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Islam and the Politics of Identity

By Federico V. Magdalena

The world is rocked by chaos, manifest in the “war” that goes on in many regions particularly in the third world. In Southeast Asia, cases of enmity abound: the East Timor and Aceh questions in Indonesia, the racial issue in Malaysia and Singapore, the Muslim secessionism in southern Thailand and in Mindanao (Philippines), the never-ending conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, and so on. In the Philippines, the secessionist problem in the south has taken much toll. It is waged by the Moros (term for Muslims in the Philippines) a marginalized group of some 5 million people. This conflict started some 300 years ago and, like many neighboring countries in Southeast Asia, its origin is unmistakably ethnic, religious, cultural.

This presentation is a modest attempt to describe this conflict to open up a new vista or approach to what may appear as a “clash of civilizations.” It is a re-configuration of some theories of conflict that zeroes in on the cultural, to answer the basic question “Why do men rebel?” I submit that a large part of the answer lies in the issue of identity, whose fundamental reference is social location.

The Politics of Identity

From any indication, the conflict is due to ethnic and cultural differences – leading to a sort of politics of identity – where a marginalized community or their members are embattled to re-affirm their unique identity. Stated another way, it is the struggle over definitions of or claims to politically and culturally sensitive categories of being/becoming (limited here to ethnic and religious identities). Identity is the sense of being, or of becoming, a badge that distinguishes one from others. Descartes’ famous line “I think therefore I am” is a crucial index of the novel stress on identity. This sense of self is validated by membership in a group, or affiliation in something intangible like culture or religion. For one, religion seems to have played a central role in the politics of identity. Membership in the ummah (literally, Muslim community) is what confers the Islamic identity. We have seen how Islam or its militant adherents have acted as visible players on one side, and the government or dominant ethnic groups, on the other. Militant Islam has waged jihad or holy war against its enemies. Jihad, often mistakenly assumed as the “war” between Muslims and a non-Muslim enemy, is actually a struggle against all evil including the self. The internal battle is the better jihad.

To place this type of conflict on a larger perspective, it is necessary to see Islam as a religion upon whose believers the issue of identity is a matter of life and death. More specifically, they see themselves as defending their faith and ummah against a sea of influences, propagated by infidels (kafir) whose ultimate purpose is to stamp out Islam as a way of life.

Map 1 - Islamic Development, 13th-18th centuries, and Map 2 - Islamic Malacca (now part of Malaysia) in 1500

Historically, Islam had taken root much earlier than these more recent but threatening influences. Islam came to Southeast Asia from India as early as the 13th century, antedating the arrival of “modern” influences, such as the western concept of the state and other global influences which tend to obliterate things that are sacred. Malacca was the seat of an established Muslim community in 1400 as Islam spread to the other regions, including those islands now belonging to Malaysia, Indonesia, southern Thailand, and southern Philippines (Mindanao).

When western powers came to Southeast Asia about 100 years later, they found established social institutions there based on Islam – polity, economy and family. The sultanate is perhaps the most tangible creation of Islam. But westernization and globalization effectively demolished this institution, notably the last vestige of Islam in Europe that stood its way, the Ottoman empire. In Southeast Asia, the sultanate of Brunei is the only one remaining in the world today. Moreover, it is caught in this vicious struggle of whether to secularize or remain deeply Islamic.

In the Philippines, Islamic preachers or makhdumin are said to have reached the southern tip of Mindanao (Tawi-Tawi) in 1380. By 1450, a Islamic form of government (sultanate) had been established in Sulu by Abu Bakr, a leader of Arabic descent, and somewhat later in Maguindanao by Sharif Kabungsuwan, a native prince from Johore, Malaysia (Map 3). Together, these two sultanates ruled much of Mindanao, and roamed the Philippine seas uninhibited. They were masters of the land. By the middle part of the next century, the coming of Spain to colonize the Philippines islands arrested the change initiated by Islamization.

