Monday, December 06, 2010

Using Hermeneutic Principles to help solve the Bangsa Moro Problem - Part 1

(2001) Datu Jamal Ashley Yahya Abbas

In the Philippine context, studying the Muslim-Christian (or Moro-Indio) communication relationship within the framework of hermeneutic phenomenology may give significant clues to the solution of the so-called Moro Problem.


For example, one of the most glaring differences between the Moros and the Filipino majority (Indios)  is their view of history. For the Filipino majority, Philippine history began in 1521 with the “discovery of the Philippines” by Ferdinand Magellan and the start of Christianity in the country with the conversion of Rajah Humabon and his family. The Filipinos of today believe that history books recount Filipino history from that time on.

In the book "Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao" (Q.C.:2000, 327 pp.), two journalists who some now consider as “experts” in the Moro issue by virtue of this book, pronounced that “Mindanao was part of the Philippines ever since the Spanish colonizers came and created boundaries in what were formerly trading networks." Many Filipinos of today even believe that the nation-state called Philippines actually existed from that time (1521) onwards. The myth of an enduring nation-state called the Philippines with Christian, Muslim and pagan inhabitants ruled by Spain for 350 years and America for 50 years is being constantly rekindled by all forms of media.

It would indeed be a shock for many Filipinos to learn that for 350 years, the word Filipino actually was reserved for Spaniards in the Philippines. And that their grandparents and great-grandparents were not Filipinos but “naturales”, “indios” or “mestizos”. A close reading of so-called Philippine history would reveal that it is a chronology of events affecting primarily Spaniards in the Philippines (i.e., Filipinos). The present-day Filipinos were mentioned, if ever, only tangentially. The Moros actually occupy more space, as they were the feared and hated enemies of the Spaniards in the Philippines (i.e., Filipinos).

On the other hand, a look at Moro history through various historical documents would reveal that the Moros were sovereign nations and they only interacted with European powers and other neighboring Muslim states. The Moros never considered the Indios (the present-day Filipinos) as sovereign people. The Moros never interacted with them officially and diplomatically. The Moros considered the Indios as natives who have accepted Christianity and became practically slaves of the Spanish. They were therefore considered fair game for the slave trade. In fact up to this day, among some Moros, the word Filipino is synonymous to Christian or slave.

As if in revenge, the Philippine post-colonial government had constructed a mythical history. Philippine history books made “historically important” the various isolated even personal Indio “uprising’s” against the Spanish. According to this version of history, the Moros were the unruly Muslim inhabitants in Mindanao who were dealt with “punitive expeditions” from Manila every now and then. And the Philippines is glorified as the “only Christian nation in Asia.”

Philippine history books do not mention, for example, what happened to the companions of Magellan after he was killed by Lapu-Lapu. Philippine history books do not mention that Rajah Humabon, whom the present-day Filipinos celebrate as the first “Filipino” Christian king, invited the Spanish/European survivors of Magellan’s forces and massacred all but one of them. Humabon was a Christian for only a day or two.

Strictly speaking, Philippine history started in earnest only in 1896 with the Katipunan Revolt or at the earliest, in the martyrdom of the three Spanish priests, Fathers Gomez, Burgos and Zamora, who fought for the rights of Filipino clerics. Before this, Philippine history is really history of Spaniards in the Philippines* except for the sporadic and isolated “revolts” of the Indios all throughout the Colonial Period.

On the other hand, Moro history is partially or completely ignored by Philippine historians. Even in schools and universities, Moro history is not studied nor given any importance. But the Moros have a long memory. History is embedded in their culture. Royal families take great care in documenting their “salsilah” or family genealogies, which are by themselves, historical documents.

