There is concern about the stability of the Philippines in light of the conflict between government forces and a puritanical Muslim coalition. At the moment the problem is isolated to an area on the southern island of Mindanao. But more than 300 people have died in fighting with the Islamic State-linked group which seized Marawi on May 23. The attack by a group known as “Maute” (the name of an important Muslim family in the area) and its allies on the island of Mindanao is a warning that the Islamic State seeks to build a base in Southeast Asia.
It is important to recognize that Islam is not just now coming to the Philippines. It has been in the southern areas for many centuries (long before the Americans or the Spanish arrived). Notice the mosques with their minarets in the picture.
The beginnings of Islam in the southern islands actually goes back to the seventh century when Arabic traders and Sufi mystics arrived.. When the Spanish landed in 1521, and the islands became part of “the Philippines” (after King Philip) the explorer Magellan found the thirteen (!) Islamic people group already established, each with their own geographical location, language, culture, and aristocratic leadership. For the next four hundred years, the Spanish colonizers remained at odds with the Muslim Filipinos. By the time the Americans came at the end of the 19th century, and a new republic was established, the Muslim clans were an impoverished minority.
The cultural divide between Muslim Filipinos and what has been essentially a Roman Catholic majority intensified in the 1970s. The global rise of a politicized and puritanical form of Islam, combined with local political problems, led to an Islamic separatist movement. The various factions of this movement have at times engaged in armed conflict with government forces. So in the period leading up to the present crisis Filipino Islam has been a unique mixture of at least seven elements: Orthodox Islam, folk beliefs, a datu (chief or aristocrat) led tribal social structure, a sense of marginalization from the majority, and a growing separatist aspiration.
What is new is the radicalization of some Filipino Muslims by such groups as Al-Qaida and ISIS with their extremely violent ideology. Leaders of the various armed factions in Islamic Mindanao may have once been little more than “bandits” motivated by clan politics and money. Many are now convinced by ISIS that a strict interpretation and application of Sharia law is the solution to Mindanao’s problems: they are now driven by a dangerous and unifying ideology. Unfortunately fertile soil (both metaphorically and literally) has been found. It is against this background that the battle for the City of Marawi has taken place. It is part of a much larger challenge.