Engaging Islam in Mindanao


Map of the Philippines showing the location of...

Map of the Philippines showing the location of Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Understanding and Engaging the Muslims of the Southern Philippines
Diana Dunham-Scott

Pardee RAND Graduate School

Despite significant progress made in quelling the latent Muslim insurgency in the Southern Philippines, there remains a divide between the people of the region and the agencies, military and civilian, local and foreign, that have been sent to foment peace. Diana Dunham-Scott of the Pardee RAND Graduate School went to the region to find out why. Her conclusions, while seemingly common-sense, have implications that go far beyond Mindanao, and indeed reach into China.

Dunham-Scott discovered that much of the problem lies in the degree to which military, police, and civilians sent to the region are educated about the local culture specifically and Islam in general. This is little surprise in an archipelago ruled from its Roman Catholic capital. At the same time, it is discouraging to consider that sectarian conflict has a long history in the Philippines, and perhaps these lessons are long past their due date.

For all of her soft criticism of local officials, Dunham-Scott aims her most pointed conclusions and recommendations against the U.S. military and civilian agencies operating in the region. With the United States well into its second decade grappling with violent Muslim extremism, the policy failure implicit in sending to the region personnel unprepared to operate there is near unforgivable.

Fortunately, Dunham-Scott is not a polemicist. Instead, she underscores the importance of lessons the U.S. military has learned from over a century of irregular warfare. Know the customs and respect them. Culture matters. Language matters. Power is as likely to come from the pages of a book or the mouth of an aged Imam as it is from the barrel of a gun. It is clear the Yanks are learning, but Dunham-Scott’s meticulous research underscores that more needs to be done.

If it is wise, China is watching. The nation faces a growing challenge administering its own Muslim minority, and the country’s needs and ambitions are taking it far from the Han heartland. If it has hopes to build soft power and influence from among the Muslim populations within and beyond its borders, it needs to learn from America’s mistakes, not repeat them.

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