The Christian settlers in Mindanao criticize the Moros for their constant harping on the historical past. These settlers are proud that they do not care about the past but instead look to the future. (Jubair: 1997)
But according to philosophical hermeneutics, “history is not separated from the present. We are always simultaneously part of the past, in the present, and anticipating the future. In other words, the past operates on us now in the present, and affects our conception of what is yet to come. At the same time, our present notions of reality affect how we view the past.”(Littlejohn, p.204)

Moro leaders and intellectuals maintain that if the Philippine government truly wants to solve the so-called Moro Problem, it must exert an honest-to-goodness effort to understand the feelings, sentiments, biases, ideals, prejudices, customs, traditions and historical experience of the Bangsa Moro as enunciated or articulated by the Moros themselves.

Muslim Filipino historian Cesar Adib Majul, former dean of the UP College of Arts and Sciences, lamented that “History books in the Philippines tend to lay emphasis on events in other islands and glorify national heroes from such places, as if the history of the Philippines is only that of people who had been conquered while the history of the unconquered ones do not merit a share in the history of the Philippines.” (Majul: 1973)
It is indeed unfortunate that there are no Moro historians although some Moros are now starting to research and write about Moro history. Dean Majul is a Muslim of Arab and (Christian) Filipino parentage. Although he is a Muslim Filipino, he is not a Moro. He later migrated to the US.

Historians know that there is a “need of imaginative understanding for the minds of the people with whom he (the historian) is dealing, for the thought behind their acts.” (Carr:1961, p.26) This principle is important to remember because as the historian is faced with a sea full of “facts”, “by and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants.” (Carr, p.26) Moro history as written by the Moros’ traditional enemies – the Spanish, the Americans and the Indios-Filipinos – cannot possibly have even the “most elementary measure of imaginative understanding.” In his Cambridge lectures, Edward Hallett Carr concluded that “History cannot be written unless the historian can achieve some kind of contact with the mind of those about whom he is writing.” (Carr, p.27)

The long history of the Moro-Spanish wars had lasting effects on the collective memory of the Indios. For almost 350 years, the Indios were helpless natives "caught between the Spaniards, who were the masters of the land and the Moros, who were the masters of the seas. " (Dery 1997) When the Americans came, the idea that “a good Moro is a dead Moro” was given renewed currency. The Moros were usually referred to as “uncivilized”, “savages” or “barbarians” by the Americans.

To pretend that the modern-day Filipinos (now supposedly composed of Indios, Moros and pagans) is a homogeneous nation with one history and one destiny and that the present conflict in the South is simply due to some disgruntled Moro bandits will not solve the problem and may even exacerbate it.

Communication Theoretical Apprcahes

As Gadamer pointed out, the prejudices of each party must be acknowledged and transformed into a positive force. Both parties to the conflict must acknowledge the fact that they do not like each other and that such dislike had already cost both sides tens of thousands of lives and millions of dollars since the 1970’s.
Hermeneutics must necessarily come into play if one were serious in solving the “communication gap” between the Muslim and Christian Filipino communities. There must be a real effort in cultural interpretation.
The Moro problem is even exacerbated by the textual interpretation of both groups to important documents like the Philippine Constitution and the Tripoli Agreement.

Many people in the government and the academe try to view the Moro Problem within the framework of social constructionist communication theories. The government constructs an image of a homogenized “Filipino” culture or nation through its schools, government agencies and the mass media. This “Filipino” nation has a “national hero”, a national flower”, a “national fruit”, etc. of which every Filipino citizen is supposed to be proud of. (Interestingly, all these “national” things seem to come from the Tagalog region.)

Some academics use Marxist critical theories in analyzing the Moro Issue. The Moro issue is argued as one of the results of Spanish colonialism and American imperialism. But some Moro intellectuals believe that Marxist postcolonial discourses can be misleading because the Moros are still under colonial rule; i.e., Filipino (Indio) colonial rule. It is absolutely useless to blame the Americans or multinationals or globalization for the plight of the Moros, as what the leftists are wont to do. If there’s anyone to blame, it is the current colonial power, i.e., the Filipino government. The MNLF, MILF, BMLO and other Moro groups have petitioned the United Nations and the OIC to resolve that the Bangsa Moro nation be de-colonized.

