A Monthly Newsmagazine from Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT)
To Gain access to thousands of articles, khutbas, conferences, books (including tafsirs) & to participate in life enhancing events

South-East Asia

Four centuries of jihad underpinning the Bangsamoro Muslims’ struggle for freedom

Robert Maulana Alonto

The struggle of the Malay Bangsamoro people began almost 500 years ago, when Spain invaded the three independent Muslim principalities - the Sultanates of Sulu and Maguindanao, and the Confederated Sultanates of Ranao - which governed mainland Mindanao and the islands of Basilan, Sulu and Palawan. Mindanao and these islands today constitute what is known as the ‘southern Philippines.’ Islam had been here for some 200 years before the Spanish arrived.

Before their coming to the Philippine archipelago in 1521, the Christian Spaniards already harboured deep hatred and prejudice toward Islam and the Muslims, whom they called Moros (Moors), and who had ruled Spain for 700 years. Spanish Muslims were killed, expelled or forcibly converted to Christianity after Christians from northern Spain defeated Muslim rulers. The Spanish invasion of Mindanao and Sulu, and their attempts to subdue and colonize the Muslim Sultanates there, took place 29 years after the fall of Granada, the last Muslim State in the Iberian peninsula.

After subduing the non-Muslim Malay inhabitants of Luzon and Visayas and converting them to Catholic Christianity, Spanish colonialism turned its eyes on the Muslim kingdoms to the south. They first destroyed the Muslim principality of Manila, which was rules by Rajah Sulayman and was the only Muslim-ruled territory on the island of Luzon, and forced the surviving followers of the Rajah to embrace Catholicism. They then made Manila their capital in the Philippines. Luzon and Visayas were then consolidated under the Spanish crown, and named Las Islas de Filipinas or the Philippine Islands after the Spanish king at the time, Philip II.

Having successfully established pax hispaniola in Luzon and Visayas, the Spaniards invaded Mindanao and Sulu. But the Muslim kingdoms resisted the Spanish throughout the 350 years of Spanish colonial rule and the Spanish presence in Mindanao and Sulu was restricted to some coastal areas of Mindanao, where they established military bases. The war inflicted untold hardship on the Bangsamoro Muslims, who were subjected to persecution and genocide as the Spaniards attempted to eliminate the Islamic faith, just as they had in Spain. But the Bangsamoro Muslim kingdoms managed to survive, albeit at a high cost.

Meanwhile, the Christianized native Malays of Luzon and Visayas accepted Spanish colonial rule and helped the invaders with the same zeal shown by the Crusaders when they invaded Muslim Palestine. The Spaniards treated these Christians as ‘allies’ and ‘friends’, while the Bangsamoro Muslims were enemies who had to be exterminated. An intense hatred for anything Muslim permeated the very core of Spanish-created Filipino society, to the extent that in their literature and arts the Muslim Moro is always depicted as the villain. This psychological enmity for the Bangsamoro Muslims which the Spaniards implanted in the minds of the Christianized Filipinos in the north lives to this day.

When the Spanish-American War broke out over Cuba in 1898, the Bangsamoro Muslim sultanates, whose allegiance was to the Uthmaniyyah Khilafat in Istanbul, were still largely in control of their respective domains. But the arrival of a new imperial power, the USA, ushered in a new phase in the Bangsamoro people’s struggle. After defeating Spain, the US took over many of the former’s colonial possessions, among them the Philippines. It was during American rule that the annexation of the Bangsamoro homeland into the Philippine nation-state system was secured.

While Catholic Spain had been driven by the spirit of the Inquisition, America was inspired by the unholy doctrines of ‘Manifest Destiny’ to bring the ‘blessings’ of western civilization to these ‘barbarians’ in Southeast Asia. But the Moro ‘barbarians’, much to the Americans’ surprise, were not easily subdued. For another 50 years, the Bangsamoro Muslims fiercely resisted US rule, even though their antiquated weapons - the Malay kris, and flintlock rifles and obsolete canons captured from the Spaniards - were no match for the machine-guns and artillery of the Americans. Even Filipino and American historians agree that the Muslims of Mindanao and Sulu proved the hardest to defeat during the American occupation of the Philippines. One such encounter led to the martyrdom of the Sultan of Bayang, ruler of one of the Ranao sultanates, his entire family, and all his warriors. In emulation of the shahadah of Imam Husain at Karbala, the Sultan fought the American Army to the last man inside his kuta (fort), in what is now known among the Muslims here as ‘padang Karbala.’ The Bangsamoro mujahideen took it as a personal duty to Allah to continue to fight to the death, even if a Muslim leader surrendered. It became common for a lone Muslim mujahid to attack American soldiers and camps, killing many of them before losing his life. The Spanish and Americans disparagingly called this act juramentado or amok; Muslims refer to this as sabil or prang sabil, from the Arabic jihad fi sabilillah.

In 1941, US’s rule of the Philippines was interrupted by the Second World War. The Japanese Imperial Army invaded and drove off the mighty US forces from the islands. The Bangsamoro people now fought the Japanese invaders. Six months before US forces led by general Douglas MacArthur landed in Leyte to retake the Philippines, the Muslim territories in Mindanao were already free of the Japanese. US rule was eventually re-instated in the Philippines when the Japanese were driven out in 1945.

