Sunday, August 07, 2005

For Muslim minorities, integration--not autonomy--is the answer

The Philippine Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (AARM) has devolved into yet another example of the inevitable state failure that results from mixing Islam with politics. Fifteen years ago, Manila negotiated an end to a Muslim separatist rebellion by setting the region aside as a semi-independent enclave defined by the religion of its inhabitants. Today, ARMM is awash in corruption, poverty, and terrorism, and upcoming elections there apparently offer little hope of change.
“The question is, is the ARMM still relevant? Since it was established, there has been little improvement in the lives of the people. The quality of life is actually retrogressing, not progressing,” Zainudin Malang, head of the Center for Moro Law and Policy Concerns, told AFP.
“A vast number of people don’t care. ARMM is no longer relevant to their lives and as a political vehicle autonomy needs to be reexamined,” he said.
“There is little sympathy for autonomy, there is little awareness of what the regional government has done and there is little knowledge of who the people are in the ARMM.
“We will be electing a new leader but the ARMM future is uncertain,” Malang said, urging the government to examine alternatives such as a federal state.

To make things worse, the region has been infected by Islamic militancy in the form of Abu Sayyaf, a group with links to al-Qaeda and whose stated aim is the creation of an Asian Islamic super-state. Abu Sayyaf broke away from other Muslim rebel groups who decided in the early 1990s to cease hostilities and accept the creation of AARM. The group, now led by a man called Commander Robot, bombs passenger ferries and shopping malls, murders priests, and supports itself by taking hostages from resorts and hospitals and beheading them if ransom is not paid. The United States aids Manila in its fight against Abu Sayyaf with millions of dollars in military aid and the assistance of hundreds of American military "advisors."

Muslim minorities in the Philippines and Thailand, along with Islamist minorities in Indonesia, have traditionally seen separation as preferable to integration. Holding elections in regions like Mindanao does not make them democratic. A people who succeed in winning their own isolation by defining themselves and their "autonomous region" according to religion are a long way from understanding democracy. Perhaps, as Mr. Malang suggests, the Philippine's Muslims will see the wisdom of setting religion aside and returning to true democracy as a state in a federal system, a state properly defined by its borders and the votes of its citizens--not by their choice of god, gods, or prophets.


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