UNDER the scorching sun, people were on the move, whether on foot or inside crawling vehicles, wanting to get out of Marawi City. Suddenly, a beat-up van came out of nowhere, threatening to hit cars right and left, with its driver clearly out of control. When the van finally stopped, Kim Edres decided to accost the driver. Edres, who is from Marawi City, is the regional director of the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF) for the National Capital Region.
The irate Edres quickly held his temper in check, struck by what he saw. The driver was a young boy, barely in his teens, frightened by the prospect of causing harm to others. “Why are you driving this van?” the perplexed Edres asked. The boy, frozen with fear, pointed to his passengers. It turned out that the boy had taken the wheel for the first time in his life to bring his Christian passengers to safety. And the first-time driver did not even know their names.
Amid the rubble, you hear of such remarkable stories. Muslims taking good care of Christians, shielding them from the bullets, bullying and beheading done by extremists out to paint Islam in the darkest possible hues. That young boy who drove the van was scared out of his wits. Yet, he swallowed his fear to press on the gas pedal, not knowing the perfect timing on when and how to shift gears and put on the brakes.
These are the stories of genuine humanity that the Maute Group failed to take into consideration. They probably thought it would be easy to turn Muslims against Christians and vice versa, like it was during the imposition of martial law in the Marcos era. Today’s battles are clearly different, whether in the physical or spiritual sense. Love for strangers, especially for Christians? That was not in their recipe book for violent extremism. Yet, isn’t Islam the profession of peace, love and mercy?
I asked Director Edres about the modus operandi of the Maute Group. How do they recruit people? He said, unlike the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Maute Group is intentionally targeting young Muslims. They offer money and the promise of a better life. The Maute Group understands social media. They wrongly interpret religious verses to ramp up anger, ignoring the basic principles in the Koran that teach love not just for people, but also for the entire universe.
If they are targeting the youth, then shouldn’t the government and civil society embark on programs that would enlighten the youth and inoculate them from indoctrination programs geared towards violent extremism? Yes, Director Edres said. Unfortunately, the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos lacks the necessary funds and manpower to spearhead such programs throughout the nation. The commission has an annual budget of about P500 million, 85 percent of which goes to personnel expenditures.
Based on our conversation, Kim and I listed down some measures that various government agencies and civil society could work on to ensure that young Muslims do not fall for the false promises and evil intentions of the Maute Group:
• Create special programs for the Muslim youth including those based in Metro Manila to boost education and work opportunities including jobs in call centers, government offices, and even overseas as part of an affirmative action campaign;
• Promote inter-faith dialogues that would strengthen Muslim-Christian understanding, especially among young people, thus reducing acts of discrimination, bullying, and harassment on both sides;
• For the Commission on Audit and civil society groups, to establish Good Governance teams that would check on relief and infrastructure programs in Mindanao, considering that pervasive corruption is one of the root causes of factionalism and poverty in the region;
• For President Duterte to announce a new timeline for the passage of a more realistic and inclusive Bangsamoro Basic Law with the full support of the Senate and the House of Representatives as a source of hope and unity within Muslim communities;
• For the various heads of agencies to put up a one-stop center in the vicinity of evacuation centers not just in Iligan City but in all conflict zones to ensure that government services are felt and never disrupted;
• For the Presidential Communications Office to roll out a comprehensive communications program to be developed in collaboration with the ulama (teachers) and key Muslim leaders as well as the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos to promote a better understanding of Islam among all Filipinos.
Finally, as an OFW advocate, I would like the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Labor and Employment to instruct all our diplomatic posts to accept postcards with messages from our modern-day heroes for our soldiers and police personnel in the frontlines. Our soldiers deserve to know how every citizen wherever he or she may be in the world, appreciates their valor.
To our soldiers, the police force, and their families – let me say thank you for honoring your oath, and raising the flag with your every step, towards a safer and brighter future for all of us.