If the Philippine military wants to win its fight against Islamic extremism, it needs to work with the community rather than following a policy of going it alone.
By Umair Jamal
General Gilbert Gapay, chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) recently said that security agencies plan to monitor Muslim schools in the country to stop possible infiltration by militants.
Muslim leaders have termed Gapay’s remarks “dangerous and unfair” and called for better collaboration between Muslim groups and the military.
Evidence suggests that militants linked to the Islamic State have been using Islamic schools to radicalize young students, but the Filipino military and Muslim organizations need to work together to counter violent extremism in the country.
Why is the Filipino military monitoring the country’s schools?
The AFP chief recently told journalists that the country’s security agencies will monitor Islamic schools in areas where the Islamic State might attempt to recruit. According to the Philippines Department of Education, there are 500 registered Islamic schools in the country. However, there are many others that are not registered with the education department but continue to operate.
“We are coordinating now with the Department of Education, looking into different schools, particularly in Sulu and other parts of Mindanao,” Gapay said, referring to largely Muslim parts of the southern Philippines. “It is in one of these institutions or areas where recruitment is occurring particularly [among] the youth,” he added.
In the past two years, at least five suicide bombings have taken place in the country. A bombing incident in June 2019 involved the first identified Filipino suicide bomber, raising fears about the penetration of militant groups like the Islamic State in the country. Further, in August 2020, a suicide bombing in Sulu killed 17 people and wounded 74 others, including the two attackers. “We cannot imagine a Filipino really being recruited or being used as a suicide bomber. Usually, we expect that that suicide bombers would be foreign terrorists that have slipped here in our country but we were really surprised when we had that first incident in 2019 in the person of Mr. Lasuca,” Gapay said.
Why are Muslim leaders angry over the military’s monitoring announcement?
The National Ulema Conference (NUC) of the Philippines, an organization representing Islamic scholars, has said that the military’s plans can complicate the existing shaky relationship between Muslims and the country’s security sector.
“It’s wrong to say that madrassas [Islamic schools] are being used for terror groups’ recruitment. I am a product of madrassas and extremism was not taught to us,” said one of the leaders of the NUC. “Maybe the militants operate their own Islamic school, but in general Islamic schools are not used for recruitment,” he added.
While responding to Gapay’s statement about developing programs to counter violent extremism at Islamic schools, Uztadz Hakimi Dimakuta, a Muslim religious leader, emphasized that extremism was not being taught in Islamic schools. He also noted that “100%, [madrassas] are not propagating suicide bombings and other forms of terrorism.”
Mujiv Hataman, a Muslim congressman, has challenged Gapay to prove his claims that Islamic schools have become a source of radicalization in the country. “I have never heard, not even once, any teaching about terrorism. In fact, we were taught not to do anything bad and not to hurt other people,” said Hataman.
“The Armed Forces should not be making general statements linking madrassas to terrorists without presenting irrefutable proof of [the link’s] existence. It is dangerous and unfair, and it serves no real purpose but to unjustly put our schools in a very compromising situation,” Hataman said.
Can increased cooperation between the military and Muslim groups help in containing militancy?
The Philippines’ military needs to work with the country’s Islamic organizations to find a way to contain the radicalization of students at Muslim schools. The best way forward in this regard is to involve all major Islamic scholars and organizations in the security agencies’ plans when it comes to implementing the monitoring of Muslim schools.
Moreover, the government needs to work with Islamic organizations to register the unregistered Muslim schools that operate in the country as well as to introduce a uniform syllabus at Islamic schools.
The existing penetration of Islamic extremist groups in the Philippines can only be managed by developing confidence and trust between security authorities and the Islamic leaders who want to work with the government to contain militancy. For instance, extremist groups like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) take advantage of the uncertainties in government policies towards the Muslim community. It is high time that the Filipino security agencies start collaborating with the Muslim community rather than working alone to tackle the challenge of Islamic militancy in the country.