All posts by jmelvin

From Wedding Bombers to Politicians, The Moro Islamic Liberation Front

Hundreds of years ago, Spanish colonists entered the Philippines, converting the local Muslim population to Christianity in order to maintain control. A small group of Muslims, known as the “Moro”, refused to convert and found themselves pushed to the countries southernmost islands. They have stayed there to modern times, making up the 5% of the Philippines population that practices Islam.  Anger over the Moro situation has surfaced for years in the form of violent guerrilla groups, but only recently has the prospect of political change for the Moro’s emerged. This change is the product of the late Hashim Salamat, the founder of the largest separatist group within the Philippines, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, dubbed the MILF, were revolutionary in their approach to what the government recognizes as the “Moro problem”. Under Salamat, the group took a policy of  consolidation and steady resistance, a far cry from the terrorist-like actions of previous separatists. Salamat believed that political interaction was necessary to truly improve the lives of the Moro’s, understanding firsthand that senseless violence against both the Government and random Christians was pointless.

Before founding the MILF, Salamat was a leader in the more radical Moro National Liberation Front, a group that frequently aligned itself with terrorists like Abu Sayyaf and the New People’s Army. Despite his work to link the group with these dangerous allies, Salamat secretly disliked how radical connections alienated the movement from the more moderate and political organizations. Following an especially rough period of violent activity, Salamat and like-minded leaders split to form the MILF, choosing their home base to be within the southern island of Mindanao.

Within Mindanao they took over the local government and began to consolidate resources and build up an a trained military of over 90,000, enough to prevent government assaults on their territory. In 1996 Salamat then revealed his groups power to the government, and for the first time since colonialism began  negotiations between Muslims and Christians. The negotiations were far from peaceful, leaving 120,000 dead and over a million displaced. It wasn’t until 2012 that the groups reached a historically pro-Muslim agreement, that provided the MILF with official government-like powers over the southern regions and a seat within the greater Philippines government. Alongside this, the deal removed the MILF’s designation as a terrorist organization, changing them into a the political entity Salamat had envisioned.

This development prompted a new age of MILF activity within the Philippines. MILF Separatists and the Philippine Government now acted as political opponents rather than warring countries. The Front cut ties with violent groups like Abu Sayyaf in an attempt to further improve their image, and furthermore rewrote their constitution to demonstrate their new political interests. Their old motto, “Jihad in the way of Allah” has been replaced with a far more moderate sounding “intent to establish equal rights and overcome corruption and social problems”, and although Salamat passed away during this period of reformation, the new head Al-Hadj Murad Ibrahim has carried the torch in publicly denouncing extremism of all types. The MILF-controlled Mindanao region now receives foreign aid from larger countries such as the USA, and the group is active in the fight against extremism within the Muslim regions of the Philippines.

With collaborations between the government and the MILF at an all-time high, popular leader and Mindanao native Rodrigo Duterte has begun pushing for a unifying law known as the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) which is set to quell any further conflicts between the Muslim population and the government. Duterte has pushed the BBL to the top of his government’s to-do list, pledging to provide the Muslim population with the stability and political representation they deserve, saying in solidarity that he will get the law passed. Salamat’s separatists have come a long way from their wedding-bombing past, but accomplishing multiple centuries of work within a decade may bring unforeseen consequences.

“Taliban Khan” Takes a “Conventional Swing” at America

     Imran Khan is the face of populism for the quickly modernizing Pakistan, speaking for the growing number of young and aspirational middle-class Pakistanis. Formerly the captain of the renowned and nationally cherished Shaheen’s Men in Green, Pakistan’s national cricket team, Khan took the political scene by storm in 2012 with his incredibly successful run for presidency. His entrance was opportunistic, as the country had just emerged from a 70 year military dictatorship and was currently seeing many members of the previously dominant PPP (Pakistani People’s Party) brought up on corruption charges. Preaching development, modernization, and an overall better life for the millions of lower-classed Pakistani’s, Khan appeared ready to change Pakistan for the better.

Khan became the leader of the populist PTI Party, the Pakistani Movement of Justice whose main goal is to empower the people to feel more influence and connection to the government. After a time of military dictatorship and harsh regulations, Khan believes that it is time for political change to enhance the future of Pakistan. Tragically, despite the millions of working-class Pakistani’s who donned the PTI colors of red and green daily and the thousands of foreign Pakistani’s who flew in to vote for their country’s future, Khan found himself defeated by the PML-N Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz on election day, 2012. In retrospect Khan’s million middle-class voters amounted to nothing when compared to the ten million illiterate farmers who supported his career-politician of an opponent, a reality that has forced him to mold his beliefs into something more universally appealing, a thing not so kindly received by the west.

His policies and rhetoric preach anti-Americanism, a fitting policy considering that 87% of Pakistanis consider America an enemy. Khan, an admittedly devout Muslim, views America’s influence in Pakistan as uninformed and unhelpful. He believes the American government is ignorant to the devotion and principles followers of Islam uphold and, that American’s see religious devotion and immediately think extremism. America has been active in Pakistan for over 8 years, and Khan is fairly correct when stating that the War on Terrorism has made little progress. With violence appearing unsuccessful and extremist anti-Americanism on the rise, Khan intends to turn to a solution staunchly opposed by US policy, he wants to bring the Taliban to the debate table.

This rhetoric is terrifying to both America and the greater West, but it should not come as a surprise. The Taliban have incredible clout politically within Pakistan, acting far more politically than the cave-dwelling suicide bombers many envision. During the previous election season, Taliban militants promised not to bomb the rallies of both the currently dominant PML-N Party and Khan’s own PTI Party, with other rally-bombings preventing the rise of other political groups. This, coupled with Khan’s hatred of the crucial anti-Taliban drone strikes and the US interventions within his country, provides more potency to the fear that terrorists may soon have a formal seat in the Pakistani government. It’s not as if Pakistani citizens all support terrorism, but a growing number have begun questioning the western opposition to the Taliban, something apparent in Khan’s overwhelming victories in the Northern areas most strongly influenced by the Taliban. Even Khan himself has publicly stated that the war on terrorism is fruitless, believing that ”We are not winning the war” and furthermore that “ All the Taliban have to do to win the war is not lose it”. Khan sees negotiations as the best route to peace, something America views as surrender to the Taliban.

     This isn’t the first time Khan has come into conflict with America. From birth he was a problem, coming from the nationalist and historically violent Pashtun tribe, a group America views as extremist. Maybe Khan has a point. Maybe the west has a distorted viewpoint of Islamic devotion, and maybe it is appropriate to provide even the most extreme groups with a formal audience. We may not want this, but it is obviously in the interest of the Pakistani people, who share both a majority opposition to the foreign policies on terrorism and a majority interest in change. Khan is seen as the populist savior of Pakistan, possessing the influence and skills necessary to move his country out of the dictatorship it once was. But it is his direction that worries the U.S.. Despite his interest in freedom and his constant promotion of the common man, Khan’s visibly extremist policies are cause for concern. He embraces the calls of his people with a clarity and directness that causes only concern to the Western World.