In May of 2010, I sat down for a conversation with the legendary human rights advocate Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group. Jones and I had just come out of an intense two-day workshop at the SSRC on religion, peacebuilding, and development in Mindanao, organized in conjunction with the SSRC’s project on religion and international affairs. Participants in the workshop included scholars and peacebuilders from the United States, Mindanao, Japan, and Indonesia.

The following is a brief excerpt of the interview. Click here to read the entire transcript (pdf).

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David Kyuman Kim: This is David Kim from the SSRC’s Program on Religion and the Public Sphere. And I have the pleasure of engaging in a conversation with Sidney Jones from the International Crisis Group, in a segment for the Rites and Responsibilities series for The Immanent Frame. We have just come out of a two day SSRC workshop on the crisis in Mindanao, funded by the Luce Foundation, and part of the SSRC’s project on religion and international affairs. Sidney, before we get into your work, and because the conversations from workshop are still fresh in our minds, I’m curious to hear your perspective on and your characterization of what the Mindanao crisis is. Speak, if you would, not just as someone who’s been involved with the Mindanao crisis for some time. How would you describe the situation to someone who knows nothing about it?

Sidney Jones: I would say that, in some ways, we’re dealing with a fundamentally ethno-nationalist insurgency, but what makes it so much more complicated than many other areas is that there are several insurgencies going on at the same time, including the old Communist insurgency, which spills over into Mindanao. We have three guerilla groups that identify themselves as Moro, plus the NPA [the National People’s Army, the military wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines], which is still active. We also have three different peace processes going on at the same time, and any success on one track will have negative implications for the others. So, trying to fit all those things into some kind of overarching peace process is extraordinarily difficult. And on top of that, even if you were to settle all of those insurgencies, you would still be dealing with clan conflicts and structural problems of warlordism and feudalism, which would continue to account for what is currently 30 or 40 percent of the violence in Mindanao even if you got the peace processes signed, sealed, and delivered. So, that’s what the crisis in Mindanao is about.

DKK: As you know, the Rites and Responsibilities series is focusing on questions of sovereignty and authority and religion. And among the things that the folks in the workshop seemed to be wrestling with was how to account for the religious factors and influences in Mindanao. You yourself had very portrayals of the religious factors and influences, specifically, your insistence of not wanting to stick to an account in which the portrait was primarily about the disputes between Muslims and Christians. How would you describe the role that religious groups play, how religious actors play in Mindanao? What language would you use to describe them? What are the inadequacies of the characterizations that have been put forth?

SJ: There’s no question that there is a fundamental issue of religious identities involved. But it’s also true that the fundamental conflict is not religious. It’s about control over power and resources. And that control issue extends beyond Christian and Muslim communities to different ethnic identities among people who are Muslims. It also, like many of the conflicts in Indonesia, has an overlay of “indigenous-versus-migrant.” Some of these fundamental power relationships relate to people from upland areas in Mindanao who have been displaced by people from northern parts of the Philippines, who are mostly Christian, coming in and taking over land and political power from the Muslims themselves. The problem, for instance, in the agreement that failed in August 2008, which was trying to define “the Bangsamoro homeland,” was that the MILF [the Moro Islamic Liberation Front] was basically including Lumads, or indigenous people, in their definition of Bangsamoro. And the Lumads objected to this! They didn’t want to be part of the Moro concept of who was defined as a Moro. They wanted a separate identity. There were very definite ancestral land issues that were at the root of why they wanted a separate identity, and the MILF didn’t understand, or didn’t appreciate it fully. So that’s another part of the complexity of the whole process. And it’s why it’s a mistake to see this conflict as “Christian versus Muslim,” or to believe that appealing to religious leaders, such as the Catholic Church or Muslim ulama, will somehow be able to settle it.

