculum in an attempt to assimilate them or homogenize the country. This curriculum was not successful in forcibly assimilating the Bangsamoro Muslims. Rather, Bangsamoros further viewed themselves as Muslim and distanced themselves from the Filipino identity.

From years of discontent and anguish, case studies from the Marawi Siege show that madrasas, which are colleges for Islamic instruction, now play a central role in radicalization. For example, extremists created study groups that exposed highly intellectual students to radical ideas while at university. Furthermore, while extremist study groups are the minority in universities, the central idea of kinship, which is integral to the Bangsamoro identity, allows for radicalization to thrive for students who often find these groups through family and family friends. An emphasis on familial loyalty further compels students to join these extremist study groups even though they might not be personally attracted to the idea. The lack of foundational peace education creates impressionable minds that are easily compelled through groupthink and fail to reflect on the value of peace over war. 

***

Beyond the proposed causes of extremism, the anguish of the Bangsamoro people is rooted in the regionalism that persists today. With the nature of Philippine geography, the lives of those in Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao are not intertwined. Thus, those in Manila, which is located on the island of Luzon, who do not actively seek out the reasons for Muslim extremism find themselves creating a typecasted image of the Bangsamoro region. 

When asked about what she knew about Mindanao, Gabby Uy ‘25, a Metro Manila native said in an interview with The Politic, “There’s definitely conflict, but I think there’s also a lot of negative stereotyping and anti-Islamic sentiment—it’s actually pretty tragic how little I know for sure because so much of what I know is hearsay.” Reflecting on what her Manila peers have told her, she stated, “We’re always told that pretty much all of Mindanao is dangerous—which it isn’t—and to stay away from it at all costs. You’d think that Mindanao was an entirely different country.”

Uy also recognizes the role other Filipinos play in making Bangsamoros feel isolated: “Mindanao is like the long lost relative that nobody is allowed to speak of, and I think that distance and silence only magnify the tension between Mindanao and the rest of the [Philippines]. Society seems to have this urge to homogenize the whole country because differences scare us. Then Mindanao ends up getting left out of a lot of the decision-making and the disparity and tension just grow.”

The mentality that the Spanish and Americans ingrained in northern Filipinos has undoubtedly endured, most principally in the prevalent feeling of Christian superiority. Many in the more peaceful parts of the Philippines view Mindanao as the problem region—often ravaged by war and economic digression. Some even view all Bangsamoros as terrorists. 

Pandapatan shared that in Manila, where the population is 95 per cent Christian, religious profiling is a major issue for the Bangsamoro. Pandapatan described how while traveling with friends, airport security singled his group out for random selection, specifically examining the member of the group who wore a turban and had grown out his beards—physical attributes of Islamic culture. 

“After the examination, the guard talks to his radio and says ‘Chief, negative.’” Pandapatan shared, which indicates that the airport security had been specifically instructed by his superior to inspect the physically expressive Muslim member of Jamal’s group. Pandapatan continued, “I thought that this was inhumane, as just because my friend looked different from everyone in Manila, that doesn’t mean he’s a terrorist.” The law enforcement system had subconsciously antagonized physically evident members of the Muslim community and equated Muslims to terrorists. 

The persistence of this Muslim terrorist stereotype harms Bangsamoros without extremist tendencies. Additionally, the social discrimination that Bangsamoros face furthers their feeling of difference, exacerbating the idea that they are not Filipino but belong merely to the Bangsamoros. This consequently exacerbates the detrimental phenomenon of regionalism that ensues within the Philippines. 

“There is a huge difference between a Bangsamoro, a Muslim, and a terrorist. I call out for people who are from other parts of the Philippines that we need to stop discrimination and hasty generalization,” Pandapatan said, discussing his personal hopes for the government and Metro Manila citizens. “We need to keep educating people, especially young children, about peace—telling them how peace works, how peace circulates. We don’t only need to counter violent extremism, but we need to prevent it from happening over and over again. I believe we need to establish greater ties between the Bangsamoro and the Filipino identity.”

Leaders of the Christian and Muslim faith agree on inter-religious dialogue

Thus, to those in Luzon and Visayas who live in the comfort of their conflict-free life, exasperated by the unending conflict in Mindanao, it must be asked what role each individual plays in perpetuating the image of Mindanao as a problem region. When the injustices the Bangsamoro face have come to light, have residents of Luzon and Visayas worked to become allies and protest these inequities? To finally break the cycle of violence, it is time to hold ourselves accountable and come to terms with the role we each play in creating extremism.

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