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Peace and tolerance

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In the past 20 years, Mindanao, home to hospitable and kind peoples, has been better known to the world as home to terrorist cells (Al Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiyyah, Abu Sayyaf Group).

It is an abode made more uninviting by complexities of the armed conflicts between liberation fronts and the state. We have had armed conflicts for over hundreds of years, between the central government and Muslims or the Bangsamoro.

The social landscape of Mindanao has long been defined by diversity, with dramatic reversals in demographics under the Philippine Republic. A hundred years ago in Mindanao, Muslims and Lumad or indigenous peoples were the overwhelming majority. Today, Christians form the majority with 63% of the population.

The Christians, originally settlers from regions outside Mindanao, have established their homes in Mindanao over three generations. The Muslims or Moros belong to at least 13 ethnolinguistic indigenous groups that have adopted Islam as a way of life.

The three largest groups are the Maguindanaon (people of the flooded plains) of Maguindanao, Sultan Kudarat, North and South Cotabato; the Maranaw (people of the lake) of the Lanao provinces, and the Tausug (people of the current) of the Sulu archipelago. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front are predominantly Maguindanao while the Tausug dominates the Moro National Liberation Front.

While Muslims, Christians, and Lumad generally get along as neighbors despite their differences, it is the periodic breaking out of armed conflict and political controversies that strain the relationship of the peoples of Mindanao. The political tensions and differences are manipulated by those who would use religious differences to recruit followers. This is why I am in Zamboanga City today to have discussions with Muslim religious leaders of Zamboanga, Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-tawi on A Common Word as the basis for tolerance and acceptance.

A Common Word expounds on God’s commandments to Muslims to love Him and to love their neighbors, referring to their brothers and sisters from the Abrahamic faiths. (acommonword.com)

The Holy Quran commands, “Say: O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside God. And if they turn away, then say: Bear witness that we are they who have surrendered (unto Him). ( 3:64).

The Holy Quran also says: “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes that you may know and honor each other (not that you may despise one another). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted”. (49:13)

These two themes are also commandments of Jesus Christ, binding Muslims and Christians together around a set of theological and ethical principles. After all, in the New Testament, Jesus Christ said: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. / And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. And the second commandment is this: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)

However, finding common ground does not mean glossing over differences. It is clear that there are important differences that cannot be brushed aside for dialogue. But the meaning of dialogue and engagement is to state one’s differences so that we can talk to one another with a clear conscience and sincerity. Instead of focusing on what divides, A Common Word stressed what is common between the two religions: love of God and love of neighbor.

Long ago, the peoples of Mindanao had already realized the truth of the message underpinning A Common Word. As the implementation of the 1996 GRP-MNLF Peace Agreement remain problematic and the GRP-MILF talks unresolved after a decade, the peoples of Mindanao have realized that creative solutions must be implemented to finally end the conflict that has robbed millions of them of a bright future. We realize that Mindanao is our common land, a land that we can only enjoy if we can forge a common peace.

Interfaith dialogue has become a vital tool in forging a common peace for Mindanao, advancing as it does mutual understanding between people of different faiths and facilitating collaborative action across religious lines. Dialogue among the Christian and Muslim clergy has been an enduring element of interfaith dialogue in Mindanao.

Peace advocates know that the involvement and support of religious actors is critical to the success of peace building in the region. When they truly espouse the goals of dialogue, religious professionals -- the ulama, the priests, and the pastors, among others -- have the capacity to guide and motivate their members to move from fear and distrust toward greater understanding and mutual tolerance.

The problem lies in the manipulation -- even the perception of manipulation -- of such dialogues. In 2009, for instance, government tasked the influential Bishops-Ulama Conference (BUC) to conduct multi-stakeholders dialogues after the failure of the government negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. These dialogues, after the conflagration that left 700,000 homeless in August 2008, were criticized by many stakeholders as pro-government.

The contributions of interfaith dialogue programs toward the larger task of peace building in Mindanao are significant. However, the dialogues, successful at the high level, do not really reach the religious actors at the grassroots, especially the Muslim religious. We need to engage our ulama and imams to become more pro-active and thus neutralize negative manipulation by political powers.

A Common Word is a significant document that gives us a powerful platform for strengthening interfaith dialogue and collaboration amongst the Muslims who view interfaith dialogue as something driven by the Christian churches. This year, with the support of AUSAID, we in the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy will have discussions of A Common Word down to the village level by engaging our ulama, aleema, civil society, and our youth through workshops. In October, we will have a national forum to which we will invite leaders of the different faiths.

Reaching out simultaneously -- from grassroots and at the national level -- will generate more synergy for establishing a truly pluralistic society.

While it is true that a political resolution to the conflict has yet to be reached by the warring parties, more than three decades of committed work at enhancing dialogue between the Muslim and Christian communities in Mindanao has succeeded at least in building bridges and advancing greater understanding among people of different faiths. After all, we go to the same schools, buy at the same markets, do business with one another.

As far as peace is concerned, the foundation for a truly successful peace process is in the hands of the people and their faith leaders, who continue to talk to each other and live with each other on common ground.

By Amina Rasul




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