Map 3 – Southern Philippines (Mindanao and Sulu) and Moro (Muslim) concentration. (Moros effectively controlled all of Sulu archipelago and at least half of Mindanao and southern Palawan in the 15th century)

Colony, Nation and Tri-People

In search of spices and motivated by trade, Spain came to colonize the Philippines in 1565. In 1578, the first attempt to stamp out Islam in Mindanao was launched by an attack in Sulu and north Borneo. The succeeding periods of the Spanish regime (1579-1898) were punctuated by “wars” until Las Islas Filipinas (the Philippine islands) landed on the lap of another colonizer, the United States, for another three decades of more effective colonial rule (1899-1935). In all these times, Mindanao has continued to be treated as a colonized frontier where Islam is relegated to the backseat. The Muslims became the “Other.”

Thus began a strife whose root is basically an ethnic problem associated with nation-building. Many Moros today could not identify with the Filipino, thinking that they do not belong to this nation. (The slogan of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front is: “We are Moros, not Filipinos.”) They claim they had been a sovereign people before the colonial powers came, that they were unnecessarily integrated to a state about which they did not have any part in making. Stirrings to reclaim a “lost identity” began in 1968 with the formation of a Mindanao Independence Movement in the Cotabato region, and a few years later by a group of young professionals who bannered their cause under the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

The Philippines is not alone. Identity issues are also bitterly fought in neighboring countries, particularly Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, where the Muslim populations assert their native rights and claim to the land. Singapore is perhaps the only exception, or of a different genre, in this politics of identity, where nativity or indigenous rights is muted. The closest parallel of the MNLF is Thailand’s Islamic secessionism waged by the Pattani Liberation Organization (PULO), and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in Indonesia. Nothing of this kind happens in Malaysia, where the politics of Islamic identity is brought to the halls of decision making by parliamentary means. There, the Muslims are defended by a staunch Islamic Party (PAS) that advocates for islamization of the state with the shari'ah as the basis for governance.

In the Philippines, the perfection of the concept of nation with an integral territory came at the turn of this century under the American colonial period. Before 1898, Mindanao was a frontier yet to be won. What Spain ceded to America in the 1898 Treaty of Paris was a contested territory, partially hispanized and largely under Moro control. After that period, the Philippine flag proudly displays the “three stars” representing the major islands of the Philippines: Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao.

One unmistakable consequence of colonization in Mindanao is the making of a tri-people: Moros, Lumads (tribal peoples) and Christian Filipinos. In many ways, the conflict revolves around them, especially between the Moros and Christian population as the latter is symbolically linked to the Philippine government (a Christian state).

Two other countries in Southeast Asia portray a more rigid stratification based on race: Malaysia and Singapore. In Malaysia, colonization has left a deeper and more marked imprint in the racial composition of its people: Malays (bumiputra), Chinese and Indians, the latter two groups are imported by the British government to work in tin mining and plantation economy. The predominant Malays have taken the reign of government and took steps to protect their kind, instituting a “Malay-first policy” to give them a leverage against the wealthier Chinese and more educated Indians. In Singapore, it is the more numerous Chinese who call the shots in government and education.

The discomfort of the Moros is understandable if one takes a look at the way their identity was threatened by colonization. From being “masters of the land” they are now reduced to a marginalized people largely concentrated in a small section of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago (see Map 4). Their quest for identity may be interpreted another way as an effort to recover the Bangsamoro homeland, which the Moro National Liberation Front did in the early 1970s. We shall return to this later.

Major Policies of the State

The state in Southeast Asia basically aims at its ideal the making of citizens who conform to the national identity defined in the singular sense. It is easy to discern why the Moros are adamant to accept Filipino identity. Since the Spanish times down to the present, the Philippine state has adopted a policy of nation-building defined by the principle of integration. That is, the unity of the state is anchored on the idea of “one nation, one thought” (isang bansa, isang diwa). However, the Moros interpret this policy as assimilationist whose aim is to make their culture similar to the dominant Christian majority.