Today’s Filipino historians, writers, or intellectuals do not mention the fact that the great Filipino nationalist himself, Claro M. Recto, authored the bill called “Colonization of Mindanao Act.”

Critical studies tend to exacerbate social conditions. And since critical studies are focused on power, violence usually results in societies they (the theorists and their studies) are observing (Krippendorf 1989).
Hermeneutic phenomenology or philosophical hermeneutics could be the framework needed to help solve this socio-political problem. Using critical theories, which focus on ideology and power, might simply aggravate the problem. As Paul Ricoeur (1981) noted:
“what is at stake can be expressed in terms of an alternative: either a hermeneutical or a critical consciousness…In contrast with the positive assessment of hermeneutics, the theory of ideology adopts a suspicious approach, seeing tradition as merely the systematically distorted expression of communication under unacknowledged conditions of violence.”

Text Interpretation

Hermeneutics say that “an explication of a text occurs only after a prior understanding of it, yet that prior understanding is justified by the careful explication it allows. In other words, before we can go about discussing and analyzing a text, we must have a global conception of its meaning.” (Dudley: 1984, p.97)

The problem lies in the interpreter’s prior conceptions. A reader necessarily has his biases and prejudices about the subject he reads. His perception of the text will have to coincide with his previously held beliefs.
As Andrew pointed out, “new hermeneutics…rest on a modernist concern about the relativity of judgment that affects all disciplines…. There is no longer a single notion of seeing, rather there are modes of seeing…” (Dudley, p.173)

The Muslim-Christian or more precisely, the Moro-Indio conflict is never ending because the biases and prejudices of both sides are not clearly expressed in a “no holds barred” dialogue. The dialogues between the Philippine government (called GRP for Government of the Republic of the Philippines) and the Moro armed groups (either the MNLF or MILF) are characterized by diplomacy, tact, duplicity, and deviousness.
Ambassador Pacifico Castro, member of the Philippine Panel in the Tripoli talks in 1976, declared that because of his expertise in the French language, he was able to make the official French version of the Tripoli Agreement very advantageous to the GRP.

In the example below, two articles written in 1755 had a tremendous impact on a particular reader 236 years later. The English translations of the two texts are titled “The Siege of Palumpong” and “The Battle of Iligan.” The Society of Jesus printed the original Spanish texts in 1755 in Manila. The English translation by Alfonso Felix, Jr. was printed in Quezon City in 1991.

As its subtitle indicates, the Palumpong article was a “report of the valiant defense put up by the Visayan natives of the town of Palumpong in the Island of Leyte of the Province of Catbalogan in the Philippines against the Muslim attack carried by the Ilanons (sic) and the Maranaos in the month of June 1754.” On the other hand, the Iligan article was a “summary of the victories that to the great glory of God and to the Luster and Honor of the Royal Catholic Arms of His Majesty in defense of the Christian communities and Islands of the Visayas were achieved against the Muslim enemies by the armada detached to the fortress of Iligan which is on the shores of the Island of Mindanao in the year 1754.”

It must be noted that the priests, in this case, the Jesuits, printed the texts. During the Moro-Spanish wars, the priests led the fight against the Moros. The priest was responsible for building the town’s fort, providing ammunition and cannons and commanding the “army”. He appointed all officers and men of the militia, guards and sentinels. Consequently, the friars were the Moros’ prime targets. They were decapitated, captured and generally ill-treated. The friar’s ransom went no less than 1,000 pesos and even went as high as 10,000 pesos (Dery, 1997, p.64). It can then be safely assumed that the texts were not objectively written. On the contrary, the texts most probably were propaganda materials used by the friars to lift the morale of the Christian natives, whom they called “naturales”.

Perception of a turn-of-the 20th century gentleman on a 230-year old text.

In 1991, Mr. Alfonso Felix, Jr. was the President of the Historical Conservation Society. The members of the Society at that time included Alejandro Melchor, Jesus Lazatin, Antonio Araneta, Jr., Enrique Syquia, Ernesto Aboitiz, Feliciano Belmonte, Jr., Antonio Concepcion, Francisco Elizalde, O.D. Corpuz, etc. – a veritable Who’s Who among the Filipino elites. Mr. Felix obtained copies of the documents from the Biblioteca Nacional de Madrid and proudly reported it to the Society.

