Abu Sayyaf: Displays of Violence and the Proliferation of Contested Identities among Philippine Muslims

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  • C H A R L E S 0 . F R A K E / S T A T E U N I V E R S I T Y O F N E W Y O R K A T B U F F A L O

    Abu SayyafDisplays of Violence and the Proliferation of Contested Identitiesamong Philippine Muslims

    Killing is an act of classification.Michael Herzfeld, paraphrasing Edmund Leach1

    "ABU SAYYAF" BECAME, on April 4, 1995, a new andnotorious identity label throughout the Philippines. Itsubsequently received worldwide press attention. OnMay 26, the International Herald Tribune featured astory, dramatically illustrated with a pagewide photo,obviously staged, of prototypic terrorists trying to lookgrim (a difficult task for Filipinos, Muslim or Christian)while brandishing a threatening variety of weapons.The headline read: "Islamic Rebels Stun Manila withTheir Ferocity" (see Figure 1). The stunning display offerocity was an attack, attributed to the Abu Sayyaf, onthe Christian town of Ipil, in western Mindanao, by a siz-able number of raiders who robbed banks, looted shops,killed some 40 people, and reportedly abducted manyothers. The actual details of the incident and the identi-ties of the perpetrators are unclear, but the impact onPhilippine perceptions of a 400-year history of Musliminsurgency is abundantly plain. My concern here is notwith documenting the events themselves or ChristianPhilippine reactions to them, but rather with examiningthe entailment of these events and perceptions with thechanging social, political, and cultural worlds of MuslimFilipinos. The examination must be historically embed-ded, not only because the current situation is a verycomplex product of both history and local perceptionsof history, but also because on-the-spot ethnographicdocumentation of violent acts is difficult to obtain and,if obtained, sensitive to report.2

    This history of local violence, old and recent (likeall histories imperfectly understood), contains lessonsrelevant to current concerns about the sources and ef-

    CHARLES 0. FRAKE is the Samuel P. Capen Professor of Anthropology inthe Department of Anthropology, State University of New York at Buffalo,Buffalo, NY 14261

    fects of displays of violence throughout the world. Cur-rent violence, in the mountains of Bosnia, the streets ofNew York, the pubs of Belfast, the subways of Tokyo,and the islands of the Philippines, is, in the situation andmoment of occurrence, an act of individuals with indi-vidual motives and intent. Someone has to pull the trig-ger, activate the bombs, or plant the gas capsules. A ma-jor motive in human life, on occasion not even second tosurvival, is the need to be somebody. To be somebody,one must have recognition from one's fellows. Violence,by threatening survival, one's own as well as others',provides a sure route to recognition. But who are one'sfellows? Who are those like you? And who are the "oth-ers," those to whose fate one can be indifferent? Whomshould you seek to kill? And who is out to kill you?These are the issues from the individual perspective.From the wider social and political perspective onemust ask, what are the conditions of conflict and whatare the available resources for identity construction?And, historically, how did these particular conditionsand resources come to be at hand? Fully appreciatingthe power of each of these perspectives (agentive,structural, and historical) within a single account is thenecessary but elusive goal of any proper social theory.3The issue is manifest in the paradox posed by MichaelHerzfeld (1993) in his classic study of bureaucracy: howcan notably gracious, kind, hospitable people be, attimes, so maddeningly indifferent to their fellows? Thisis a paradox of individual actions. The traditional expla-nation of bureaucratic behavior, given scholarly sup-port by Weber and Tonnies, is structural: bureaucracy isthe niche of "modern rationality." Ties of gemein-schaftliche kindness and feeling are not relevant in thisrealm of implacably rational Gesellschaft. But this ex-planation, as Herzfeld nicely shows, is part of the prob-lem to be explained. Its invocation allows bureaucraticpractice to be a form of symbolic violence against theother. Unlike bureaucracy, militant insurgency confronts

    ^-American Anthmoologist 100(1 ):41-54. Copyright 1998, American Anthropological Association.


    Figure 1A display of violence: Abu Sayyaf fighters pose for the press. Drawing by Terence Loan, based on newspaper photos of purported Abu Sayyafinsurgents, with modifications to disguise persons and place. Used by permission.

    us not with a form of symbolic violence, but rather withthe symbolic implications of the practice of unarguablyreal violence. Killing a fellow human is the ultimate madexpression of indifference, a convincing way of class-ifying someone as the other.

