The martial law of Islamophobia

Black smoke billows from burning houses after an aerial bombing by the Philippine Air Force on militant Islamist positions in Marawi on the southern island of Mindanao on June 27, 2017.

It will take decades yet to engender a less ethnocentric generation against the Filipino Moro. The hostility is actually latent not just in Mindanao, but also in many areas of the Philippines.

In 1923, the Oxford English Dictionary recorded the use of the term Islamophobia.

It was only in 1997 that the Commission on British Muslims came out with a report that said "anti-Muslim prejudice has grown so considerably and so rapidly in recent years that a new item in the vocabulary is needed."

Mindanao is both birthplace and space of professional field for me. I have crisscrossed her breadth and length and I know firsthand what it takes to be Islamophobic. Not only have I seen it, I actually grew up with it. It was something I had to shed off against my own familial culture.

Many of us Filipinos go through the same inimical feelings against the Moro. The reason is peculiar, something not found in modern-day multicultural Southeast Asian countries. The Philippines was the main frontier for the slave raids of the 1740s to the 1850s.

Those raids reached as far north as the Ilocos. Masinloc in Zambales, today known otherwise as the source of the name Bajo de Masinloc, was not spared, as were many coastal localities in Bicol.

The Visayas and coastal Mindanao were sitting ducks for the raiders.

The raids resulted in a carpet of cultural cataclysm - a simmering resentment against the Filipino Moro by the Hispanized majority across practically the entire archipelago. That explains the bogeyman in our households when children needed to toe the line.

But what should be more flabbergasting is how the real historical context has been unknown to us. Thanks to culture scholars, now we know that there were actors much bigger than the Moro who controlled the lucrative trade of the 18th to the middle 19th centuries.

Britain had just discovered what a delectable piece of beverage Chinese tea was. So enamored were they that Catherine of Braganza, consort of Charles II of England, made it fashionable in the aristocratic circles of the royal court.

Britain's avidity for Chinese tea, however, did not match its earnings from what they sold to the Chinese.

What was in demand by China then were sea slugs (the Malay name is tripang), mother-of-pearl nacre and bird's nests. Britain turned for help to the paramount trading dominion of that era, the Sultanate of Sulu, which owned much territory, including the now controversial Sabah in Borneo.

There was a problem. The gathering of sea slugs needed beachcombers, nacre needed divers and the nest of the swiftlets that go into Chinese kitchens for the expensive bird's nest soup needed, well, spelunkers, for these were found in the crevices of caves.

The Sultan of Sulu had no such labour force. This was not a time of OFWs.

The British provided gunpowder and ammunition to the Sultanate to organise a flotilla of raiders made up of the Iranun and the Sama Balangingi to ravage the archipelago for manpower. Thus, Britain solved its problem of a chronic deficit of silver for its domestic economy.

The economics of scale didn't end there. After years of labour, the slaves were sold in the slave market of Batavia controlled by the Dutch colonists.

The hundreds of communities in the Philippines desolated by the raids didn't know the power players behind these raids. As a result, we have centuries of wrong thinking that the Moro are kidnappers.

And that is exactly the problem we face today as war has wrecked the beautiful lakeside mountain city of Marawi, Mindanao's kilometer zero and the country's only Islamic City.

Thousands of evacuees in need of decent housing in the coastal cities are being turned down. The reason-because they are Muslims. One thinks such medieval insolence has no more place in the inclusive world of the 21st century.

The fragmentation Islamophobia inevitably creates has been fodder for the rebellion in Mindanao. By declaring martial law, the government may not have seen it as a factor.

Expect the rebellion to persist.


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