Why Our Moro Brothers and Sisters Will Never Turn Fundamentalist

 The author (third from left) with veteran cadres of the Moro National Liberation Front (General Santos, 2010) (Photo courtesy of Patricio Abinales)

The author (third from left) with veteran cadres of the Moro National Liberation Front (General Santos, 2010) (Photo courtesy of Patricio Abinales)

Next time you visit any city back home, ask where you can buy cheap and returnable pirated DVD copies of the latest Hollywood, Japanese and European films, as well as American and Japanese porn, and you will be immediately pointed to the local “Muslims.” By this, they mean the Maranaos – the second largest Muslim ethnic group in the Philippines, after the Maguindanaos.

The Maranaos have kept a firm hold on the production and sale of the pirated DVDs, outselling the Tausogs who once ran a slew of illicit products in and around Quiapo Church during martial law (I used to buy my favorite British Dunhill cigarettes on a corner beside the Church during my student days, a place recommended to me by then UP Dean Francisco Nemenzo, who introduced us to British cigs).

In the Mandaluyong, for example, Metro-Walk -- allegedly owned by the warlord and Manny Pacquiao patron Luis “Chavit” Singson -- has replaced Greenhills Shopping Center as the Mecca for the pirated DVDs. The shift did not upend the Maranaos’ control of the product; they just moved their operations to the smaller shopping mall while getting into the business of selling more “legit” products like the famed Sulu black pearls.

 Muslim women in Quiapo (Source: GMANetwork.com)

Muslim women in Quiapo (Source: GMANetwork.com)

How the Maranaos were able to dominate the sale of bootlegged DVDs and, in fact, a host of other illicit products is a story that still needs to be told. What is interesting, for purposes of this piece, is why they do not seem bothered by the fact that some of the DVDs they sell are “un-Islamic.”

My most memorable moment engaging these dealers was some eight years ago when I was at Metro-Walk checking out these pirates’ stalls. One owner, a Maranao woman, asked me if I was interested in the latest Hollywood movies, saying that “her films” were top-of-the-line since the batch she got were the DVDs intended for judges of the upcoming Oscars. I said I was interested in Filipino movies, and her quick reply was, “Manood ka na lang sa SM, sir. Hindi ako nagbebenta ng cine na Pilipino.” (Just watch at SM, sir. I don’t sell Filipino movies.) She proudly claimed, that as a matter of principle, and being Filipina, she was not going to undermine the local movie industry.

It’s Only Business

Then she gave this big smile and asked, “Baka gusto mo sir yong pang-sex? Meron akong tatlong klase dito – Amerikano, Hapon at Pinoy!” (You might want one for sex? I have three kinds here – American, Japanese and Filipino.) Surprised, I asked back, “Uy hindi ba Muslim ka, eh suot mo pa yang hijab mo?” (Aren’t you Muslim? You’re even wearing your hijab.) Her response was classic and still resonates to this very day: “Ahh, iba yong Islam sir, religion ko yan. Heto, business.” (Islam is different, it is my religion. This is business.)

There was more to this exchange, but what struck me then, and what continues to amaze me even now, is how Filipino Muslims’ devotion to Islam is paralleled with a dedication to their craft of running profitable small businesses.

I was always fascinated with Filipino Muslims since I was a kid growing up in a town separated from Lanao del Sur by a small bay (Marawi, the site of the current conflict is about an hour and a half from Ozamiz City). I was, however, less interested in Islam. What I was always in awe of was the way Maranaos saw one business opportunity after another in their daily lives.

My DVD pirate startled me initially, but as our banter continued, memories of my parent’s dealings with our local aki (Maranao for “friend”) pleasantly came back. I remember my father coming home from work with three kilos of baboy sulop (wild boar) meat he bought at the mercado from a Maranao suki, and me, 20 years later, imitating the old man and bringing home the same meat from an aki who sold them in a bus terminal in Iligan City. I remember my mother gifting our visitors with Indonesian malong that she got from her favorite Maranao stall. After teaching her classes, she would bring back some delicious British Cadbury Chocolates, Singaporean umbrellas, Chinese Ma-Ling or toothpaste, that she got from the “Sultana” (as she fondly called her suki) at the mercado.

 Members of the Young Moro Professional Network (Marawi, 2017)

Members of the Young Moro Professional Network (Marawi, 2017)

These smuggled goods were part of our everyday life, as were the Maranaos who kept us amply supplied with these household goods. When I asked my suki if his trade was haram, as selling pig’s meat seemed un-Islamic, his answer was all wit: He said that the Koran prohibited him from eating pork, but it never stated that he could not sell it. There were rumors in my hometown that one could get a Belgian rifle easily if one knew which Maranao to contact, and when I kidded a friend that selling weapons was haram, he said it was business, not religion. This one reminded me of Salvatorre “Sal” Tessio in “The Godfather,” telling Tom Hagen to “Tell Mike, it was only business,” before he was whacked by Michael Corleone’s henchmen.

This other longstanding characteristic of Filipino Muslims – the value they place on their business – is what pundits and scholars always ignore when talking about Moro Mindanao. And because they do not do this, they have become unwitting accomplices in sustaining the anti-Muslim sentiments that many Filipinos and American Filipinos continue to nurture.

In 2005 the Philippine Human Development Index survey showed that 55 percent of Filipinos still thought Muslims were “prone to amok,” 59 percent believed Muslim men oppressed their women, and 44 percent were certain Muslims were terrorists. I see no evidence that this attitude has changed 12 years later. In fact, one may add apathy, going by the lackluster relief efforts to help over 40,000 refugees compared with those struck by typhoons.


