In this first ground-level account of the Muslim separatist rebellion in the Philippines, Thomas McKenna challenges prevailing anthropological analyses of nationalism as well as their underlying assumptions about the interplay of culture and power. He examines Muslim separatism against a background of more than four hundred years of political relations among indigenous Muslim rulers, their subjects, and external powers seeking the subjugation of Philippine Muslims. He also explores the motivations of the ordinary men and women who fight in armed separatist struggles and investigates the formation of nationalist identities. A skillful meld of historical detail and ethnographic research, Muslim Rulers and Rebels makes a compelling contribution to the study of protest, rebellion, and revolution worldwide.
About the Author
Thomas M. McKenna is Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of Alabama at Birmingham.
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Muslim Rulers & RebelsEveryday Politics & Armed Separatism
By Thomas M. McKenna
University of California PressCopyright © 1998 Thomas M. McKenna
All right reserved.
Extraordinary and Everyday Politics in the Muslim Philippines
That ordinary men and women spill their own blood and the blood of others in armed nationalist struggles seems an intractable reality of the modern world. We attempt to make sense of such conflagrations by identifying their propellants; yet this is frequently the most difficult puzzle to solve about any instance of armed ethnonationalism: whence the willingness of the rank and file to fight and die in the cause of a would-be nation? This book investigates the meanings and motivations of one such struggle—the movement for Muslim separatism in the Philippines. It traces the development of a Muslim nationalist identity in the Philippines, the origins of the Muslim insurgency against the Republic of the Philippines, and the mobilization of popular support for the separatist movement in both its armed and unarmed phases.
The present study, it should be noted, is neither a report from the "front lines" nor a depiction of the political command centers of the Muslim nationalist movement in the Philippines. This ethnography portrays the view from a community of urban poor Muslims, many of them maderefugees by the armed rebellion. There are two principal reasons for my choice of perspective. First, when I began my research in 1985, there already existed a number of journalistic reports and one excellent scholarly work (Majul 1985) on the leadership of the Muslim separatist movement. There had also been some careful ground-level reportage of the armed rebellion (see, e.g., Ahmad 1982) but nothing at all about Muslim civilians other than unanalyzed accounts ofmilitary atrocities against Muslims or unadorned statistics on Muslim refugees. It was my opinion that an account of the separatist movement from the point of view of "ordinary Muslims" was most needed, especially as separatist leaders had just begun to rely on unarmed mass politics as a new tactic in the separatist struggle.
The second reason relates to more practical and ethical concerns. In 1985 when I began my fieldwork, the Muslim regions of the Philippines were under de facto martial law rule and military occupation. Habeus corpus remained suspended until the end of the Marcos regime and membership in a Muslim separatist organization was an activity punishable by both legal and extralegal measures. The effective reach of the Philippine military did not extend to rebel camps in the hills but did to urban communities. Under such circumstances it was not possible for me to study both rebels under arms and urban Muslims without the risk of endangering my urban informants. As a result, I did not spend any time in rebel camps while conducting my urban research. Philippine and Western reporters did regularly travel to rebel camps, mostly, it seemed, for photo opportunities. That was another source of my hesitancy about making trips to rebel camps. I did not want to be viewed by rebel commanders (who were very well aware of my research in the city) as yet another Western writer come to Cotabato looking for Muslims with guns. While conducting my research among Muslim civilians I also never inquired directly about an individual's separatist affiliations and only interviewed community residents about previous or current separatist activities after the subject had been broached by an interviewee. Despite those self-imposed restrictions, I held conversations with, and obtained significant information from, a considerable number of current and former separatist insurgents, both midlevel commanders and rank-and-file fighters.1
There are approximately 3 million Muslims in the Philippines, the only majority Christian country in Southeast Asia. Though they represent only a small percentage of the Philippine population (about 5 percent), Muslims are geographically concentrated in the south of the country and are distinguished from Christian Filipinos not only by their profession of Islam but also by their evasion of three hundred years of Spanish colonial domination. Although Spanish colonizers had consolidated their hold on the northern tier of the Philippine archipelago by 1600, they never accomplished the complete subjugation of the Muslim South. Philippine Muslims are also separated from one another in this archipelagic nation by very significant linguistic and geographic distance. They are divided into three major and ten minor ethnolinguistic groups and are dispersed across the southern islands. Cotabato, a traditionally Muslim region on the large southern island of Mindanao, is the general setting for this study, and home to the second largest Muslim ethnolinguistic group, the Magindanaon. It has also been the site for many of the key events of the Muslim separatist rebellion.