By this time, the Muslim sultanates were much weakened - militarily and economically - by more than three centuries of intense war. Organized military resistance was broken by the militarily superior Americans, who now tried a policy of seduction. Many Muslim leaders fell for this trick and ended up collaborating with the Americans. The Bangsamoro masses nevertheless pursued their resistance in many ways, and supported Muslims who continued to defy American rule through guerrilla warfare. A major part of the US strategy was the opening of Mindanao to Christian Filipino settlers from Luzon and Visayas. This became a priority of the US-created Philippine Commonwealth government under the puppet presidency of Manuel L. Quezon. When the US finally ‘granted’ independence to the Philippines on July 4, 1946, the Bangsamoro homeland was officially annexed to the new Philippine Republic despite vehement protests from Bangsamoro leaders and the masses. The US and their Filipino surrogates based the validity of Moro annexation on the 1898 Treaty of Paris. But the Bangsamoro people regarded the Treaty of Paris as a transaction between two thieves, and also argued that the terms of the treaty did not apply to them as the Bangsamoro homeland had never been subjugated by the Spaniards. Unfortunately, the decrepit Uthmaniyyah khilafah, with which the Muslims had identified, had already been buried by Turkish nationalists, and the rest of the Islamic Ummah was also under the western imperial control. Thus it was that the Bangsamoro people and their homeland were handed over to the Filipinos, who had inherited the intense psychological, cultural and religious enmity for Muslims of their erstwhile Spanish masters.

Under Philippine rule, the Bangsamoro people were treated like a subjugated people. Forced to attend Philippine government and Catholic-run schools, Muslim youths were taught that their forefathers were lawless people who loved war and resisted modern civilization and development. The natural resources of the homeland were expropriated by the Filipino descendants of those collaborators from Luzon and Visayas who rowed the Spanish war galleys on their way to fight the Muslims in Mindanao. And while forcible conversion to Christianity was avoided, Muslims were compelled to study religion (Catholicism) in schools as part of the curriculum. In jobs, Christians were given preference. Representation in the national government is marginal and - with very few exceptions - only those Muslims who have totally embraced the government’s policy of assimilation have been appointed to senior positions under the Filipino rulers.

Meanwhile in Mindanao, state-backed terrorism against Muslim communities was the order of the day. In 1969-71, before the declaration of martial law by the regime of Ferdinand Marcos, the wholesale burning of Muslim homes, mosques and madaris was almost a daily occurrence. Muslim farms and plantations were targeted for looting and destruction. Government-backed paramilitary gangs and armed Christian fanatics called Ilagas - or rats - massacred Muslim civilians, the young, the old and the women. Muslim villages, towns and farmlands were cleared, to be taken over by Filipino Christians. An estimated 50,000 Muslims all over Mindanao were killed during this pre-martial law period. Yet the Philippine government denies that these pogroms ever occurred, let alone that it had any complicity in them. In February 1973, just months after martial law had been declared by Marcos on November 21, 1972, Bangsamoro Muslims were finally able to fight back as an organized armed revolutionary movement - the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Although the MNLF was a strange mix of Islam and Moro nationalism, the Bangsamoro Muslims rallied under its revolutionary banner and fought the Philippine establishment as a unified force. The main call then was to defend Islam and regain Moro freedom.

From 1972 until the signing of the Tripoli Agreement between the MNLF and the Philippine government in 1976, which led to a cease-fire, an estimated 150,000 Muslims were killed, more than 500,000 were forced to seek refuge in Sabah, Malaysia, and more than one million were rendered homeless and destitute in the homeland. The devastation of the Bangsamoro homeland was staggering. But it was at this time that the Bangsamoro people and their revolutionary leaders decided that the only solution to what the government called ‘the Mindanao Problem’ was to regain their independence from the Philippine nation-State system.

After the Bangsamoro revolution erupted in the 1970s, there were many attempts by the Manila regime to pacify the angry Muslim masses but there was no sincere effort to solve the problem. The issue of independence was ignored, while strategies designed to perpetuate Philippine colonial rule were promoted. Unfortunately, the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), which took great interest in the issue at this time, accepted the deceptions that the Philippine government presented as solutions, and helped persuade the MNLF to abandon their goal of independence in favour of autonomy. This betrayal of Bangsamoro aspirations exposed both the duplicity of the Philippine government and the impotence of the OIC.

The MNLF lost the momentum gained at the start of the revolution and in due course the support of the Bangsamoro Muslim masses. Morale within the MNLF itself began to wither, leading to the surrender of many of its top leaders and military commanders. In 1996, Nur Misuari, chairman of the MNLF, surrendered to the Philippine government and accepted the governorship of the so-called Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). This capitulation was brokered by Indonesia, a prominent OIC member-State. However, what appeared to be a tragedy was a blessing in disguise. From where the secularist leadership of the MNLF left off, revolutionary ulama and Islamic intellectuals of the Bangsamoro emerged to lead the final stage of the Bangsamoro struggle for freedom: the Islamic stage. The Islamic movement has defined and refined the goal of the Bangsamoro struggle. Bangsamoro freedom now mean not only independence from the Philippine nation-State system but freedom to establish an Islamic State and government in the Bangsamoro homeland. This new vision has been wholeheartedly embraced by the Bangsamoro people, whose faith, culture, history, psychology and identity as a people have all been shaped by Islam and their Islamic heritage.

The emergence of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) from the defunct MNLF, and the flowering of other Islamic revolutionary groups such as the Abu Sayyaf Group and the Islamic Command Council, are proof of this. The Islamic stage in the Bangsamoro struggle now takes the form of the Islamic revolution which today has awakened the Ummah on the one hand and has shaken the world of kufr on the other. In December 3-5, 1996, the Bangsamoro people convened the Bangsamoro People’s Consultative Assembly in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao Province to take a position on the ‘Mindanao Problem’. The assembly was attended by 1,070,697 delegates from all over Mindanao, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. The resolutions presented by the provincial and sectoral delegations were unanimous in declaring that the only just, viable and lasting solution to the ‘Mindanao Problem’ is the establishment of an independent Islamic State.

Muslimedia: May 1-15, 1999

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 5

Muharram 15, 14201999-05-01

Sign In


Forgot Password ?


Not a Member? Sign Up