Presidential candidate Mar Roxas described the incident in Zamboanga City in 2013 involving some members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) as the “invasion of the ‘Muslim na mananakop’” of the city. Obviously for some, if not most non-Moros, there is no distinction among us: we are all the same, we are all Muslims, we are all MNLF members or Abu Sayyaf members. It does not matter who does what, if they are “Muslim type” all Filipino Muslims are guilty. This generalisation does not happen with the non-Moros at all. There has never been a “Christian type” criminal, nor should there be. This dangerous sweeping statement spawns the kind of Trumpism happening in the United States right now that demonises all Mexicans and all Muslims.
Let us go back 104 years and look at a significant history in the land of “Muslim na Mananakop” and know that back then, and way before that, Muslims, particularly the Tausugs, Samas and others already inhabit the land of Zamboanga and the islands nearby. As one respected Moro intellectual, Mehol K. Sadain raised, “Kelan pa nagging mananakop ang mga Muslim sa kanilang sariling bayan?” Kawashima Midori’s monograph of the “Petition of Zamboanga Muslim Leaders to the Ottoman Empire in 1912” gives an interesting account of the intersection of the Ottoman Empire, Palestine and the Muslims in the Philippines which I prefer to call the Bangsamoro.
In 1912, under the leadership of Haji Abdullah Nuño, a Balangingi-Sama, fifty-eight Zamboanga Muslim leaders requested that the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet V sends a representative to the Muslims in the Philippines to assist them in religious matters. The petition was delegated through the former governor of the Zamboanga District, American meteorologist John Park Finley and presented to the Sultan the following year. What is interesting about Haji Abdullah Nuño, the son of Panglima Taupan, was that he was captured when he was ten years old by the Spaniards and brought to Cavite in Luzon. He was baptized as Antonio de la Cruz. He somehow managed to return to Zamboanga and went back to his religion Islam and became a leader of his fellow Muslims. The Haji in his name is, of course, indicative of his having done a pilgrimage to Makkah (twice) where he learned more about his religion.
The Shaykh al-Islam of the Ottoman Empire did send an official named, Sayyid Muhammad Afandi Wajih al-Jilani (Wajih al-Jilani al-Nablusi) from Nablus, Palestine who arrived in the Philippines in 1914, thirty-four years before the Nakba when the Palestinians themselves would also have to continuously fight for their land, religion and freedom until this very day. Wajih al-Jilani al-Nablusi’s visit was well received by the Muslims and he was given the position equivalent to Shaykh al-Islam in the Philippines. This is according to an account of Sheikh Ahmad Bashir, a Meranao scholar. The latter even considers the Palestinian’s visit as the starting point of the Islamic education movement in the Philippines. This demonstrates the interconnectedness of the Muslims in the Philippines—what happened in Zamboanga had a ripple effect in other parts of Mindanao and Sulu. Wajih al-Jilani al-Nablusi, accordingly returned a second time to the Philippines using his own money when the Shaykh al-Islam of the Ottoman Empire stopped his salary and did not want him involved in the Philippines any longer. His journey paved the way for other Arab and Malay scholars to go to Mindanao and Sulu and acted “as stimuli for some Philippine Muslim intellectuals” in the years to come, according to Midori.
What was the significance of the American Finley’s participation in this petition to the Ottoman Sultan? Well, apparently because Finley “believed that a ‘good Mohammedan’ is also a good citizen.” As a matter of fact, Nuño’s letter requests for an emissary who can help them combine “[their] customs and laws and… that of the principles and laws of the American government.” So, even when Muslims in Zamboanga were already colonised by the Americans, they were considering making their religion work with the new set-up of government. Nuño’s ready acceptance of the American colonisers was because the latter were not trying, at least openly, to interfere with the religion and the customs of the people.
Some Filipinos might have forgotten their history, or might not want to remember history at all, but the Bangsamoro do not forget their history. In fact, appropriating the word Moro, despite its negative and colonial meanings is part of their remembering the past—a consciousness that they belong to a wider community of Muslims. We were called Moros by the Spaniards because we reminded them of their almost eight hundred years of struggling for independence from Moorish rule. As Midori, writing of the American government then in Zamboanga, says:
” What the America officials could not bring under their control was the transmission of memories and information regarding al-Jilani’s [al-Nablusi] visit. The gifts from the Ottoman Sultan were kept and displayed at the Taluksangay Mosque to serve as a reminder of the link with a winder community of Muslims.”
The gifts of the Sultan may no longer exist, nor the Taluksangay Mosque, nor
Zamboanga as the Tausugs, Sama and others had known how it used to be–but histories, memories and stories remain etched in our minds and hearts. Every time we are made to defend who we are or who we are not, we go back to our over half a millennium history and remind ourselves of our proud history and pass it on to the new generation. How can we forget? Most of these events were inked with our blood.
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Convention of Moros at the Moro Exchange at Taluksangay on May 15-17, 1911. (1) Datu Sakaluran; (2) Datu Gogo; (3) Haji Abdullah Nuño; (4) Missionary Lund; (5) Governor Finley; (6) Datu Mandi (7) Imam Antasari. John P. Finley Papers at the Archives of the U.S. Army Military Historical Institute, Carlisle Barracks, PA, USA. Source: Kawashima Midori