The modern movement for Muslim separatism originated among a small set of Philippine Muslim students and intellectuals in the late 1960s. It gained popular support after the eruption of sectarian violence in Cotabato in 1970 and emerged as an armed secessionist front in response to the declaration of martial law by Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos in 1972. Muslim separatist rebels, numbering as many as thirty thousand armed insurgents, fought the Philippine military to a stalemate, obliging the Philippine government to negotiate a cease-fire and peace treaty in 1977. Muslim civilians overwhelmingly supported the separatist insurgents and suffered cruelly at the hands of the Philippine military.
The peace settlement, which called for the establishment of a "Muslim autonomous region" in the southern Philippines, was never genuinely implemented by the Marcos administration. As a consequence, fighting broke out once more before the end of 1977, but it did not again approach the level of intensity experienced prior to the ceasefire. The Muslim separatist movement entered a period of disarray marked by factional infighting and a weakening of popular support. By the early 1980s it had refashioned itself in Cotabato into a mass-based and self-consciously Islamic movement guided by Islamic clerics. With the fall of the Marcos regime in 1985, movement leaders (with the now-modified aim of genuine political autonomy for Philippine Muslims) fully adopted the practices of popular politics, organizing mass demonstrations to petition the government for political autonomy and forming an Islamic political party to contest provincial elections. In most of those endeavors they received substantial support from ordinary Muslims.
My investigation into the origins and meanings of the struggle for Philippine Muslim separatism as it occurred in Cotabato uncovered two intriguing paradoxes. The first was revealed by historical evidence suggesting that the Muslim nationalist identity that undergirds the separatist movement—a movement that describes itself as Islamic and anticolonial—originated only during the American colonial period(1899–1946) with the active encouragement of American colonial authorities. My interpretation of that evidence contradicts the prevailing view among scholars of the Muslim Philippines that Philippine Muslim (or Moro) identity was forged over the course of three hundred years of resistance to Spanish aggression against the Muslim polities of the South and tempered by Muslim resistance to American colonial rule.
A second paradox was presented by ethnographic evidence indicating that the central symbol of the Muslim separatist movement—the notion of a Philippine Muslim nation (Bangsamoro) had little or no resonance among the movement's rank-and-file adherents. Most ordinary followers neither denominated themselves as "Moro" (the term chosen by their leaders to denote the citizens of the new nation) nor proclaimed that they were fighting primarily for the sake of the new nation. This finding challenges the core assumption contained in almost all contemporary theories of nationalism that ordinary adherents of nationalist movements are principally motivated by the resonant force of elite-generated nationalist ideas.2
My aim in this study is to explain these (and other) paradoxes of the Muslim nationalist struggle in Cotabato by questioning prevailing anthropological analyses of nationalism as well as the understandings of culture and power that underlie them. The pervasiveness of ethnic strife and nationalist yearnings in the contemporary world has prompted a great deal of theorizing about ethnonational movements such as the one found in the Muslim Philippines. A number of recent anthropological studies have concentrated on the production of nationalist ideologies by intellectuals and political elites (see, e.g., Dominguez 1989; Handler 1988; Spencer 1990; Verdery 1991). Others have examined the various ways by which those ideologies have captured the imaginations of ordinary citizens (see, e.g., Brow 1988, 1990; Crain 1990; Kapferer 1988; Swedenburg 1990, 1991; Spencer 1990; Woost 1993). Surprisingly few anthropological works (see, e.g., Bendix 1992; Bowman 1993; Sluka 1989) have regarded that process as problematic and looked for reinterpretations of, indifference toward, and sometimes outright resistance to nationalist ideologies by those who comprise their primary intended audience. This work treats both sides of the nationalist equation, tracking official nationalist discourse as well as the knowledge, concerns, and experiences of ordinary adherents of the Muslim separatist movement.