What continues to amaze me even now, is how Filipino Muslims’ devotion to Islam is paralleled with a dedication to their craft of running profitable small businesses.

But if we put business acumen on the same level of importance as religious belief and look at what is happening in Marawi today then it becomes clear, from this angle, why the ISIS minions, who are now in cahoots with a clan whose royal origins have been tainted by their involvement in the drug trade, will never succeed in making its mark on Moro society.

This is, of course, not new. The Taliban allowed opium farmers to continue growing the prized plant, in exchange for a “religious tax,” but it is equally true that the weak and corrupt Afghan regime of President Ashraf Ghani is doing fine against the fundamentalists because he similarly gets a share from the same farms.

Woman Power

What gives Muslim Mindanao the enduring heft and keep it indigenous are its women.

Islamic Fundamentalists demand that women surrender to men. Their role in society is to be the mere receptacles of men’s semen, by raping them if necessary. That is their only role in life, nothing else. They are made to wear burkas because Islam supposedly does not want them to tempt their men. I think it is also a way of making them disappear, their individuality erased, so that if they are “nothing,” then it is easier to rape and inseminate them.

You force these things on a Muslim Filipina, and you will be seeing the business end of her or her clan’s Armalite rifle. You compel a Muslim Filipino to make her personality disappear behind a burka, and you will receive a handful from their siblings and children, and from the umma itself.

There are, of course, those who go all-black burkas these days, but these are just one of many styles that Muslim Filipinas use. But the burka is not of a single style out there. Like their Indonesian sisters, Filipina Muslims don the most colorful of burkas and hijabs. Besides, wearing the burka does not mean going retro; most Muslim women see its style as forward and chic.

In Zamboanga City, my friend who writes for the Philippine Daily Inquirer was amused when she heard young Muslims speaking in English and Tagalog and crying out, “Oh my God” in reaction to something. Moro millennials, according to a member of the Young Moro Professional Network, are “more exposed [to] a plural society, [and] the social media give them the social space to be themselves.” Young Maranaos love K-pop, enjoy singing pop (Western) music and watching Disney and Hollywood movies. My friend admits that she is a “fan of ‘Game of Thrones.’”

Pop’ Muslims

This “pop” side of Muslim culture is kept vibrant because the foundations upon which the women stand are quite sturdy. Women play a critical role in Muslim society. In Lanao del Sur, the primary source of conflict is not the battle between separatists or fundamentalists and the AFP. It is the war between clans – or rido as they call it. The causes of such conflict may range from petty insult to electoral competition, and they turn into virtual brushfires because the already armed families increase their firepower by bringing in relatives serving in the army or the police, or are members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the Abu Sayyaf, and even those serving as bodyguards of politicians or security detail of drug networks.

Only mothers of two rival clans can end the rido. They are the clans’ negotiators who will meet to discuss the terms of a peace pact, from the compensation a family must pay for the wrongdoing of their kin, to the different measures both families must take to ensure the rido does not happen again. Local officials, even imams, are only there to lend support to the negotiation.

Muslim women are also the glue that have kept families together as a result of the separatist wars. While their husbands were fighting in the battle fronts, Muslim women became the de facto single parent and breadwinner of the family (this is much like what happened to American women during World War II, when they became the heads of the families while their husbands were fighting in Europe or Asia).

After 1996, when the MNLF signed a peace agreement with the government, the commanders came down and immediately hugged the limelight, and were recipients of various kinds of rehabilitation support. However, with their military expertise as only the skill they possessed, these husbands were never any help to the family. It was the women -- their wives -- who ran the business, attended to the kids’ education, and even ran government offices.

Women to the Rescue

I have repeatedly witnessed instances when Muslim women came to the rescue of their often intellectually challenged husbands. I have seen secretaries turn the laptop on because her boss never knew how, but just wanted to have it on his desk. I observed how Maguindanao wives take over their partners' lives, making sure that everything is organized -- from the time spent on media interviews down to even writing their speeches.

So important were women that United States Agency for International Development (USAID) ensured that former MNLF guerrillas receiving American assistance conformed to their agreement through them. The monitoring power over these livelihood projects was placed in the hands of an NGO – the Bangsamoro Women’s Foundation for Peace and Development. Over 14,000 guerrillas moved from being combatants to corn farmers, seaweed producers or grouper fish pond owners.

Alas, you get to notice this modernity mixing with religiousness in markets, schools, parks and other public places only when you are on the ground. You are only able to experience the “secularism” of many of my Muslim Filipina friends and colleagues by being with them.

And it is here that ISIS has the tactical edge on a lot of those looking into the Marawi conflict. This small band of terrorists, failed politicians and drug lords have instilled a fear of Muslims, a dread over terrorism and an apprehension over Mindanao’s instability, so that many have distanced themselves from the plight of ordinary Muslim Filipinos. Our Muslim brothers and sisters, however, refuse to be cowed and so, with or without us, they will resist the Fundamentalist threat to their way of life.


 Patricio Abinales

Patricio Abinales

Patricio N. Abinales is from Ozamiz City, which is not far from Marawi City. He went to Cornell University for his PhD, and his dissertation was published by Ateneo de Manila University Press under the title Making Mindanao: Cotabato and Davao in the Formation of the Philippine Nation-State (2000).


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