Distorting Moro Mindanao, Part 2

Patricio N. Abinales

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There was not a single nationalist sentiment in the Moro revolts against Americans. They were not widespread either.

This essay is a followup to what I wrote last November 22.

The one theme that civil society groups and the World Bank share when it comes to Muslim Mindanao is the idea of a thousand-year unified Moro resistance against colonialism and the Philippine Republic. On this, they find support from historians and public intellectuals.

The historian Samuel K. Tan, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front ideologue Sallah Jubair (Mohagher Iqbal), and the Mindanawon public intellectual Rudy Rodil all subscribe in various ways to this idea of the century-old struggle argument. Their ideas are, in turn, picked up by the institution that has a hand in shaping public opinion: the media.

Yet, if we take a second look at the available data, we can easily notice a couple of discrepancies. Tan, for example, has framed his studies in a way that shows that this long history of Moro resistance is an inherent part of the larger nationalist movement working for the flowering of the Filipino nation.

However, the evidence he presents in a 1977 book, The Filipino Muslim Armed Struggle, 1900-1972, contradicts his conclusion. Tan tracks the various revolts against the Americans in the first decade of colonial rule, and the first thing one immediately notices is that the causes of these revolts were all very local in nature.

If these revolts were “anti-American,” it was because the rebels protested the ban on slavery and the policy of the head tax. There was not a single nationalist sentiment in them. They did not even consider their resistance part of the Filipino anti-American movement.

(Rodil has a more nuanced approach, recognizing the general Moro sentiment that they were never part of the Republic and their preference to remain under American rule. But he stops in pursuing this second thread even today.)

This absence of any ideology leads us to the second discrepancy.

The orthodox historical view portrays these revolts as being widespread. They were not. The denseness of the Mindanao ecosystem made it impossible for these rebels to connect with each other. Even the Americans had a hard time setting up and maintaining the telegraph system to cover the entire island. This was one of the reasons they were easily suppressed by the militarily superior colonizers.

Thus, the two major brutal events which historians, public intellectuals, NGO activists, aand even Asian Development field specialists cite as the acme of Moro resistance – the massacres of Bud Dajo in 1906 and then in Bud Bagsak in 1913 – were events that hardly made reverberations all across Muslim Mindanao.

These two horrific events happened in Sulu, and involved a couple of Tausog communities. Magindanaos, Maranaos, and Samals were not involved in them simply because they knew nothing of them. The ones who read and heard the most were the American media (even Philippine media had limited coverage of both massacres). 

The feeble nature of the Moro opposition to the Americans helps us understand two related puzzles: the speed with which the Moros turned around and accepted public education taught by the same soldiers they were fighting a year back, and, as a result, the development of strong pro-American, anti-Filipino sentiment that persists to this very day.

Nationalists and believers of the 1,000-year Moro struggle do have a point about the brutality of early American colonial rule in Moro Mindanao. However, they say very little about the second phase of that dominance when the Americans introduced public education to their colonial wards. But this cultural project had a more lasting effect than the horrors of war because of its capacity to reshape the public perception of American colonial rule. 

It is important to note one ignored historical fact here: the transformation of American soldiers into teachers and the installation of public schools throughout the Moroland was only the second time that “teachers” came to share their wisdom and spread knowledge among the Moros.

The first teachers were the Islamic missionaries whose proselytization also involved helping the sultanates consolidate their power. These imams did not come in groups, in fact. All of them traveled on their own by hitching a ride with trading fleets to get to their destinations. But they made up for their small numbers by their extreme mobility and the alliances they entered into with local sultans and datus. This was how Islam spread throughout southwestern Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago; today it remains a powerful influence in these communities.

This can also be said about American public education. The soldiers-turned-teachers schooled their constituencies in English reading and writing as well as some mathematics while keeping religion at arm’s length. Communities were acquiring new knowledge, providing them some insight into how their colonial masters governed but also into how to engage a new order where English was becoming the main lingua franca of the Southeast Asian maritime trade.

The lessons from the public schools became strongly embedded in the Moro mindset. The first generation of college educated Moros were extremely fluent in English, could relate well with their American overseers, and, more importantly, could understand the legal and political dynamics of Manila-Moro relations. Their followers shared the same sentiment. Thus, like Islam, pro-Americanism became the other durable mentality in Moro Mindanao; it was after the American army left in 1913, it still is in the era of the Balikatan exercises and the War on Terror.

The failure by historians to correct these myths and their refusal to recognize evidence that contradict what is being bandied around by everyone – including policy wonks and NGO activists – as the Moro modern history have an impact on how contemporary events have unfolded in the South. These will be explored in the 3rd part of this extended essay. – Rappler.com

Patricio N. Abinales studied the political history of Cotabato and Davao under the Americans and after independence for his PhD dissertation.  


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