My thesis is that the struggle for Muslim separatism in the Philippines (or for that matter any separatist struggle) may only be adequately understood by means of a wide-ranging and multilayered analysis of domination, accommodation, and resistance. To make sense of the American colonial genesis of Moro identity requires a thorough reassessment of the character of political relations between Muslim leaders and external powers—not only American colonial agents but also Spanish intruders, as well as the Christian Filipinos who have dominated the Philippine national state since its inception. To understand why it is that rank-and-file Muslim separatists fight for or otherwise support the movement yet remain unmoved by their leaders' appeals to the Philippine Muslim nation requires the reexamination of widely held assumptions about the nature of political relations between Muslim leaders and followers, not only within the separatist movement but in Cotabato as a whole, and from the precolonial era to the present.
Explaining the paradoxes of Muslim separatism in Cotabato thus demands the analysis of power relations operating in two political arenas—the external state and the local domain. It is insufficient, however, simply to "toggle" between them, examining now external domination and indigenous response, now indigenous rule and local resistance. We need also to fix on those actors and activities that link the two arenas. An essential but understudied feature of separatist movements is their complex conjuncture of power relations. Separatist movements defy the modern states in which they are found, disavowing their authority and, almost inevitably, confronting their armed forces. The leaders of such movements present themselves as rulers as well as rebels and at the earliest opportunity attempt to supplant the jurisdiction of the alienized state with their own more localized version. Muslim rebel leaders in Cotabato, who defy the Philippine state in order to command Cotabato Muslims, clearly straddle the two political arenas. But so do ordinary Muslims, who may simultaneously resist both external domination and local manifestations of power.
While political arenas are always interlinked to some degree, in separatist movements those linkages are intensified and expressed in complex forms. The struggle for Muslim separatism in the Philippines exemplifies the political complexities found in similar political movements formed in postcolonial situations. The remote causes of Muslim separatism in the Philippines may be traced to Western colonizers. The Spaniards created two distinct populations in the archipelago—the colonized and Christianized peoples of the North and the unsubjugated and mostly Muslim peoples of the South. American colonizersyoked those two populations unevenly together in a colonial and then national state. A more proximate cause may be found in the policies and practices of the postcolonial, Christian-dominated Philippine state.
That causal sequence is complicated by various considerations. Although individual Muslim polities offered sporadic armed resistance to Spanish attempts to conquer the South, no significant concerted opposition to Spanish aggression ever developed among the separate Muslim peoples of the archipelago. During the American period, and especially in Cotabato, accommodation was the most frequent response of Muslim leaders to the colonial subjugation of Philippine Muslims. The development of a transcendent and self-conscious Philippine Muslim ethnic identity occurred for the first time during the American period and was encouraged and facilitated by colonial authorities for their own purposes. The content of that identity was significantly influenced by a global process described by Richard Fox as "a world-systemic orientalism," a process whereby colonized populations "come to define their own culture according to the 'indigenations' asserted in Western Orientalism" (1989, 98, 92).
After the establishment of the Philippine republic in 1946, most members of the Muslim political elite aligned themselves with the new state and its policies, including state sponsorship of large-scale Christian migration to the Muslim South. The principal leaders of the separatist movement that began in the late 1960s were young men from non-elite Muslim families who had attended universities in Manila on government scholarships expressly intended to integrate Muslims into the Philippine nation. In Cotabato, those separatist leaders were eventually able to attract popular support because established Muslim leaders had done nothing to protect ordinary Muslims3 from the severe disruptions wrought by massive Christian in-migration.
