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In the Philippines: Harmony in Religious & Cultural Diversity

October 1, 2008

Good morning, magandang umaga, Assalamu Alaykum.

I’m very happy to be here today once again at the invitation of the Young Moro Professionals Networks to be part of the Opening Program of the International Ramadan Fair 2008. Each year The Asia Foundation supports this event due to its crucial importance for our times, as the Young Moro Professionals Network tries “To enhance the perspective of Muslims and Non-Muslims alike on the tenets of Islam, promoting universal principles and values of pluralism, excellence, and justice.”

When speaking of “Harmony in Religious and Cultural Diversity,” these are difficult times with both signs of hope and reasons for pessimism. We can find hope in unity among religions. In the United Kingdom, Jewish Kosher and Muslim Halal butchers were together threatened by a proposed regulation banning their slaughter methods as unnecessarily cruel to animals. Or in France, when Muslim girls were banned from wearing headscarves in public schools, Catholic schools allowed them to wear the scarves.

Yet despair might come because we once again have a controversy about a book ” this time a novel about the Prophet’s (PBUH) wife Aisha. Some find the notion of a book about her offensive ” an American publisher backed away from publishing it, and now the house of the publisher in the United Kingdom was firebombed last Saturday. I take heart from the comments of a Muslim woman, Asra Q Nomani, who wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “This saga upsets me as a Muslim, and as a writer who believes that fiction can bring Islamic history to life in a uniquely captivating and humanising way.”

Here in the Philippines there are those who fear that the uproar over the Memorandum of Agreement between the government and the MILF on Ancestral Domain reflects anti-Moro sentiments. Yet surveys by the Social Weather Stations show that more than 60 percent of Christian Filipinos “have a favorable opinion of Islam, believe Islam respects the beliefs of non-Muslims, and agree it is a peaceful religion.”

How do we find our bearings in the middle of these contradictions? I’d like to go back to something I mentioned last year, a letter to the Pope, to the Archbishop of Canterbury — in fact to all leaders of Christianity — coming from 138 Muslim Scholars from every denomination and school of thought in Islam. The letter is entitled, “A Common Word between Us and You.”

This comes from the verse in the Qur’an where Allah enjoins Muslims to issue the following call to Christians and Jews:

Say: O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God .
The letter pairs this verse with the injunction of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH),
None of you has faith until you love for your neighbor what you love for yourself.

A Christian such as myself will immediately make the connection that the letter makes. When Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment, the New Testament writes that he responded:
‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and will all your mind.’
This is the first and the greatest commandment.
And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

The letter is long and scholarly but this is the basic theme. That the fate of the world depends on the People of the book coming to a common word ” based on these two points: love of God and love of neighbor.

In the year since the letter was released, there have been many responses from Christians and Jews, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. As a Roman Catholic, I paid particular attention to the response of the Jesuit priest Daniel Madigan of the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims. As is so often true in dialogues such as these, I learned new things about my own faith in reading Father Madigan’s response to the letter of the Muslim leaders. But let me just take one point from his response, where he reads from the Muslim scholars’ letter, “where Christians are assured in Part III that Muslims ‘are not against them and that Islam is not against them.’ Then come the conditions (stipulated in Q 60:8): ‘so long as they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them and drive them out of their homes.’”

And of course, he calls for dialogue on the scope of conditions ” certainly a point of contention when we consider the situation of Israelis and Palestinians, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or what some call the global war on terror. We in the Philippines don’t have to look outside the country to wonder what counts as waging war against Muslims, given the current situation in Mindanao. I have tried to be clear on several occasions about my thoughts and will try once again.

First, the worst possible development would be if current controversies were perceived to be (and therefore really became) a division between Christians and Muslims. In this regard we must remember both that there are many Christians who supported the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain, and there are Muslims who opposed it (such as Lanao del Norte Representative Abdullah Dimaporo and Sultan Kudarat Governor Mangudadatu ” both of whom would lose municipalities if the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity was expanded as described in the Memorandum).

Secondly, many of the objections to the Memorandum are quite reasonable. I have often mentioned that local government leaders who lose territory to a Bangsamoro Juridical Entity lose revenues that they need to serve their constituents. And Muslims in Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi can feel that focus on “Ancestral Domain” might be misplaced since all of it (except Isabela City on the Island of Basilan) is already within the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

Third, we must find a way to involve a broader array of people and groups in the search for peace for Mindanao. Earlier this year, the Mindanao Working Group (which brings together international donors, government agencies, and other stakeholders in Mindanao) called for”greater stakeholder participation”since they must be regularly informed by the government and the MILF as to the progress of the peace negotiations.” The response from the peace panels was that the negotiations must be kept confidential, but if we have learned anything in the past two months it is that presenting the public with a finished document at the end of the negotiating process led to surprise and controversy. Consultations must happen earlier in the process.

Finally, though fighting between elements of the MILF and the military continue to make peace a distant prospect, leaders on both sides are looking for a way forward. There are many people of good will, both foreign and domestic, who wish to help all sides reach peaceful solutions that realize the legitimate aspirations of the Filipino nation and the Bangsamoro people within the territorial integrity of the Philippine state.

The Asia Foundation partners with many organizations ” Christian and Muslim, government and nongovernment, the private sector and the religious ” since we believe that all have a role in moving towards a peaceful, prosperous, just, and democratic Philippines. We are particularly proud of our partnership with the Young Moro Professionals Network in bringing the annual International Ramadan Fair to the city of Manila.

Thank you very much, maraming salamat, daghang salamat.

Eid Mubarak!

Steve Rood is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in the Philippines. Below was taken from his address to the Young Moro Professional Networks’ 2008 International Ramadan Fair on October 1, 2008. He can be reached at srood@asiafound.org.

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