I am honored to have represented Extremely Together during the “Youth as Protagonists in Preventing Violent Extremism” panel at the first-ever United Nations High-Level Conference on Counter-Terrorism held in June in New York. The event was made possible by the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF) and the delegation of the State of Qatar to the UN. This was my message.
Esteemed ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon.
I’m very honored to be here today in front of leaders such as yourself, because – to be honest with you – I don’t think I can be accorded the same honor in the Philippines. The topic of violent extremism and its root problems has been pushed down in the daily Filipino discourse; current priorities are the war on drugs and criminality, the death penalty, among others.
However, the problem is that when we look at the numbers, the issue begs our attention. Between January 2016 and March 2018, there were 254 attacks that could be attributed to pro-IS groups, accounting for nearly 1,500 deaths. In May 2017, militants laid siege to Marawi City in Southern Philippines with the objective of raising the ISIL flag and creating ISIL territory. This ignited into a 5-month battle that killed 1,000 people and displaced about 1.1 million civilians.
Beyond the numbers, this topic is very personal to me.
I’m the daughter of a Catholic father and a Muslim mother, and I grew up feeling caught in the crossfire in a society with a history of tension and enmity between Christian and Muslim Filipinos.
I’m also a native of Zamboanga, one of the provinces in Southern Mindanao that have been badly affected by such terrorist acts. My own relatives and neighbors receive letters of warning from potential kidnappers. Some I know perished in the war on terror. And I know what it’s like to live daily in fear that the next attack is just around the corner.
As a result, I could not choose to turn my back on the issue of violent extremism.
At 16 years old, I started working with local communities to build libraries, provide scholarships, and organize immersive experiences that promote peace between young Christian and Muslim Filipinos and provide learning opportunities for vulnerable young people in areas affected by conflict and poverty. The organization I helped to found was called Kristiyano-Islam Peace Library, or KRIS Library, for short.
The past 7 years of working with KRIS Library has been an uphill climb. As a small non-profit organization, we could not command vast resources and relied instead on partnerships with other NGO’s, schools, and government agencies who worked on preventing violent extremism (VE) – and there are few groups in the Philippines who do so. Most large, international charities and agencies were based in Manila or Northern Philippines and had few resources to invest in the conflict areas down South. In our relationships with government agencies, we had to be cautious due to political issues. In some cases, we could not work with local government leaders such as Mayors or Governors because we knew that some of them are embroiled in allegations of corruption and violence – factors, we feel, that contribute to the grievances of VE actors. On the national level, VE is treated as a war to be fought with guns, bombs, and soldiers, rather than as a problem to be solved with socio-economic solutions and better governance.
But despite the uphill climb, young Filipinos such as myself continue to be hopeful.
After years of a “War on Terror”, young Filipinos are starting to realize that such a war has prolonged the terror rather than diminish it. We are starting to understand that terror and VE in the Philippines is not just a problem on its own; it’s a byproduct of structural problems – such as poverty, discrimination, and historical grievances – that have not been resolved. We are also more energized to create solutions because we have social media, technology, and global connections on our side.
One example of a global connection that has overwhelmingly supported work such as mine is Extremely Together. Two years ago, former UN. Secretary-General Kofi Annan recruited 10 young people from all over the world to work together to counter VE worldwide. Since our first meeting in Geneva in 2016, we have created toolkits and videos to teach other young people about preventing violent extremism (PVE) and how they can get involved and have piloted classes on PVE in Morocco and other countries. The crux of our work is really to provide a counter-narrative to extremist thought within an empowering movement by youth for youth.
Movements such as Extremely Together empower local initiatives by providing validation, guidance, funding, and mentorship. It is immensely humbling – and empowering – to know that my little work in my little part of the world is a thread woven in a global story in PVE. This is why I can keep going.
Back in the Philippines, I am saddened to report that the discourse on violent extremism and terrorism has changed. It seems that some in power have alarmingly expanded the definition of “terrorist”; human rights advocates, missionaries, political dissenters and journalists have been treated as though they are as dangerous as ISIL, Abu Sayyaf, or the Maute group. Policies such as the death penalty and the war on drugs strike fear and create more grievances. All in all, we are cowed into fear, rather than moved to action.
If our own leaders cannot provide the right direction in preventing VE, then we only have two options. We can find other leaders to look up to such as the people in this room, or we can create our own success stories to inspire others who can inspire others and so on. In my opinion, it’s best to do both.