The nationalist project of the separatist leaders, rooted in a politics of heritage, reaffirmed "traditional" forms of governance and unintentionally strengthened the positions of established Muslim elites, most of whom were opposed to the separatist rebellion and actively collaborating with the martial law state. When the separatist rebellion seemed likely to achieve some success, certain of those established elites joined the rebel leaders in overseas exile and attempted to gain control of the movement. At the same time, the Philippine government was able to persuade some prominent rebel commanders to defect from the cause with the promise of official positions allowing them to govern large numbers of Muslims. In their new positions, some of those defectors protectedMuslim civilians from the predations of the Philippine military. As a result they were viewed as heroes by many ordinary Muslims who remained nonetheless committed to the separatist rebellion. Following a cease-fire agreement in 1976 the separatist struggle in Cotabato gradually transformed itself into a mass-based, mostly unarmed movement. This was accompanied by an ideological shift away from traditionalism and toward Islamic renewal. That cultural project, however, received a mixed reception from ordinary Muslims, who resisted many of the social and ritual modifications promoted by movement leaders.
The shifting power relations just described may best be imaged as two conjoined fields of force.4 The first, an exterior field, concerns external domination and local response in Cotabato. It is a dynamic and complexly structured social field exhibiting quite varied historical and regional configurations. Relations between the various external forces striving to control Cotabato and individual Muslim leaders seeking to secure or maintain positions of dominance within local social orders have, in different times and places, been characterized by confrontation, avoidance, armistice, collaboration, tutelage, and dependency. A second, interior, field of force pertains to power relations between ruling and subaltern groups within Cotabato. This is an equally dynamic and multidimensional social field, encompassing production relations, exchanges, and political tensions among classes, estates, kinship groups, and ethnic entities, as well as interactions among variously situated Muslim rulers.
While these two fields of force have always been closely articulated, with power relations within Cotabato continually reshaped in response to external perturbations, the contemporary Muslim separatist movement provides a striking instance of the concurrence of everyday and extraordinary resistance to power by Muslim subordinates. When antagonisms between the Philippine state and Muslim nationalists erupted into armed rebellion in the early 1970s, fighters rallied to the separatist cause, and the insurgency eventually received broad popular support. Muslim subordinates nevertheless evaluated the pronouncements of movement leaders based on their separate shared experience. Those evaluations were symbolized independently of authorized discourse and led at times to actions that not only deviated from the official aims of the separatist movement but effectively thwarted them. Ordinary Muslims were equally skeptical of the hegemonic project of the martial law state and its Muslim elite collaborators, measuring those dominant representations against their own lived experience.
This study supplements ethnography with historical materials to trace the political economy of Cotabato from the precolonial period to the present day. Knowledge of the development of "traditional" arrangements is, of course, essential for an understanding of contemporary political relations. The nature of relations between those of superordinate and subordinate status in Muslim Cotabato (as well as the meanings of those statuses themselves) has undergone several alterations in the past four hundred years, most often in response to externally induced economic and political transformations.
I trace the complex configurations of power and resistance in contemporary Cotabato by means of an ethnography of a specific urban community. Campo Muslim is a shantytown in a riverside marsh at the edge of Cotabato City. It is a community that typifies the peripheralization of many of the indigenous inhabitants of Cotabato. As a Muslim encampment constructed on the fringe of a Christian-dominated city and populated in large part by political and economic refugees, Campo Muslim is a product of ethnic strains and social upheaval in the region. As the site of a concentrated, self-consciously Muslim population, it is considered by separatist leaders to be a vital resource for waging the Muslim nationalist struggle. I provide an ethnographic account of economic survival and political mobilization in Campo Muslim based on fourteen months of continuous residence and research in that community. Ethnographic material from Campo Muslim provides the basis for examining the attitudes and actions of community residents in relation to those who seek their adherence. The latter include underground separatist leaders, Islamic clerics who publicly advance the moral and political program of the rebels, and Muslim politicians allied with the separatist front. Opposed to this coalition is another set of Muslim leaders aligned with the Philippine state. The two competing elite alignments control separate kinds of political resources and make different sorts of appeals to the Muslim urban poor. Faced with those alternatives, Campo Muslim residents search cautiously for the response that best balances economic necessities, political realities, and Islamic ideals.