In the case of Malaysia, the colonial government respected cultural differences as it installed the concept of civil government without “eradicating” native institutions like the sultanate. This is why the country, like Thailand, remains up to now as a constitutional monarchy, with a King (sultan) as head of the government although power in reposed in the parliament. The Malaysian state is a class in itself. It is secular but proclaims Islam as a state religion, that it is an “Islamic state”according to outgoing Prime Minister Mohammad Mahathir. Further, it has constitutionalized or racialized the Malay as a Muslim more than anything else. Its policy in the beginning is “100% Malay,” which meant that other groups fall outside the graces of government unless they assimilate by becoming Malays.

Neighboring Indonesia is also a secular state. With more than 300 ethnic groups and four major religions (Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam), it is the world’s fourth biggest nation with the largest concentration of Muslims found in a single country. It’s motto of “unity in diversity” and the policy of pancasila give the basis for secularization that does not favor any religious group. Moreover, “Javanization” is inherent in many of its policies, notably transmigration whereby the Javanese and the Madurese are resettled into the outer islands with government support.

Educationally, the state has carried out policies meant to integrate the Muslim population into the mainstream. In the Philippines, the curriculum requires Filipino language in all levels. Furthermore, English is taught in the higher levels of education. Meanwhile, the Muslim educational system or madrasah continues to operate outside the framework of the national education system. In Singapore, whose national language is Malay, English is the favorite medium of instruction and communication. Indonesia and Malaysia follow an indigenization pattern which gives emphasis on Bahasa Indonesia or Bahasa Melayu (both are a variant of a language spoken in Sumatra).

In the realm of economy, the incorporation of Mindanao into the Philippine state has opened the flood gate of rapid development programs calculated to “develop the southern frontier” but interpreted otherwise by many dissatisfied residents. They feel that the government is in cahoots with the MNCs (multinational corporations) to “milk” Mindanao, leaving very little benefits for the people, especially the indigenous population (Moros and lumads).

Map 4 – Southern Philippines (Mindanao and Sulu) and the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM)

Politically, the Islamic mode of government or sultanate has been superceded by the modern state system, patterned after those of the colonizers’. Thus, in the Philippines the Republican mold became the basis of of governance. With it in place, the sultanate has ceased, animated only during social functions as a source of prestige among those who inherit traditional titles as sultan, datu, hadji and others. Recently, however, the government formally recognized the existence of an autonomous region in “Muslim Mindanao” based on culture, tradition and identity. Its 1987 constitution paved the way for the discussion of the stalled 1976 Tripoli Agreement between the MNLF and the Philippine government, which was successfully implemented 20 years later. Thus in 1996, the Peace Agreement was forged and the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao realized.

In Malaysia, the institution of a democratic form of government has worked best for the more prosperous Chinese who began to dominate the economic scene while the native Malays are favored in government. After independence from Great Britain in 1957, the government started a more autocratic program to contain ethnic stirrings by accommodation, termed by scientists as “consociation,”to refer to the way a dominant political party like UMNO handles the demands of the minority groups with a measure of ethnic balance. Singapore seems to be more successful in this regard, especially after it left the Malaysian union, with its policy of multiculturalism. Both countries are consociationalists, but the latter adheres more to meritocratic principles than the politics of ethnicity and religion.

Visible Signs of Identity Conflict

Ethnic/racial - Since independence in 1946, there have been signs of uneasiness in the south marked by Moro rebellion, labeled by the government as plain banditry. The most notable is the Kamlon uprising in Sulu during the 1950s. Starting in 1970, the troubles escalated into a full-blown secessionist problem which has not been resolved until these days. First, the Moro National Liberation Front waged a three-decade “war” against the government. It was coopted to accept political autonomy under the 1996 Peace Agreement, but Muslim autonomy did not work, with the MNLF leader Nur Misuari declaring that the government reneged on its position and was not sincere to implement the terms of the Peace Agreement. After a short-lived rebellion in 2001 in Sulu, Misuari sought refuge in Malaysia, was captured by its police and turned over to the Philippines. He is now in jail on charges of subversion.