    Herzfeld's paradox is relevant here because, as I orany other ethnographer of the southern Philippines cantestify, Philippine Muslims (like all Filipinos) are as hos-pitable, friendly, kind, cheerful, and helpful on most oc-casions (outside government offices and combat zones)as one could possibly desire. Members of the AbuSayyaf are no exception. But there is yet another para-dox that arises in this case: why is it that this 400-yearconflict has been characterized by a proliferation ofcontested identities among the insurgents, among thosewho most need to be united? Muslims in the Philippineshave no more been able to present a united front tothose whom they consider their oppressors than haveothers in similar conflicts elsewhere in the world. Why

    is it that in conflict it is so often the weaker side thatfragments into rival factions? Is this another case of themysterious force of "hegemony"? The oppressed seemsomehow to be duped into practices detrimental totheir own interests. But how? And by what agency? Anexamination of the Philippine case reveals the challeng-ing complexities of identity construction to be faced inany attempt to reach an understanding of these issues.

    A digression deserving more attention than a noteis required. I will be talking about labels, proclaimedand imposed, for identities. The highly problematic ref-erence and symbolism of these labels is a subject of thisinquiry But before we can begin talking, we need labelsto identify, at least provisionally, the players in this grimgame. Following traditional Philippinist scholarly prac-tice, I will simply use "Christian" and "Muslim" to distin-guish the major divide among identities in this part ofthe Philippines. This choice should offer no offense toanyone on either side of the divide, or to those who

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    straddle it. These are, however, only labels. They arenot descriptions. The actual religious, ethnic, national,or class components of the identities of those so labeledis, again, a matter for investigation.

    The recent notoriety of the name Abu Sayyaf is notthe first time in the long history of Philippine Christian-Muslim conflict that a label of Muslim identity hasstruck terror in Christian hearts. The first terrorist la-bel, Mow, was imposed by the Spanish themselves andhas haunted Philippine Christians ever since. The Span-ish arrived in the 16th century, rapidly Christianizingthe lowland portions of the northern and central is-lands. But in the south, Islam was too firmly entrenchedto be removed. To these pertinacious Muslims the Span-ish gave the same name they had attached to their long-time Muslim enemies in Spain. They were the Moors, theMoros. And the bearers of this terrorist identity im-posed by the Spanish did indeed create terror. Duringthe following two centuries, Philippine Muslims, takingadvantage of their strategic position, frustrated Spanishefforts to gain access to the Spice Islands to the south.The Spanish, consequently, felt forced to abandon Ter-nate, the central Spice Island, after a brief occupation.After failing to gain control of the two major Moropower centers in central Mindanao and on the island ofJolo in the Sulu Archipelago, the Spanish built a militarybase located between them at Zamboanga, on the tip ofthe southwestern peninsula of Mindanao. This base wasgarrisoned by Christian Filipino soldiers and sailorswho spoke a variety of central Philippine ("Bisayan")languages, who intermarried with immigrant and localwomen speaking an even greater variety of languages,and who raised families among speakers of a similar va-riety of local languages. Out of this situation therearose, as a native language and local lingua franca, aSpanish Creole locally known as "Chabacano" or "Zam-boangueno." With this language, a new local identitywas born.

    To Christian Filipinos, the base at Zamboanga musthave seemed more a prod that stimulated Moro aggres-sion than a shield that deterred it. The central and north-ern islands of the Philippines were plagued for threecenturies by raids of plunder and pillage from the south,terrors that have been enshrined in popular folklore andfolk drama in the Christian and pagan Philippines.4 Al-though typically all raiders from the south were called"Moros," a few other, ostensibly more specific labelssometimes gained prominence. In this atmosphere ofviolence, what promoted an identity distinguishablefrom the ordinary violent Moro was a display of extraor-dinary fierceness, on the one hand, or of exemplary do-cility, on the other. "Tidong," "Ilanun," and "Balangingi"'were, at various time in history, the bad guys; "Lutao,""Samal," and "Bajao" were the (relatively) good guys.Neither set of identities was typically "Moro." In fierce-

