Muslims identify with ‘terrorist’ ideals
By Johnna Villaviray, Senior Reporter
(Last of three parts)
“I am JI.”
It wasn’t a confession beaten out of a detainee. It was the pronouncement of Ahmed Santos, whose property the police raided last year for allegedly hosting guerrilla training for Muslims.
The Jemaah Islamiah he is professing his oneness with is the global community of Muslims, not necessarily the group blamed for the Bali, Indonesia, attack that killed nearly 200 people last October.
Non-Muslims don’t see the distinction, but this doesn’t stop Santos from professing his faith. He explains that it would be like a betrayal of Islam to be cowed by external pressure.
Islam could be the most misunderstood and, since the September 11 attacks against the United States, the most feared of religions. Muslims insist that theirs is a religion of peace, but strangers to the faith find it hard to believe, given the rising number of bomb attacks attributed to radical Muslim groups.
“Projecting Islam as a violent religion is propaganda of the Jews and their surrogates,” Santos said, alluding to the United States, which leads the global antiterror coalition.
The jihad the mujahideen—Muslim guerrilla warriors—have been waging all these decades is rooted in land; they want to retake Israel, which they say belonged to the Muslims before the time of the prophets. That secessionist Muslims in Mindanao have the same argument—that the Southern Philippines was Muslim land before Christian settlers came.
The similarity in goals and the strong sense of brotherhood among Muslims are potentially explosive ingredients in the country’s already unstable security teapot.
The Police Intelligence chief, Sr. Supt. Arthur Lomibao, acknowledged that Balik Islam is a “potential security threat, but not in the short term.”
There is no crackdown on Balik Islam, although Santos’s Fi Sabilillah Da’wah Foundation, iscag, iwwm and some other Balik Islam organizations are under police and military surveillance. At least five Fi Sabilillah members were reportedly abducted by the Armed Forces’ intelligence service.
Suspicion about these Muslim groups could be an extension of the distrust of the organizations established here in the 1990s by Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law, Jamaal al-Khaliffa. These organizations include the International Islamic Relief Organization and the International Relief and Information Center. The other groups Khaliffa established are not as active as before, owing to the negative publicity generated by the US antiterror campaign.
Authorities believe that these nongovernment organizations were used as fronts to fund the training of mujahideen and to acquire weapons and ammunition. With the NGOs under scrutiny, interest was supposedly transferred to select Balik Islam groups.
The following Balik Islam groups have aroused official curiosity: Al Maarif Educational Center in Baguio City, Da’rul Hijra Foundation Inc. in Makati City, Fi Sabilillah, Islamic Information Center in Quiapo, iscag, and the Islamic Learning Center of Pangasinan. None of their principals, however, has been directly associated with illegal activities.
Jamil Almares, iscag’s operations chief, acknowledged that iscag still receives donations from overseas, primarily from philanthropists in Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries. He acknowledged that funds are not as easy to come by now as before, but explained that the drop in donations started long before the anti-terror campaign.
“Some of our brothers took advantage of the goodwill of the donors, sometimes using funds for mosques and madrasahs for personal use. That’s why the donors are more careful now,” Almares said.
He said being identified as a terrorist supporter or financier just added to the reasons not to send as much zakat, or the mandatory donation of at least one percent of one’s annual savings. To offset the decline in donations, iscag is renting out apartment space inside its Dasmariñas, Cavite, compound.
The iscag compound is one of the Muslim communities established in Luzon. This was what Santos aimed to set up in Anda, but the project was abandoned after a police raid in 2002. Another community is being established in Tarlac.
Yousuf “Joey” Ledesma, a former La Salle economics professor, said Muslims would only feel wholly comfortable within an Islamic community.
“There, we can be far from the temptations of Western culture,” he explained.
The increasing number of Muslim communities and mosques in Luzon is a sign that Islam is spreading fast here.
In December 2000 the Office of Muslim Affairs (OMA) recorded 33 mosques in Metro Manila, 29 in Northern Luzon, 15 in Central Luzon, 56 in Southern Luzon including Bicol, and 38 in the Visayas.
“The spread of Islam is not necessarily the problem; it’s the spread of the radical interpretation of Islam,” said Senior Supt. Rodolfo Mendoza. He was a key operative in foiling a plot to kill Pope John Paul II during his 1995 Manila visit and the bombing of several US jetliners bound for Japan in 1995.
“We are at war with Islam, and the Muslims are the aggressors. Nobody wants to recognize that, but that’s what’s happening,” Mendoza said.
Nobody else in government has gone public with views similar to Mendoza’s, although some could be thinking along similar lines. Acknowledging a religious war would only widen the divide between the Muslims and the secular government.
The government recognizes, however, that it cannot sit back and watch the rise of what even some Muslims call a deviant form of Islam.
“The spread is chilling because of the radicalism of Islamic converts. There has to be a paradigm shift in the thinking of the political leadership [to deal with],” Mendoza said.
He lamented the harassing or arresting of suspected terrorist supporters as an ineffective way of dealing with the problem. It would only heighten the animosity of Muslims toward the government, he said.
The government has been adopting a rounded approach to the secessionist problem in Mindanao—military and economic.
It hasn’t been very effective. But it is adding another factor to complete the equation: education.
The Armed Forces is carrying out a distance-learning program to ensure that residents provide an alternative to the jihad-locked minds of some Muslims. It involves hooking up remote barangays to a satellite dish where educational programs for the residents could be beamed from Manila.
“The aim is not to destroy their culture, because the idea is to get programs from Muslim countries, but to make sure they get inputs from other sources, not just from whom they have access to,” Brig. Gen. Victor N. Corpus explained. Corpus is the chief of the military’s civil relations service.
He acknowledged that radicalism could gain a foothold, especially in remote areas, because residents have no access to alternative points of view.
But he stressed that it should not be viewed as an attack on Islam. “The majority of Muslims do not believe that the Philippines is an area where jihad is necessary, because everyone is free to practice his or her religion.”
The office of Muslim Affairs chief, Zamzamin Ampatuan, agreed that “improving the quality of life for Muslim communities” is the key to dealing with the secessionist problem in Mindanao and the pockets of radicalism in the local Muslim community.
But he pointed out that Muslims should share the responsibility.
“We don’t have a bad image, because of misimpressions alone. The image is created by the community also and we have to work to change that image,” he said.