Why the Bangsamoro Organic Law Will Not Be Enough

Today, President Rodrigo Duterte signed the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL).

Well and good.

Coming from a family with roots from Sulu and Zamboanga, I understand why Muslim Filipinos have long struggled for autonomy. I now hope – along with most others – that the BOL becomes a concrete step in attaining peace. With the involvement of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and support of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the BOL effectively ends the rebellion and moves toward self-determination.

But I know that the BOL will not be enough. And I say this not as a politician or a lawmaker or a lawyer, but as a Filipino.

It’s not enough because it puts the responsibility of attaining peace on the shoulders of the Bangsamoro when, on the contrary, that responsibility should be on the shoulders of all Filipinos.

How may we ALL help to usher peace? The answer to that, I believe, rests a lot on equality. Equality in terms of economic opportunities, social services, justice – and respect. The BOL talks a lot about the first three, so I’d like to emphasize the last part.

The Inclusive Task of Peace

Someday, I’d like to see Muslim characters in vlogs, on telenovelas, in music videos. I’d like to see someone like my Muslim cousin from Jolo who just passed a board exam to narrate her love life, talk about the halal food that she likes the most, or rave about her favorite K-pop band. We’re a country made up of 11 million Muslims (according to the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos), and it’s sad to see that there are very, very few relatable stories from Muslim Filipinos figured in our pop culture.

Someday, I’d like to see more hijabis be treated like fashion icons. #HijabiFashion is already a trend in Europe and our neighboring ASEAN countries, and I look forward to the day when the Philippines can put a positive spin in this ubiquitous visual element of Islam.

Yes, we’re all happy because Eid’l Fitr and Eid’l Adha are holidays for all, but we have we really paused to consider what these two occasions mean to Muslim Filipinos? It seems to me that more can be done to make sure these holidays are not just celebrated by a few but are actually occasions that can remind all of us of the joy in our diversity.

In fact, in media, we rarely talk about Islam outside the context of conflict and terrorism. It seems that most headlines would put “Muslim” in the same sentence as “terrorist” or “rebel” or “violence”, even though this very gravely downplays the beauty of the Bangsamoro heritage. Someday, I’d like to see the media turn their attention to Muslim literature, art, fashion, food – and write about the beautiful beaches and bountiful natural resources of places like Sulu and Tawi-Tawi rather than just the conflicts that happen to erupt within them.

Speaking of places, 11% of our population is Muslim, but we don’t dedicate monuments to our Filipino Muslim heritage nor count mosques as landmarks of our nation. Whereas, in the Muslim-dominant Malaysia, the locals are very proud of sites such as the Batu caves (that features the Hindu god Murugan) when in fact only 6% of Malaysians are Hindu.

In Canada, only 20% of Canadians speak French, but both English and French are now considered official languages. If we very roughly try to apply this rule to many cities in Mindanao where >20% of the population is Muslim (even those outside the Bangsamoro region), then wouldn’t it make sense to at least enact official decrees requiring – for instance – prayer rooms and wash rooms installed in every mall, public building, and school?

In fact, most Filipinos may not even realize that, under the blanket term of “Muslim Filipinos” or “Bangsamoro”, there are multiple ethnicities – Maranao, Tausug, Badjao, Maguindanao, Sama, Yakan, Iranun and more – to recognize and treasure.

Indeed, there are many gaps in the way non-Muslim Filipinos know, understand, value, and interact with their Muslim brothers and sisters. But we can’t blame anyone for that.

The problem is systemic. As the daughter of a Muslim Tausug, I was disappointed with the way Philippine history was taught in high school and college. The bigger chunk of my history lessons were concerned with the Spanish and American colonization, and very little can be found of the common Muslim heritage that we all share. Islam, not Christianity, is the first monotheistic religion in the Philippines, and our pre-colonial identity would have very close ties with Islam.

Besides education, not many of our leaders, businessmen, and historical figures are Muslim, and that’s a big problem. That means Filipino Muslims need more seats at the table – not just in their own Bangsamoro territory, but also in the national narrative.

More and more Filipinos should see more and more Muslims take center stage in politics, business, art, drama, sports, travel, and technology because we want not only to recognize our shared Muslim identity but also to be proud of it. Yes, Muslim Filipinos should be encouraged to take up the challenge, but – more importantly – we must pull each other up.

A Call for Empathy

To me, the discourse around the BOL sounds as if we are treating the Bangsamoro people as Muslims who happened to be Filipino. I wish to turn this around and instead say that the Bangsamoro people should be Filipinos who just happened to be Muslim.

Much as I appreciate the BOL for prescribing resolutions to many political and socio-economic solutions, at the core of peace is not merely law and structure but also unity and empathy.

People write lines to divide us – Christian, Muslim, rich, poor, yellow, red – and the challenge for us is to un-write them. What the Bangsamoro people want is what every Filipino wants, and this struggle for peace is an opportunity for us to come together and pitch in. Empathy in action means that we destroy the stereotypes, find common ground, and embrace our diversity not just in Congress, Senate, or Malacañang – but, more importantly, in schools, in the media, in art forms, in businesses, and in everyday conversations.

The real outcome of peace is not only for the Bangsamoro to be able to proudly say “I am a Muslim happily living in the Philippines” but for all Filipinos to be able to say “I am Filipino and part of me is Muslim and that’s something I love about myself.”


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