Ever since the brutal siege last May 23, 2017 in Marawi City, Philippine armed forces have tried to quell the insurgents from the Maute group, who claimed to be affiliated with the feared Islamic State (ISIS).
UST’s Prof. Lilian J. Sison, PhD, Director of the Office of International Relations and Programs and Secretary-General of Religions for Peace – Philippines, shared her thoughts on the matter from the perspective of interfaith dialogue.
A multi-faceted vulnerability
Sison highlights three causes for unrest in Mindanao. “Mindanao is very rich in natural resources, but sadly, Mindanaoans and Muslims in particular do not always reap the benefits of these, because it is the central government that dictates the use and allocation of resources. Poverty is present—extreme poverty in some areas. There is lack of education in Mindanao, and there is the historical claim that the Muslims were marginalized in their own ancestral lands ever since the colonization by the Spaniards.” Such problems cause the Muslim communities in Mindanao to be vulnerable.
These vulnerabilities, Sison said, are being exploited by those who portray themselves as able to cure such ills. “These terrorists capitalize on a lot of factors in order to recruit and to sow terror. It’s the perfect storm because all the elements are there…Discontent among Muslims in Mindanao is being capitalized on. We have had several groups, like the BIFF, Abu Sayyaf, in the past we had the MILF, and now the Maute group,” Sison underscored.
Extremism with a religious name
The feared ISIS bears the name of a religion: Islam. In other parts of the world, reports of “Islamophobia” have begun to surface. “We are dealing with terrorists who use religion. However, they are not the [majority of] Muslims. These terrorist people are violent and radical.” Sison warns, though, against a sweeping generalization against Muslims: “We do not condemn all Muslims!” This attitude, Sison warns, can lead to further isolation not just of the radical sectors but also the isolation of those who are moderates.
Make the good stay good
Coming from the Catholic perspective, Sison said that it is important for Christians—who dominate the country in terms of number—to dialogue with Muslims and reach out, as well as support initiatives to address the above-mentioned problems.
“If we fail to address root causes like poverty and lack of education, we run the risk of radicalizing the good Muslims. We must reach out to them, show our sincere solidarity with them, and prevent them from embracing more violent ideologies,” Sison emphasized.
Reflecting on the European case where ISIS terrorism is spreading, Sison acknowledged that there are terrorists who are already citizens of Europe but were recruited by ISIS and sent back to sow fear. Sison warned that in the Philippines, where poverty and lack of education exist in Mindanao, “if people cannot integrate in society, if they are being discriminated, or they do not have the same economic chances,” they may be radicalized.
On the level of educational institutions
Schools, especially those that have internationalization as a thrust, should include interfaith dialogue in its formation, Sison said: “We should not just educate those who are in conflict areas, but also those who are in peaceful areas. In UST, we have students who are Muslim, Christian, and Buddhist. Teaching the students about world religions must be an imperative. For our Muslim brothers and sisters, we must learn that Islam is not terrorism. The real Islam is not a terror group.”
Sison, who served as the Dean of the Graduate School from 2000-2013, recalled how the UST Psychotrauma Clinic of the Graduate School is a way by which UST reaches out. “One of the sectors whom the Psychotrauma Clinic helps out is those affected by armed conflict in Mindanao: the women, the children, the survivors, and even the soldiers. Their transport to and Manila was funded by our partners, and we will provide them counseling. In other occasions, the volunteers will go to them.”