My analysis of power and resistance in Cotabato is indebted to Benedict Kerkvliet's pathbreaking 1990 study of everyday politics in Central Luzon. In that work, Kerkvliet pushes beyond the conventional approach to politics that for so long dominated Philippine studies—one limited to the investigation of "election campaigns, government activity, and rebellions"—to focus on the debates and conflictsamong individuals and groups regarding the control of material and nonmaterial resources (1990, 8). While I devote a good deal of attention in this work to both elections and armed rebellion, it is the everyday politics observed in Campo Muslim that anchors my analysis of power relations in Cotabato.
Chapter 1, "The Politics of Heritage," introduces the analytical approach taken in subsequent chapters—one which argues against the regnant view that nationalist mobilization is accomplished primarily by means of the hegemonic effect of nationalist ideas. It examines the core concept guiding many anthropological analyses of culture and power—cultural hegemony—and finds it wanting. The hegemony concept, with its central assertion that political subordinates are dependent upon the symbols issuing from a dominant ideological formation firmly rooted in everyday life, fails to capture the dynamic and imaginative responses to power made by Cotabato subordinates.
Chapter 2, "People and Territory in Cotabato," profiles the land, people, and contemporary political economy of Cotabato. The following three chapters consider the precolonial and colonial past in Cotabato and trace the derivation of a shared Muslim nationalist identity. Chapter 3, "Islamic Rule in Cotabato," evaluates various idealized versions of the precolonial past in Cotabato against evidence found in the historical record and unauthorized oral narratives. Chapter 4, "European Impositions and the Myth of Morohood," describes how political and economic relations within Cotabato were transformed by European contact and evaluates assertions that an oppositional identity as Philippine Muslims (Moros) is ancient, deep, and broadly shared. Chapter 5, "America's Moros," depicts the incorporation of the Cotabato sultanates into the Philippine colonial state and argues that the origins of Muslim nationalism are to be found not, as so many have imagined, in the anti-Spanish struggle but in the practices of American colonialism.
Chapter 6, "Postcolonial Transitions," chronicles the political and demographic transformations of the early postcolonial period and the creation of self-consciously ethnic Muslims in Cotabato. The subsequent two chapters consider the armed separatist struggle in Cotabato. Chapter 7, "Muslim Separatism and the Bangsamoro Rebellion," describes the watershed decade of 1968 to 1979 in Cotabato, a period of sectarian violence and armed rebellion, and one of economic devastation for many Muslims. In Chapter 8, "Regarding the War from Campo Muslim," I consider the armed separatist rebellion and itsimmediate aftermath from the perspective of its rank-and-file insurgents and their supporters.
The next two chapters offer ethnographic material from Campo Muslim to examine the movement for Muslim autonomy in its more recent unarmed form. The emergence of a new group of well-educated and politically active Islamic clerics, and the reaction of urban Muslims to their teachings, forms the subject of Chapter 9, "Unarmed Struggle." Chapter 10, "Muslim Nationalism after Marcos," describes the reinvigoration of electoral politics in Cotabato with the removal of the martial law regime and the unprecedented employment of Islamic and Muslim nationalist discourse in electoral campaigns in Cotabato.
In Chapter 11, "Resistance and Rule in Cotabato," I return to the theoretical issues surrounding the politics of heritage and examine them in light of the various configurations of culture and power evidenced in Cotabato from the precolonial period to the present. I conclude by proposing an alternative approach for analyzing both ordinary and extraordinary resistance—one based on a radically reformulated notion of hegemony as public accommodation to power.
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