In Mindanao, other Moro groups have taken up the cudgel and continued to foment instability. For one, the notorious and fanatical Abu Sayyaf group has perpetrated heinous crimes of murder, kidnapping and rape of Christians, foreigners and tourists while pretending to be Islamic and doing service in the name of their religion. Another group is the Pentagon gang known for kidnapping and banditry.

Meanwhile, another faction of the Moro secessionist group has maintained the struggle. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which was put into the sidelight, has sued peace with the government since 1998. After a fragile cease-fire truce, “war” broke out in 2000 and another this year (2003) when government troops stormed the MILF camps in hot pursuit of kidnappers and other bad elements, including Islamic militants (terrorists) who are allegedly protected by the MILF high command.

In Malaysia, the most important inter-ethnic rivalry is occasioned by the violent race riots in 1969. Since then, conflict has been contained. But not in Indonesia where race and religious conflicts break out and disturb the peace during 1998-2000. Muslims and Christian fight each other in Ambon due to the instigation of Laskar Jihad, Chinese are attacked all over, and the trouble in Aceh continues even under Martial Law. Like Mindanao and Southern Thailand, an emboldened Islamic separatist movement is in place in Bandah Aceh. East Timor is now peaceful after its independence in 2002 under UN control.

Contested territory - Territorially, Mindanao is a contested region because many Muslims believe that this is their traditional homeland. They were a majority group in Mindanao and Sulu before the colonial period, but were reduced to a marginalized, demographic minority after 1960. Now they constitute only about 20% of Mindanao population, although they are predominant in five provinces under the jurisdiction of the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

Similar observations occur in Indonesia on territoriality issues as Jakarta attempts to bring in large numbers of Javanese to Irian Jaya, Moluccas, East Timor and other frontiers. (About 60% of Indonesia’s population reside in Java.) The Christian-Muslim conflicts in the peripheries are occasioned by the clash of beliefs about land ownership and homeland, but frequently revolve around feelings of job discrimination by the dominant Javanese and Madurese settlers.

In eastern Malaysia (Sarawak), bitter rivalry divides not only christianized Malays and their Islamic counterparts but also between the Malays and the Chinese. Recently, there were reported attacks made by the Dayaks (christianized Malays) on “outsiders” including other Malay settlers, Chinese and to some extent Indians and Bangladeshis. The Kaduzun Christians in Sabah are also apprehensive over the Malay identity, feeling that they also belong but are excluded by its apparently legalized Islamic ascription.

Cosmology - Ideologically, Islamic precepts and cosmology are in conflict with secular governments such as those of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. As Bauzon says, “in the Philippines, the conflict of identity between Islam and Christianity is louder than the sounds of bullets and cannons.” Whereas Islam believes in unity (tauhid), in which religion and the state are not distinguished from each other, the modern concept of governance insists on separation and specialization of powers. Islamic laws propagated under the shari’ah are considered divine and could not be contained by man-made agreements. In Mindanao, even moderate Muslims see this difference. The factionalism in the Moro struggle between the MNLF (secular) and the MILF (religious), and now the war between the MILF and the government are all indicative of the battle between the secular and the sacred. The MILF believes that the only way out of the mess is for the Bangsamoro to form their own Islamic government based on the Qur’an.

In Indonesia, the October 2002 Bali bombing is a calculated message sent by militant Islam, notably Jemaah Islamiyah, to the secularized Indonesian government. They wanted less of “western” things and more of Islam. The clamp down on JI and its leader, Abu Bakr Bashir, is a battle between “good” and “evil” – goodness being defined as things secular. Moreover, hardline Islamists also demonize almost everything that is western, particularly the United States.

