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From MNLF to Abu Sayyaf: The Radicalization of Islam in the Philippines

Just as Islam spread from the Middle East to Inner Asia and from Afghanistan to India, so it spread from various parts of India to the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian archipelago in the late thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries. Islam was introduced into maritime Southeast Asia and flourished in conditions rather different from those of the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. While Islam was established in other regions by Arab or Turkish conquests, it was introduced into Southeastern Asia by traveling merchants and Sufis. Whereas in the Middle East and India, Muslim regimes were consolidated by new elites, in Southeastern Asia existing regimes were consolidated by conversion to Islam. The continuity of elites gave strong expression to the pre-Islamic components of Southeast Asian-Islamic civilization. In the regions of Indonesia and Malaysia an overwhelming majority of the population eventually accepted an Islamic identity while Muslims remained a minority in the Philippines.[1]

Muslims in the Philippines, also called Moros constitute 5% of the Philippines’ population,[2] and are concentrated in the southern part of the country. These Muslims are Sunnis who generally adhere to the Shafii School of Islamic law (madhhab). For centuries, the Muslims in the southern Philippines constituted independent sultanates.[3] Successfully avoiding Spanish conquest, they gradually fell under U.S. sovereignty. The U.S. made them become part of an independent Philippines in 1946, a move the Muslims viewed as a betrayal of a trust. Prior to independence, the vast majority did not consider themselves Filipinos and retained their identity as a separate people.[4]

This identity was essentially religious and cultural in nature. Most of the Muslim leaders had wished to separate from the rest of the Philippines to form an independent state. For decades, the Muslims had vainly resisted the encroachment of Christian settlers (under government assistance) on their traditional lands. Years of economic neglect and political discrimination had reduced them to the lowest national literacy and economic levels. Unemployment was endemic; law and order had deteriorated in some areas. That Filipino national leaders in Manila viewed Muslims and their lands in much the same way as Spanish and American colonial authorities had done before them was met with deep suspicion and fierce resentment. Significantly, government programs to integrate Muslims into body politic were paralleled by growth of Islamic revivalism.[5]

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