The roots of war: a glimpse at the Notre Dame of Jolo Cathedral bombing

Photo from AFP-WestMinCom


Peace seems like an ethereal dream for most people living in the war zones of Muslim Philippines: a remote, elusive, seemingly impossible dream, much like an imagined  glass of refreshing water to a weary traveller on a long journey under the harsh, humid desert sun.

Yet not many are focusing on healing the painful memories of the past and truly understanding the roots of war. Most are mainly concerned with annihilating the enemy or helping families displaced by the raging conflict.  These are short-term solutions to a long, complex, protracted war. Yet understanding why these armed conflicts persist is the key to building

stepping stones towards lasting peace.

The bombing of the Notre Dame of Jolo Cathedral by suicide bombers which killed 22 people and injured 100 others while a mass was ongoing (Philippine Star, Feb. 3, 2019) brought forth haunting memories of my childhood. I was one of those who fled Jolo, Sulu as a grade school student when the forces of MNLF Leader Nur Misuari were about to invade the town. As a child of war, I am now writing a memory book of that period in history, hoping to learn some valuable lessons and put some missing pieces of the puzzle together.

From extensive  interviews and research, I have unearthed three main theories of why the Muslim’s armed struggle narrative seems to be never-ending: the religious war (the rivalry between Islam and Christianity); the quest for autonomy (self-rule, self-governance) and the Muslims’ apparent marginalization from the political, economic and social fabric of the country.

Before Islam and Christianity came to the Philippine islands , we were one indigenous people with our own way of life, our own system of governance, tradition and culture.  We shared the same ethnicity, having come from the same root, all brothers and sisters, children of the land.  We were Filipinos first.  Religion was  introduced by people from Southeast Asia and West Asia (Islam) through trade and by the European colonial powers (Christianity) through conquest.

One theory of the roots of war came from historians who theorized that Islam and Christianity were enmeshed  in a religious rivalry  for dominance.  During the middle ages, crusades and holy wars were fought to the bloody end to defend religion and win converts. Islam had dominated parts of Europe in the medieval ages and the Moors ruled Spain for a while.  When the Christians had overthrown the Moors in Spain and drove them out of their country, a bitter rivalry ensued that spread all over the world.  At present, Christianity is the world’s most dominant religion but theorists believe that the sparks of unrest  and violence currently and sporadically erupting in parts of the world is aimed at re-asserting Islam’s dominance on  the world stage.  This view may be theoretically sound from the historical context  but in the Muslim war narrative in the Philippines, religion (“jihad” or holy war) is used more as means/way to gather people together rather than as an end in itself.

The second root, the quest for self-rule and self-governance, stems from the Muslims wanting to go back to their own tradition of having a Sultanate and being able to govern themselves and preserve their way of life.  Past Philippine Presidents have attempted to address this need for self-governance by the formation and institution of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) which is now known as the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) in the context of the Bangsamoro Organic Law.  Allegations of corruption and inefficiency, however, have hounded the success of the ARMM. Hence, it has suffered loss of credibility among the people in the areas they were supposed to govern.

The third root, which I adhere to – the marginalization of the Muslim people from the political, economic and social fabric of the nation – must be made the priority of the government.  Perhaps due to the sporadic fighting and the hostile environment between government and armed rebels, the Muslims living in the war zones have been marginalized; they have not been given opportunities to fully develop along with the rest of the country. Unless the basic needs are met and addressed, there will always be dissatisfaction, deep resentment – conditions which may push  people to join the ranks of the Muslim armed rebels.  On the other hand, if people are given the opportunity to build better lives through more scholarships for qualified Muslims, the creation of more and better jobs that match their skill set, business opportunities, provision of capitalization and training for agricultural and marine-based livelihood, progress may set in. There would be no need for armed conflict.  We may be able to live once again  as one people under one land.  Peace may finally come to our shores.