Jihad, Extremism and Islamic Identity

A word very rich in meaning but hardly understood by anyone, even by some of its believers, is jihad. Literally, it is given the scary phrase “holy war,” for which it is not all about. Truth is, nowhere in the 114 chapters or suhras of the Qur’an is this word mentioned, although references to war (qital or harb) are aplenty. Most Islamic scholars agree that jihad is nothing but struggle, exerting one’s utmost toward the true path of Islam. It is an effort to purify oneself and get rid of the evil from within through prayers (salat), giving of alms and helping the needy (zakat), fasting during the month of ramadhan, and more. This struggle is intended to make the self good as a foremost virtue. In another sense, there is a struggle waged against injustice and oppression, and other bad practices in the environment, hence the Islamic response is one meant to cleanse the world. Of these two, the first is the most favored– it is the greater jihad, a life-long activity among Muslims.

Declaring war on others in defense of Islam is accepted, but on certain conditions: only when the ummah is on the verge of life and death, and when livelihood and survival is at stake. The Qur’an even warns the faithful about exceeding the limits, or else he is likewise guilty and risks penalty during the Day of Judgment. (The Qur’an says in 2/190, “Fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but do not transgress limits, for God does not love transgressors.”)

But some interpret the Qur’anic verses in their literal meaning, often read out of context because these are read alone without relating them to some other verses elsewhere. Others probably do it on purpose because of extreme hatred against the infidel and the Qur’anic permission to go to war. No wonder that jihad is misinterpreted (or misread), and misapplied. Because of this misreading even by Muslims, outsiders are quick to notice what some Muslims actually do compared to what they should do. Thus the labeling continues. Here is a typical interpretation, by Bernard Barber:

Jihad delivers a different set of virtues: a vibrant local identity, a sense of community, solidarity among kinsmen, neighbors, and countrymen, narrowly conceived. But it also guarantees parochialism and is grounded in exclusion. Solidarity is secured through war against outsiders. And solidarity often means obedience to a hierarchy in governance, fanaticism in beliefs, and the obliteration of individual selves in the name of the group.

In other instances, those who have been inspired by jihad show a different perspective – that of looking backward, a kind of time warp. This tendency takes the label of Islamic revivalism, which glorifies the past and valorize old practices that have become anachronistic in modern times. The movement called Wahhabism, or its wrong interpretation, exemplifies this strain of Islam, which is responsible for creating extremists in the likes of Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, Abu Sayyaf, Laskar Jihad and other terrorist groups who have hijacked Islam to advance their cause. Its proponent, Mohhamad bin Abd al Wahhab, called for a return to the true path of Islam some 300 years ago as a consequence of the declining Ottoman empire and the rising prosperity of the West. Wahhabism shows up in the strict dietary and dress codes (e.g., observing food taboos (halal), proper Islamic rituals, hijab or head covering for women, growing of beard for men, etc.). But with all its honest intentions, Wahhabism is probably also misread by many of those who propagate it in present-day Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is easy to conclude that many ideological mujahideen (warriors of God) from Southeast Asia who saw action during the Afghanistan war have brought home the strict, austere Wahhabi tenets of yesteryears.

In any case, Islamic extremism (not fundamentalism as others say it), including the way the Wahhabi doctrine is followed, is bred by new circumstances as regions of the world become increasingly interconnected (i.e., it is globalized) and where the hegemonic west shows its dominating character in the global economy and politics. Thus, extremism is a localized response that brings to life the glorious past of Islam as if time is frozen and conditions have remained stationary. But modern Islamists argue that Islam is for all time, and that jihad means reforming society that has gone bankrupt or corrupt.