    ness of reputation, the former, like the Abu Sayyaf to-day, rose above an ordinary wMoro" identity, whereasthe latter fell below it (Frake 1980:311-332, 1996).These were distinctions imposed by outsiders on a cul-tural world of which they had little understanding. Yetthey do reflect something of the bases of differentiationrecognized by the Muslims themselves. In fact, eachside provides for the other the context for giving mean-ing and purpose to displays of violence. Being recog-nized by outsiders because of displays of stunning fe-rocity becomes, with opposite evaluations, a basis ofinternal recognition, differentiation, and ranking. Buttalk of "sides" introduces an anachronistic distortion ofthe Muslim perspective. During most of the 400-year his-tory of Christian-Muslim struggle, the players on theMuslim side played without benefit of any encompass-ing framework of a Moro (that is, a Philippine Muslim)identity. The Muslim appropriation of the Christian-im-posed identity of "Moro" is a recent event in this unfold-ing story of identity construction.

    If it is "anachronism" (history's version of the an-thropologist's "ethnocentricism") to project a presentconception onto the past, it is equally a distortion, oneakin to the anthropologist's tendency toward "exoti-cism," to construct, as a beginning point of one's his-tory, an imagined past of unchanging traditional socie-ties, each a neatly bundled package of cultural,linguistic, and political distinctiveness. When the Span-ish arrived in the 16th century, they found peoples in themidst of rapid economic and ideological changes, im-pelled by long involvement in a proto-world system fo-cused on a circulation of tropical products, Chinesemanufactures, and Hindu symbols. Local societies, incompetition for power and wealth, were manipulatingmaterial and symbolic resources, of cultural identitywith as much fierceness as today. Local traditions, frag-mentary historical sources (largely Chinese), and lin-guistic evidence (relevant archaeology is practicallynonexistent) enable us to project this picture of changeand complexity back several hundred years prior to thecoming of the Spanish. In known history, the big pre-Spanish event was the appearance of Islam in the south-ern Philippines, beginning at least by the 14th century.5Islam's triumph here, as elsewhere in island SoutheastAsia, was a conquest not of invading peoples but of aninviting identity, a new kind of cosmopolitan identitythat was particularly appealing to seafarers and tradersin a vast multicultural, maritime area that reached fromChina to southeastern Asia and across the Indian Oceanto South Asia, Arabia, and East Africa.

    Well before Islam arrived in the Philippines, theSulu Archipelago, which straddled the trade routes be-tween the Spice Islands to the south and China to thenorth, had been playing a major role in this commerce.The rising prominence, as an entrepot and a political

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    Figure 2The southern Philippines. Map by Terence Loan. Used by permission.

    power, of Jolo,the archipelago's central island, entaileda very revealing example of identity construction withconsequences that still inform current events in thesouthern Philippines. We do not know quite what hap-pened, but we do know the outcome. A new languageand a new identity appeared in Jolo that distinctlystands out amidst the other Sulu languages, all of whichform a closely knit group of "Samalan" languages.6 Thisnew language was one of the Central Philippine lan-guages of the Bisayan group, closely affiliated with lan-guages spoken now by Christians in the Butuan area ofnortheastern Mindanao, some 500 miles by water fromJolo (Figure 2). The language, as well as the identity ofits speakers, have come to be called "Tausug" in con-trast to what the bearers of this new identity called the"Samal," a language and identity attributed to mostother peoples of the archipelago.7 The appearance of aBisayan language in Sulu could have been the result of apopulation intrusion from northeastern Mindanao or ofthe appropriation, by local Samalan speakers, of a new

    language, access to which was achieved through tradeand intermarriage, as a means of securing economic andpolitical domination by means of a cultural identity dis-tinct from those now deemed inferior.8 An ethnohistori-cal account, which survives locally among both Tausugand Sama speakers, enshrines the Tausug accomplish-ment in a story that reverses known historical fact: itmakes the Tausug the original occupants of Sulu andrelegates the Sama to the status of late, post-Islamic ar-rivals invited by the Tausug to work for them in mari-time endeavors, a sort of seagoing Gastarbeiter What-ever the actual events and their sequence, it is clearthat, with the arrival of Islam, the Tausug embraced thenew religion, giving it a prominent role in securing adominant mercantile and militant identity in Sulu andsouthwestern Mindanao.9 Their rivals in central Min-danao, already securely distinct from their neighbors inlanguage, gained, at t...


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