In his Report and Acknowledgement speech of Aug. 28, 1991 in Manila, he minced no words. His prejudices and biases against the Moros and Muslims, in general, knew no bounds.

About Islam, he said: “…there seems to be in Islam something that pushes its adherents to a delight in the pain of others. The names of Genghis Khan and Tamerlaine are too well-known to need further comment.”
His hatred for Muslims is evident. He wrote: “Let us take the case of Salman Rushdie whom the Holy Ayatollah condemned to death and who is now living in hiding. Unfortunately, the British have gone soft. If they had made it clear to the Iranians that the death of Salman Rushdie would result in the destruction of Teheran, the Iranians would think twice before inflicting their religion on civilized countries.”

He called Moros names like “devils in human form” or citizens “of the Republic of Mad Dogs” or “reptiles”.  He obviously believed that the Moro Wars are not yet over.  And his recommendation: “I do not think Christian Filipinos are afraid of Moros. A modern army equipped with the weapons of today and above all with the will to use them will soon cause the Moros to reconsider. When the Italians used poison gas in Ethiopia in 1935 many Ethiopians were exterminated and the liberals of the world found themselves in tears. I do not find poison gas used against Ethiopians deplorable.”

He even counseled the then President Aquino thus: “I invite our President, Her Excellency Da. Corazon Cojuangco vda. de Aquino to reflect on my words for I feel I am expressing with these words the opinion of the majority of  Filipino peasants and Filipino soldiers.”

Felix’s reaction in the context of hermeneutic theories

Paul Ricoeur, like Gadamer, believes that the reader and the text share an intimate relationship. In fact, “the text can speak to and change the interpreter.”(Littlejohn:1979, p.209) Ricoeur calls this process appropriation, i.e., a reader who agrees with the messages of the text, appropriates the ideas of the text as his very own.

From the above example, it is patently clear that the 1755 texts and Mr. Felix had an “intimate interaction.” Although 216 years separate the text and the reader (Mr. Felix), the reader appropriated the meaning of the texts.  Mr. Felix was so worked up by the messages of the text such that he ended up delivering a very emotional address to the Historical Conservation Society.

Mr. Felix was obviously a rich and intelligent Filipino. He spoke Spanish fluently and presumably was well-read and well-traveled. Presumably, he was well respected by the society at large. He was after all, the head of the Historical Conservation Society as well as a friend of foreign dignitaries. Yet his speech could rank as one of the most bigoted speeches of the century. Was he not afraid of ridicule from his colleagues in the Historical Society? Apparently, he knew them and he knew that all of them shared the same prejudices. Perhaps the others just did not dare express them publicly.

Stanley Fish, another theorist who uses the hermeneutic circle, maintains, “readers are members of interpretive communities, groups that interact with one another, construct common realities and meanings and employ those in their readings.”(Littlejohn, p.209) The world may be shocked at Mr. Felix’s speech, but Mr. Felix very well knew that he and his audience belonged to the same interpretive community and therefore the meanings he derived from the old Spanish text would be shared by everyone in his Society.

Stanley Fish’s reader-response theory does not ask, “What does a text mean?” but “What does a text do?” In this example, the 1755 Spanish texts prompted the President of an historical society in 1991 to deliver and publish a scathing attack on Islam, the Moros and the Muslims.

Mr. Felix also proved the hermeneutic belief that “history is not separated from the present. We are always simultaneously part of the past, in the present, and anticipating the future…” Although the texts were hundreds of years old and that the present political reality is so very different from the one depicted in the texts, Mr.Felix’s reaction was still as if the Past is the Present. Although the Moro Wars between the Moros and the Spanish were over a long time ago, he called on the Philippine President, addressing her with the Spanish honorific Doña, to wage war against the Moros.


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