It has been widely stated that in spite of not having African American heritage, Bill Clinton was America’s “first black president”. This expression tended to become a less common refrain after the 2008 election of Barack Obama, but prior to that time, Clinton was seen as someone who embraced African American culture and was attuned to African American political issues, more so than any of his predecessors.
By contrast, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte actually does have Muslims in his extended family, something which is not entirely surprising given the fact that he hails from Mindanao. But beyond issues of lineage, Duterte has prioritised not only peace but harmonious relations between the Muslims of Bangsamoro and the Roman Catholic majority of The Philippines as a whole.
The history of Moros (Philippine Muslims) is one that is especially noteworthy because of the fact that during the era of Spanish rule, American rule and Japanese rule, the Moros were among the fiercest fighters against any form of foreign subjugation. After The Philippines became an independent country in 1946, many Moros continued to resist rule from “Imperial Manila”, just as they had in respect of Spain, America and Japan.
However, as a post-colonial nation striving for harmonious internal relations between diverse regions and communities, the armed struggle of the Moros tended to represent a lose-lose situation for all involved. And yet, until the arrival of President Duterte, many Moro leaders who sought peace through autonomy and reconciliation did not feel a sense of camaraderie with those ruling form “Imperial Manila” and as such, it was difficult to build the trust necessary to ensure peace in Muslim Mindanao.
Today, this has dramatically changed as Duterte has delivered on his campaign promise to oversee the democratically backed formation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). As such, the new autonomous region is now governed by an autonomous parliament which itself can serve as an inspiration to those seeking a Philippine wide shift to regional autonomy through federalism and national governmental accountability through the establishment of full parliamentary governance.
Duterte’s leadership has won the hearts and minds of Moros who are now united with the national authorities in purging the last remnants of (often foreign backed) extremism from Mindanao. This total shift in the dynamic between Moro leaders and Manila has been made possible not only though Duterte’s implementing of new policies in Bangsamoro, but it also has much to do with Duterte’s personal relationship with Muslims and with the religion of Islam.
Last year, Duterte celebrated Eid al-Fitr (the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan) with Moro leaders, where he delivered a message calling for peace, brotherhood and reconciliation. He stated:
“This is in an opportune time to reflect on the progress we have made to achieve long-lasting peace across the country, especially in Mindanao. May this revered festival inspire us all to foster greater unity amidst our differences in faith and culture. Together, let us engage in acts of charity as we steer our nation towards a more progressive and tolerant future”.
Duterte further called on Moros to “praise Allah in thanksgiving for providing our nation the strength to endure the challenges of misguided ideologies, terrorism and violent extremism“, before stating:
“I trust that the sacrifice of Muslim Filipinos during their month-long fasting has rekindled their faith and reawakened their sense of benevolence and empathy towards their fellowmen”.
Duterte further elaborated on why pan-Philippine federalism will be good not only for Mindanao but for the entire nation. The President stated,
“The time for federalism has come to our country. We have to move away from the style of unitary government. For the time it was good, we were developing as a nation, and history then did not mind the struggles of Christians and Muslims. It’s time for us to understand that they [Muslims] have been victims also of injustice.
We will try to pass the BBL. I hope Chairman Misuari [the leader of MILF] can be convinced to join the talks so that if there are corrections, or maybe additions, or provisions that would not sit well with the rest of the southern part of Mindanao, then maybe we can realise altogether the friction of the MILF, the MNLF, and the rest of Mindanao.
…I am for federalism. I am for peace”.
During a separate address to Moro leaders in April of 2018, Duterte spoke of the fact that far from seeking to humiliate armed Moro groups, he welcomes them to integrate themselves into the armed forces and fight common enemies to peace and freedom. He also stated that in this new era, it is entirely possible for a Moro to one day become the Philippine head of state. Duterte said:
“There will be no regional armed forces or police. I will not agree to that. If we are all Filipinos, why will you have your own army? My army is your army. My police is your police,” the president said. “The (MILF), they can help, they can be absorbed in the armed forces for those willing. So goes with the MNLF. But there will only be one armed forces.
…And if by 2020, we can have a new president or a Moro president for the Republic of the Philippines, the better for us. After all, that person would be a Filipino”
It further helps to reflect on Duterte’s official Ramadan message delivered to Moros during 2018, in order to understand Duterte’s deep personal connection with Moro culture. In his message, Duterte wrote:
“As we set forth into an era of change, one must make sacrifices not only to overcome personal difficulties, but also to create meaningful and lasting strides in our communities. By demonstrating the noble teachings of Islam, it is my fervent hope that you continue to do good deeds for the poor and the marginalized members of society.
This significant event reveals to them the will of Allah and reaffirms their resolve to achieve spiritual cleansing and growth. I ask that you foster a sense of solidarity among all Filipinos by manifesting faith through action. Let us join hands in the shared task of nation-building as we make the Philippines a more inclusive, peaceful, and united country in the years to come”.
Such sincere words have helped Duterte to not only win the political support of Moros but more importantly, he has secured a genuine sense of trust between Manila and the Bangsamoro region – something which previous Filipino leaders had failed to do and something which the Japanese, American and Spanish rulers of The Philippines were never able to do.
Furthermore, by emphasising that The Philippines is a land where freedom of religion is a matter of law, Duterte has helped to weaken the colonial legacy of the Roman Catholic Church which in the past had marginalised non-Catholics through the monopolisation of both political and communal power.
Duterte’s Philippines is one in which local characteristics are stressed as a means of strengthening unity through diversity. This is why although Duterte is a proponent of federalism for the country as a whole, he worked particularly hard to deliver regional autonomy first to Moros – a proud people who are now at peace among each other and at peace with Manila, due to the fact that in heart and spirit, Duterte is in many ways “the first Muslim President of The Philippines”.