Thursday, October 9, 2014

Bridging the religious divide

Some critics of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) now undergoing congressional review and debate are quick to draw attention to what they perceive as an apparent bias or partiality toward one religion over the others. This understandable disapproval tends to gloss over the historical context of the struggle for self-determination of our brother- Muslims in Southern Mindanao.
Perhaps this religious-based criticism could also be traced to the emphasis placed by Muslims on religion as the basis of everything. To Muslims, all matters in life, whether governance, justice, culture, social relationships, family, etc., emanate from religion.

President Noynoy Aquino witnesses the turnover of the proposed draft Bangsamoro
Basic Law between Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) peace negotiator Mohagher
Iqbal and Senate President Franklin Drilon.
As the Al Qalam Institute on the Bangsamoro Basic Law of Ateneo de Davao explains: “What is religious is political and conversely, what is political is religious because the two are so intertwined in the life of the Muslims. Therefore, no religious test must be used to assail the autonomy being granted to the Bangsamoro.”
Therein lies the controversy. How do we bridge this contradiction between the secular world perspective we have been used to after gaining independence from Spain on one hand, and the Muslim’s belief in the transcendence of religion over all others, on the other?
If the principal objective of the BBL is to construct a closed Islamic society or state for its constituents alone, and not for the entire people of Mindanao who are still subject to the secular central and local governments, then what is highly objectionable in this kind of arrangement? It is not Islamic hegemony that is being fostered by the BBL but a type of asymmetric relationship to the constitutionally-recognized national government, where some political powers are devolved upon the new Bangsamoro community, yet it is still subordinate to central governance.
Does the integration of the Islam religion with the political and social affairs of the Bangsamoro contradict the inviolability of the separation of Church and state under the Philippine Constitution?
A textual exegesis of the Philippine Constitution shows that many concepts enshrined in the document such as justice, peace, equality, freedom, protection of life and property, respect for human rights, the sanctity of family, among others, have their roots in Judeo-Christian religious beliefs. Arguably, such concepts are also accepted and practised by other religions, thus bringing us to the conclusion that Muslims are probably on the correct side of the argument in saying that all matters in life can be traced to one’s religion.
What the Constitution clearly proscribes is a situation where the government allows the Church and its leaders in controlling the affairs of the state, e.g., President Aquino asking the Archbishop of Manila to run the government for him. He may personally ask the Cardinal for his prayers but he cannot turn over the government to the clergy. Or inversely, President Aquino declaring the Roman Catholic Church as the country’s national and only church.
Similarly, the head of the Bangsamoro government may ask the Imam for spiritual guidance but not surrender the affairs of government to him. The Bangsamoro government is not a theocratic entity like Iran where the Supreme Leader or the Ayatollah controls the government in order to protect the Islamist ideology.
There seems nothing wrong in allowing religious traditions, customs and practices of one community to prosper. But it has always been difficult for many to understand and appreciate the impact of the Muslim religion because there is this tendency to attribute all forms of religious violence to Islam.
Did we ever question whether the terroristic acts committed by the Islamic State or ISIS are sanctioned by the Qur’an? Rather, we immediately resort to a knee-jerk reaction so typical of many who would equate religious violence with Islam. A case in point is the TV pundit Bill Maher who has argued that Islam is unlike other religions, because to his view, Islam has “too much in common with ISIS.”
ISIS fighters marching in Raqqa, Syria. AP Photo/Militant Website File.
To most Muslims, and they are more than in the majority, those who commit acts of terror in the name of Islam are not really Muslim. They would distance themselves from extremists in their community, that too often, religious violence is not motivated by religion.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has waged and continued the Moro’s armed resistance against colonization and in redress of their grievances against the central government in Manila. But it was never in the name of religion, or against the dominant Christian religion. There are other factions among the Muslim insurgents who might have used Islam as their inspiration but it is doubtful if their resistance was actually religiously- motivated.
Naturally, there are critics of religion who lack the ability to understand religion beyond its absolute and literal interpretations. They would comb the scriptures for examples of savagery and point to extreme patterns of religious bigotry, and to which they can generally ascribe the causes of oppression throughout the world.
This religious narrow-mindedness is what is fuelling the general antagonism to Islamic jihad, whether by the few Muslim extremists or the more peace-loving followers of Islam. It is the more heinous, radical and barbaric practices of extremists that get the attention of the news media and this type of coverage tends to band together all Muslims in a one-size-fits-all category. The barbarism of ISIS must be condemned but not to the extent of demonizing all Muslims in general.
It would be an unfortunate setback to the MILF and its government partners if the current debate on the proposed BBL is somehow hijacked by the horrors of Islamic extremism exemplified by ISIS. Already we are hearing murmurs on the side that if Congress fails to enact the BBL, it would have catastrophic consequences to the quest for lasting peace and could possibly swell the ranks of dissatisfied Muslim extremists in the South. That would be a great tragedy if the BBL is scuttled due to religious malice, not because of constitutional or other reasonable legal objections to the proposed law.
But first it should be clear to Congress that the proposed BBL does not aim to favour and put one religion over another. There should be a religious debate but not necessarily to determine why Islam should be accommodated. The purpose should be to address any misconceptions about Muslims in the South, that they are not the ISIS-garden variety. This exchange should not divide Muslims, Christians and other faith communities.
When that religious divide has been bridged, then the debate on the constitutional and other legal issues about the BBL should resume and it is best that these legal issues are settled without amending the Constitution.
The news media and the whole of social media should be involved in a robust and public debate on the merits of the BBL. A free and democratic exchange of opinions is important, not a railroading of the proposed BBL in Congress without serious deliberation, for after all both houses of Congress are controlled by the President’s political party that it might give the President and his rabid supporters the idea that a free debate is no longer necessary.
Scouring the news media and the various fora on the Internet, it is quite disheartening to notice the lack of a vibrant discussion on the BBL. Stories of the Binays’ alleged illegitimate wealth build-up seem to preoccupy the newspapers and discussions in social media. As the principal proponent of the BBL, President Aquino should be at the forefront of promoting it, but it seems he is either uninterested or simply confident that his majority in Congress will approve the proposed law no matter what.

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