Sunday, September 7, 2008

Mindanao right on our doorstep

Commentary : Mindanao right on our doorstep

By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Posted date: September 06, 2008

MANILA, Philippines—Mindanao, with its Muslim-Christian troubles, is far away and beyond the experience of most of us. There is, however, a Muslim-Christian struggle on our doorstep. And this we should be able to understand and recommend solutions to.

Some 376 Muslim families who are clustered tightly around their mosque have been resisting government efforts to evict them and their mosque from the reclaimed land in Manila Bay near Baclaran Church. The government wants them and the mosque out; the people want to stay alongside their mosque.

Evictions are a common problem between government and urban poor people these days, but this particular eviction is complicated by Muslim belief. The president of the people’s organization, Abdelmanan Tanandato, says Islamic law forbids the destruction of houses of worship, including Christian churches. The Muslims on the reclaimed land believe they cannot allow the destruction of their mosque. They must defend it. Their imams have told them they can’t leave the mosque. The government believes it must clear the land, which is very valuable and destined for commerce, luxury housing and casino use.

Years ago in Lahore, Pakistan, I saw proof of what Abdelmanan told me. I visited a huge urban poor area that had been demolished by the government. It was literally leveled; not a stone left upon a stone. One small building, however, a Catholic chapel, stood untouched in the middle of the field.

Abdelmanan says that when the Marawi uprising took place on Oct. 21, 1972, a month after the declaration of martial law, angry Muslims were determined to destroy the properties of Christians, but they didn’t touch the churches in Marawi, Catholic or Protestant.

The Muslims now living on the reclaimed land left Lanao del Sur when the Muslim-Christian war broke out in 1972. Some first went to Iligan which, shortly thereafter, had its own troubles, and so in the end many of them wound up in Manila. They have been on the reclaimed land since 1992; the mosque was built in 1994. They are employed like other urban poor people, many are vendors. “If you have only P500 as capital, you can buy and sell something there in Baclaran,” Abdelmanan says, “even hairclips.”

There was a violent demolition on the reclaimed land in 1999. Houses were destroyed and people were hurt. As a result the families moved closer to the mosque. In June this year, the demolition team came again, but hundreds of Muslim men faced them, spread out across the barren land prepared to fight with wooden clubs to protect their homes and mosque. The demolition team left. The government has offered large amounts of money, but the Muslims did not move.

At that time both Sen. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino and Bishop Broderick Pabillo spoke to the government on behalf of the people, and the tense situation has calmed down somewhat. There is no change in basic positions, however.

What is the solution in Baclaran? Before investigating, people on both sides should be aware that they look at Moro-Christian problems through a lens of centuries-old bias and suspicion, which make any peaceful solution difficult to arrive at. In addition, the Muslims in Baclaran suffer from society’s general prejudice toward urban poor people.

If the government proceeds with the demolition and eviction, the people will resist—violently most likely. Scores will be injured. Some may be killed. The government will then eventually have to destroy the mosque, a sight that has a good chance of appearing in every newspaper in the world. Will the violence end there? Will there be revenge attacks on Christian churches, for example? The Muslim people believe it is God’s will that they defend the mosque. People must obey government’s laws, St. Paul tells us in Romans, but his precept presumes the laws do not contradict the laws of God as we know them.

If the government allows the mosque to stay, it will remain amid the office buildings, luxury housing and casino facilities that will be built. Why not? The Catholic Church has a church on the reclaimed land. The two religious houses can remind the rich and powerful, including the gamblers, that there is more to life than money and pleasure. They will stand guard reminding the rich to enjoy while they can, for all things are fleeting.

Does this case shed any light on the problems of Mindanao? Probably not much if it does at all, though it does highlight the possibility that alternative ways of thinking can provide good solutions. Insanity can be defined, it is said, by repeating the same actions year after year and expecting different results. We have evicted tens of thousands of poor families. The National Housing Authority says there have been 130,000 poor families evicted from Metro Manila since 1984. The question can be asked, is the city any better off as a result?

The same solutions have been tried for years and years in Mindanao with the same unsatisfactory results. Are there alternate actions, alternate solutions?


Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His email address is upa@pldtdsl.net.

Copyright 2008 Philippine Daily Inquirer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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