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John Silva: Truce with Muslim rebels has some wary of Shariah traditions

A deal brokered between Muslim rebels and the Philippine government that could bring Islamic law to some southern parts of the country is coming under greater scrutiny as more Filipinos question its implications for human rights.

     The March 2014 peace accord between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebel group was initially welcomed by Filipinos weary from decades of war on the islands of Mindanao and Jolo.

     A few months after the agreement, a government commission completed draft laws governing the western parts of the island of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago.

     By September, a draft of the Bangsamoro Basic Law -- Bangsamoro refers to Moros, or Muslim people -- was presented to the Philippine House of Representatives and Senate, and circulated for public review. The proposed law contains provisions that would make teaching the Koran compulsory in the Muslim-dominated region.

Mixed reaction

Reaction from media and the public to the draft was mixed. Critics focused on provisions that allowed the formation of an autonomous region, a police force independent of the national police, and the possibility of future plebiscites that could result in other provinces joining the autonomous region.

     Others raised concerns about the civil rights of non-Muslim indigenous people living in the area. In particular, the question of human rights was raised with the inclusion of Article 10 stating that Shariah, or Islamic law, would have jurisdiction in local courts.

     Muslims have lived in the Philippines for centuries. When the Spanish conquistadors came in the 16th century, they and their Roman Catholic friars engaged in bloody subjugation of the native population, including Muslims.

     In 1946, the newly independent Philippine Republic identified economic opportunities in Mindanao, and so set out to grab land and bring in Christian settlers -- overlooking the rights of Muslims in the process.

     Starting with the presidency of Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippine government launched punitive military attacks on Muslim populations, including the 1974 aerial bombing of the city of Jolo to crush a nascent secessionist movement.

     The brutality inflicted by the Marcos dictatorship exacerbated tensions. The result was a turnabout in Muslim political thought that coincided with the rise of a more militant Islamic consciousness among young Muslims worldwide.

     Militancy warped into extremism. Filipinos have been alarmed by disturbing local events in the past decade, such as beheadings of soldiers and teachers, machete attacks on civilians and abductions and killings of children. Now, faced with the prospect of an autonomous region with Shariah in place, it would be naive to hope that the events and extremist forces outside the Philippines will not influence this proposed region.

     The public is in the dark as to the background, political and ideological leanings of the Muslim negotiators who see themselves as leaders of this new autonomous state. The chief peace negotiator for the MILF, Mohagher Iqbal, admitted in a hearing in the Philippine Senate in April that he had been using a pseudonym -- something even government peace negotiators did not know. This cast doubt on much of his testimony and ultimately, perceptions of the trustworthiness of the MILF.

Police slayings

The slaying of 44 policemen sent into MILF territory in January to capture Zulkifli bin Hir, wanted internationally for alleged acts of terror, destroyed much of the remaining goodwill Filipinos might have had toward proposals for an autonomous region. Some of the policemen were killed execution style, shot at point-blank range while others had their bulletproof vests removed before being shot.

     At the beginning, debate about the Bangsamoro Basic Law centered on security issues, constitutional authority and investment possibilities. Most Filipinos are aware that Muslims in Mindanao and Sulu have not kept in step with the country's economic progress. They have the highest incidence of poverty and the lowest levels of school enrollment in the country. The proposed autonomous region has a population of more than 5 million people, including non-Muslims and indigenous people.

     More recently, the discussion has shifted to Shariah and the finer, more difficult questions about child marriages; education for girls; adultery and punishment; sexual rights for lesbians, gays and transgender people; and safeguards for cultural practices and artifacts.

     The Philippine constitution states as inviolable the separation between church and state. Despite the political influence the Catholic Church wields today -- abortion and divorce are still banned -- the government exercises considerable independence on family planning and reproductive rights.

Conservative practices?

The leadership of the militant group has a long history of secessionist struggles. But little is known about the political character of their proposed government. The expectation is that the MILF will adhere closely to a conservatism practiced by its Malaysian and Saudi Arabian sponsors and influential Muslim countries nearby that have assumed, in the past decade, a similar character.

     For example, neighboring Brunei recently announced that it would stone to death adulterous women and gay people, and amputate the hands of thieves.

     "Arab colonialism" -- a reference to Middle East culture and religious norms appearing in Malaysia in recent years -- has made similar inroads in the Philippines. White robed imams from Saudi Arabia now appear in Mindanao. Many women in the region to wear niqabs -- robes that cover all parts of the body except the eyes.

     This is in contrast to the traditional Muslim or Western dress once widely worn.

     Many Muslim women are wary of Islamic teachings that give men the right to polygamy because they see this as introducing instability into marriage.

     There are no safeguards given to gay Muslims. Since they are completely excluded from any discussion, one can assume that anyone proven to be homosexual will suffer punishment, even death by stoning.

     The proposed law comes up for discussion when Congress which resumed in July. President Benigno Aquino continues to call for its passage, with the Catholic Church in full support.

     The proposed autonomous region has been framed as restitution for past wrongs, a leveling of the playing field, and an attempt to uphold cultural and religious norms. This appeasement by guilt and economic determinism fails to address an even deeper folly: that of not discussing how ordinary people would fare under Shariah.

     Whatever the contours of the proposed autonomy, Filipinos whose lives have been safeguarded and enhanced by a secular constitution must strive to ensure Muslim Filipinos continue to enjoy the same protections, too.

John Silva is executive director of the Ortigas Library, a research library in Manila.

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