DKK: As I hear you describe it, and also and on my reading of the white paper that Myla Leguro and Scott Appleby wrote for the workshop, there seems to be a structural problem that is fed by religion. Right? In other words, there is the structural problem that determines which groups are recognized, and which are not recognized. I think you objected at one point, in your response to their papers, saying “Well, it’s not even simply questions about conversion, but it’s claims about re-version.”

SJ: Yes.

DKK: Which is to say, it is a set of disputes over claims about original identities, originary identities. And these disputes involve appeal to religion to fortify the respective claims about identity. I guess I’m a little stuck, then, on the following. It’s one thing to say, “Well, there are all sorts of mischaracterizations of and misuses of religious identities.” But there are certainly resources in religious communities and religious traditions that could be used as sources of resistance––sources that don’t have to subsumed under the broad dichotomy of “Muslim v. Christian.”

SJ: Yes, let me give you a couple of examples. We had a major massacre in Maguindanao, in central Mindanao, in November 2009, in which one clan killed fifty-seven people—actually, fifty-eight, but one victim was never identified. And there was a sense that, first of all, it was Muslim-on-Muslim violence, in that this one clan leader carried out the massacre as a way of sending a message to his political rival, who was head of another Muslim clan. But there were thirty journalists killed in the process, and most of the journalists were Christian. And some of the Muslims in Mindanao were saying, “If there hadn’t been Christians killed, this issue never would have gotten the international attention it did, because there’s a sense that Muslims are always killing Muslims. So it would have been a horrendous massacre, but it wouldn’t have gotten the same level of attention.”

DKK: There’s a difference in the moral indignation or moral valence in the global community in response to violence against Muslims versus violence against Christians.

SJ: Yes! And then, afterwards, I was talking with the Archbishop of Cotabato, who was saying that there was a sense among his parishioners that the massacre intensified stereotypes of Muslims as violent.

DKK: Hm.

SJ: And therefore it would intensify resistance to any peace agreement that involved power-sharing with the Bangsamoro. So, in that sense, there was definitely a religious element, and stereotypes, involved, and it suggested that there was a role for the church, for example, to try and diminish the force of those stereotypes.

DKK: Yes.

SJ: But it was also true that there was a clear issue of clan rivalry among Muslims that wasn’t necessarily going to be able to be addressed by Islamic ulama. One of the people at this workshop was saying last night that he is a victim of one of these blood feuds among Muslim clans, or between two Muslim clans, I asked him if there was any way that the ulama could play a role in settling those feuds. And he said “No, because the ulama are all situated within the clans. And they wouldn’t accept somebody coming in from outside the clan.” So where is the role of religious leadership in settling that aspect of the violence in Mindanao? And it’s a critically important part of the violence, because the clan structure perpetuates it.

DKK: But when you say “religious leadership,” do you mean local religious leadership? Do you mean transnational religious leadership?

SJ: When I talk about religious leadership in Mindanao, I’m talking about local leadership—except that there’s a big difference between the Islamic and the Christian leadership, or at least the leadership within the Catholic Church. And I think it’s also important to underscore that inasmuch as we’ve been talking about Christians, we’ve only been talking about Catholics. There is also the whole issue of Christian evangelicals, which is a growing community within Mindanao, and their impact has been completely ignored. But when we talk about Catholic leadership, we’re often talking about priests or bishops who come from outside the community. The Catholic Church has a way of posting priests where they’re not necessarily native sons. But within the Islamic clergy, if it’s fair to use that term, there’s no tradition of having anybody from outside the community. And not only that, but one’s sphere of influence is much, much more limited than that of the equivalent role of a priest in the Catholic Church, because the priest, by definition, is part of a broader hierarchy. One of the problems I often see is that Catholics tend to view their Muslim counterparts in their own image, and to assume that Muslim leaders have the same ability to exercise this hierarchical chain-of-command structure, down to the village level, that the Catholics do. It’s a huge mistake to see it in those terms—and it’s one of the weaknesses of the Bishops-Ulama Conference—because they’re not equivalent.

To continue reading, click here for a complete transcript (pdf).—ed.