As of this writing, the identity conflict in Mindanao is still raging - there seems to be “no light at the end of the tunnel,” so to speak. The MILF still discusses peace with the Philippine government under the auspices of Malaysia who brokers the talks. Some extremist groups like the Abu Sayyaf and Pentagon Gang that sow terror by killing and kidnapping Christians and foreigners are relentlessly hunted down by government troops who have considerably degraded their capability. But the moderate Muslims, who compose the majority of Muslims, are somewhat silent although they do condemn the atrocities of the Islamic extremists as “un-Islamic.” In any case, the events suggest that Islamic identity is very much alive and continues to re-affirm its being, although in different ways.

Meanwhile, recent disturbances in Southeast Asia, particularly in Indonesia, has drawn world attention on the Jemaah Islamiyah and other militant Islamic groups believed to be associated with the Al-Qaeda terror network. Indonesia banned a similar Islamic group, the Laskar Jihad, while Malaysia declared the Dar Al-Arkham as an illegal organization. Malaysia’s Internal Security Act (ISA) is used not only to crack down on terrorists but also oppositionists who do not tow the line. Moreover, the Islamic Party is now gaining strength in the Malaysian Parliament owing to the increase of their number of seats from 7 to 27 out of 193 during the last elections. PAS now controls two states (Trengganu and Kelantan) out of 13. In Bandah Aceh, the rebels continue to press for freedom, with the Islamic mould of governance in mind if they succeed in doing it, amid the atrocities and human rights violation committed by the military.

The plan of Islamists to form a regional government in Southeast Asia for Muslims seems symbolic of a revivalist attempt to bring back a glorious past, once enjoyed by the Malaccan sultanate in the Malayan world, and by the Sulu and Maguindanao sultanates in Mindanao. Longing for the past has become a major feature of their orientation in identity building, because it represents “the best part of their lives,” as Moro scholar Salah Jubair would point out. Further, the Islamic identity is more concerned with the protection of the ummah, hence a fixed being, rather than of becoming.

Any attempt to root out the causes of conflict is laudable, especially if done with greater diplomacy. But it is prudent to separate terrorism from legitimate demands, allowing law and justice to take its course. There is also value in encouraging dialogues as basis for new action in order to manage, or mitigate, the violence and instability of ethnic conflict. In the Philippines, non-governmental organizations, or more broadly elements of civil society are now at work to help reduce the level of conflict before it breaks out anew. Religious organizations such as the Bishops-Ulama Forum, and even community initiatives to form Peace Zones (demilitarized areas in Mindanao), are good signs that people still love peace more than they hate war.

More importantly, government reforms are badly needed to alleviate the sufferings of poverty stricken Muslims in countries where they constitute the minority group. This plea particularly applies to the Philippines and Indonesia owing to their facile militaristic approach to the Islamic dilemma. Failing to do so only angers the Muslim ummah and gives justification for jihadic wars, making conflict rather than peace the most viable option.


● Barber, Bernard. “Jihad vs. McWorld” in The Atlantic Monthly, March 1992, Volume 269; also in http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/foreign/barberf.htm.
Bauzon, Kenneth E. Liberalism and the Quest for Islamic Identity in the Philippines. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1991.

● Magdalena, F. "The Peace Process in Mindanao: Problems and Prospects," Southeast Asian Affairs 1997. Singapore: Inst. of Southeast Asian Studies, 1997 .

● Magdalena, F. "Moros and Americans in the Philippines," Philippine Studies 43 (1996).

● On Mindanao and its Peoples, including the Peace Process and the Bishops-Ulama Forum, see http://www.mindanao.com/kalinaw/.

Credits for the maps: http://www.ucalgary.ca/applied_history/tutor/islam/fractured/SEAsia.html; and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regions_of_the_Philippines

Lecture presented at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, under the joint auspices of the Center for Philippine Studies (UHCPS) and the Matsunaga Institute for Peace (UHIP), November 17, 2003. Author is currently a Faculty Specialist at the Center for Philippine Studies, University of Hawaii-Manoa, and was Adjunct Faculty, Chaminade University, Honolulu, Hawaii. He can be reached at fm@hawaii.edu, tel: (808) 944-6263/ (808) 956-6086.

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