Young Muslims Face an Uncertain Future

Armed Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) fighters arrive at their camp at Indanan, in southern Jolo, Philippines for a meeting with the high level mission from the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). (Photo: Therence Koh / AFP-Getty Images)

Sept. 2 marked the tenth anniversary of the Final Peace Agreement between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines and the Moro National Liberation Front (GRP-MNLF). The agreement ended almost four decades of conflict between government forces and the MNLF, representing the Muslim minority.

Unfortunately, no visible economic or social progress is evident after ten years. Instead, armed conflict between the MNLF and government troops has erupted in Sulu, an island province of the Philippines. Muslims continue to live harsh lives, marked by the lowest human development indicators in the country: the highest poverty rates; lowest literacy and education rates; poorest access to public services; and high mortality rates. The present is bleak for most young Muslims. Worse, they do not see a better future. Over the last decade, both poverty and armed conflict in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) have propelled many Muslims to take two different paths of escape.

First, peaceful and moderate Muslims have been leaving the ARMM and have established communities outside Muslim Mindanao or left the country. The Muslim diaspora is spread all over the Philippines, with a tiny mosque now ensconced in each province and city. Although no census has been taken, it is estimated that over a million Muslims live outside Mindanao. The largest community is in the Metro Manila region where the Muslim traders have become visible in the pearl and DVD trades. Unfortunately, these communities face increased anti-Muslim bias, triggered by post 9/11 attitudes associating terrorism with Islam.

Second, some peaceful and conservative Muslims are turning to faith, joining fundamentalist groups such as the Tableegh. The failure of modernization and globalization to improve their lives has made a significant segment of the population turn to the basic tenets of Islam, a defense against the perceived immorality of the modern world and anti-Muslim bias. It is this path that concerns non-Muslims.

Young Filipino Muslims are turning to religion for support as they face a future complicated by anti-Muslim bias and injustices. These factors, coupled with the inability of government to provide public services and economic opportunities (a decade after signing a peace accord that promised a better life), have pushed many young Muslims to join more radical elements. Post 9/11, the government's move to secure the state from terrorism — sadly often associated with Muslims — has exacerbated the situation as thousands of Muslims, including children, were illegally detained as terrorist suspects.

If we are to resolve conflicts peacefully and neutralize terrorism, the state should not fear the resurgence of Islam. Rather, the government should be supportive as it has been of Christian revivalism. Fundamentalist Muslims are no different from fundamentalist Christians: both find assurance within the assembly of the faithful. For instance, hundreds of thousands of Catholics, most of whom have experienced hardships, have joined a movement called El Shaddai, a charismatic Catholic sect attracting more than a million followers. They believe that collective prayer will fulfill their dreams. Brother Mike Velarde, a businessman turned preacher, started El Shaddai and has parlayed its popularity into political and economic power, often wooed by the country's top political leaders. The Catholic Church has actually assigned senior prelates to guide El Shaddai.

Fortunately, some progress is occurring. For instance, the Philippine government and the donor community have incorporated capacity building for the Madaris (Islamic schools) in science, math, computer education, and English language training as part of an effort to integrate them into the national educational system. These moves provide devout young Muslim scholars with the skills to become productive members of a globalizing and modernizing community.

More significantly, interfaith dialogue and peace advocacy are gaining strength. Civil society and religious organizations are working together to resolve conflicts and discrimination by focusing on what unites us — love of God, freedom, community and family. The bishops and ulama (Muslim scholars) hold a Bishop-Ulama Forum that meets regularly.

A devout young Muslim wrote to me: "The society where we live now is full of peril. We can no longer live in apathy. We cannot just wait for a miracle to happen. Allah will not change the conditions of our society unless we change it ourselves. …. We have to assert ourselves, and we have to yell to the whole world that we will be what we want to be, because no other than the Muslims themselves know what's best for them."

We need to ask ourselves: do we force these devout, young Muslims towards the path of violent radicalization through prejudice, ignorance and neglect? Or do we allow them the space to live their lives, accepted as fellow citizens? I, for one, have always believed that the threads of diversity, when accepted and celebrated by the nation, create a beautiful tapestry of its peoples.

Amina Rasul-Bernardo is the lead convener of the Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy. This article was originally published by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).