Last month, the world marked the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War. This was the war between Israel and a pan-Arab coalition led by Egypt, which led to a stunning Israeli victory that hugely increased the size of that country, and an Arab defeat that sent shockwaves throughout the Arab world and which continues to have effects to this day as we’ll see. The Arab world had thrilled to the idea that Gamaliel Nasser, the charismatic President of Egypt, would wipe Israel off the map.
Nasser had led an officer’s revolt against Farouk, the playboy King of Egypt, in 1952. Besides being weak and corrupt, Farouk was accused of being a puppet of the British who’d controlled Egyptian affairs since the 19th Century. In place of the Egyptian monarchy, Nasser put in place a nationalist regime that looked to the Soviet Union for support. His government aside from being nationalist, saw itself as a modernizing force, which had little time or interest in traditional, Islamic belief.
Nasser’s brand of Arab nationalism inspired not only Arabs, but young Muslims around the world. Among those influenced by his example were young Muslims in the Philippines such as Nur Misuari. Misuari and friends rejected their traditional Muslim leaders, and dreamed of an independent homeland they decided to call Bangsamoro. This was a different concept from their Muslim elders, who, besides being hierarchical and traditional, identified more with their ethnic identities as Tausugs or Maranao and so on, rather than as an entire people.
Misuari and friends echoed Nasser’s views that the traditional leadership –in the case of Misuari, the sultans and datus who had become political leaders in the Philippine government, as collaborators and puppets.
The old view had been that in the 1920s to the 1940s, a kind of bargain had taken place between Christian and Muslim leaders In the Philippines. The Christians told the Muslims, you cannot rely on your old titles in a Republic. But here’s the deal: whether sultan or datu, join our political machines, and you can use your traditional authority to be elected in our new republic: you can be a mayor, governor, congressman, and even senator.
From the 1930s to the 1960s this old bargain held. Every party ensured there would be a Muslim in the senate, for example. But that was when parties were strong, and could offer such a guarantee, and it was at a time when Mindanao was relatively unpopulated so that there was room to accommodate Christian settlers. By the 1960s, this was no longer the case. There were so many Christians that they not only took unpopulated land, but began landgrabbing among the Muslims. Droughts in the 50s and 60s had shaken faith in the old leaders. A new generation of educated Muslims like Misuari looked at Mindanao and asked, if this republic and its leaders, both Christian and Muslim, can’t protect Muslims, then what is the point of adherence to an unfair republic?
At this point, Ferdinand Marcos and his brand of imperialism enters the picture. He had dreams of turning the Philippine claim on Sabah into an opportunity to send commandoes into the newly-created country of Malaysia to start a revolt which would then lead to the Philippines taking over North Borneo. But the training went wrong, the Muslims from Mindanao who were going to be commandoes were killed, and what has come to be known as the Jabidah Massacre further radicalized people like Misuari.
We know what followed: war in Mindanao, which was fought to a stalemate by our armed forces even as Malaysia, paranoid because of Marcos’ expansionist plotting, itself schemed and funded revolt in our South to keep the Philippines from causing further trouble to Malaysia. We know how due to that stalemate, Misuari ended up negotiating a peace agreement with Marcos; and how, under Ramos, an autonomous region of Muslim Mindanao was formed.
But at this point we need to return to Nasser. His disgrace, after the 1967 war with Israel, led to a revival of the very forces Nasser had once ignored and even condemned: pan-Muslim religious conservatism, in contrast to his Pan-Arab Nationalism with its many Socialist programs. Conservative clerics pointed to the defeat as a sign of divine anger with the secular, scientific, nationalist approach of Nasser and said this is a battle not between nations, but between religions.
The war Misuari had begun –with its claim of a Bangsamoro, and rejection of the old sultans and datus—was a Nasser-like revolt when it started. By the 1970s and particularly in the 1980s, Nasser’s point of view had lost its attractiveness to Arabs and non-Arab Muslims alike. Bangsamoro itself would be reinterpreted not as a community of subjugated peoples fighting for independence, but a battle for the creation of a religious state.
And so Misuari’s Moro National Liberation Front would face challenges from old members who founded a new movement, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Names do matter.
But even for the MILF, the world had changed. Malaysia, for one, now wealthy and more interested in stability in the region, was less interested in funding a war in Mindanao. There seemed an opportunity for a negotiated peace, supported by many nations. The Philippine government itself preferred to concentrate on external defense than crushing internal rebellions which have bled the country dry for nearly two generations. Most crucially, the MILF leadership, now old, just like their old enemy Misuari, were willing to compromise. And so the Bangsmoro Basic Law negotiations took place.
These efforts nearly collapsed in the aftermath of Mamasapano. Old prejudices proved irresistible for politicians like Juan Ponce Enrile and Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who spoke boldly, and recklessly, to fan the flames of ethnic mistrust.
Rodrigo Duterte himself, during the campaign and once he became president, approached the matter pragmatically. He reassured his fellow Christian leaders that he would take their concerns into consideration, and proceeded to build a bigger tent for what he said would be an even better BBL: first, he reassured the MILF and its MNLF partner, the Sema wing of the movement, that negotiations would proceed; second, he brought in the part of the MNLF still loyal to Misuari, into the picture, on a separate track; and third, he preached federalism as a solution that, he said on more than one occasion, would be a bigger solution that would make a BBL unnecessary.
In the sense that politics is about movement, and that political success only occurs when you maintain momentum, this three-pronged approach worked. The MILF and MNLF have remained quiet and cooperative. For the most part, Christian leaders in Mindanao have been obedient to the president. But as the Battle for Marawi shows, now the government, the MILF, and the MNLF are on one side, looking for a Nasser-like political solution (with a heavy dose of Islamic accommodation by way of authorizing madrassas and Shariah Law for the proposed Bangsamoro), while a new generation of ruthless Islamic radicals pursue support for ISIS and the creation of a Southeast Asian home base for its caliphate in our territory.
Which means, even as nearly all expect our armed forces to prevail in Marawi, the future of peace in Mindanao now hangs in the balance.
Two weeks ago, during his four-day rejuvenation, the President was supposed to be presented with the report of the new BBL commission he’d established; instead, a cabinet member attended the ceremony. Last week, at the end of his seven-day vacation from the limelight, the President was supposed to present the BBL document to the Senate President and the Speaker of the House, but they were abroad on what is called official business. For Moro leaders with impatient followers, and other observers, these aren’t encouraging signs of presidential support.
For his part now that the president is back in the picture, he has reassured Moro leaders of his commitment. Still, the time for action, not rhetoric, is upon the ruling coalition.
When Congress reconvenes for its second regular session near the end of this month, it will have one of the most difficult tasks ever entrusted to our legislature on its lap. It will now have to reconcile three separate plans for establishing a new, lasting relationship between Muslims and Christians –and don’t forget, the Lumad, too—in Mindanao. There is the new version of the BBL, now submitted to the president. There is the MNLF plan of Misuari, whenever that will be turned in. And there is the federalism scheme. All three will be heavy on details, requiring precise definitions and realistic, workable, procedures for institutions. Against all the hard work and compromise that will be required, stands the easiest stand to take if you were a politician: to drag it out, kick the can down the road, talk tough but do little –because, in the end, the leadership is used to what we have, while to set up something new might carry with it unexpected surprises. But today’s more accommodating Moro leaders do not have the luxury of time. The black flag raised in Marawi represents an alternative that may never win, but which guarantees money, blood, and glory.