The Philippines Military’s Muslim Special Unit: Religious and Cultural Approaches to Face Extremists

by Bayu Mitra A. Kusuma*

In the midst of the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) half-century celebration on August 8, 2017, the extremism issue continues to haunt this region. Especially after the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the Middle East increasingly squeezed and began to build their new existence in the southern Philippines through the Maute group. The lunge of Maute group forced countries around the Philippines to open their intelligence eyes and ears widely to anticipate potential infiltration as early as possible. The emergence of the Maute group in Marawi City has further exacerbated the security situation of the Philippines, whereas Abu Sayyaf cases in the border waters have also not been resolved.

The magnitude of the extremism threat potential in the Philippines toward other Southeast Asian countries makes this issue transformed into a regional issue. But unfortunately the Philippines military power is not qualified enough to deal with the situation. Based on data from Global Fire Power – a trusted military site – in 2017, the Philippine military rank is quite bad compared to other ASEAN countries. Even from 133 countries in the world ranked, Philippines only occupy the 50th position. Therefore the Philippine Government needs to use other approaches besides military approach to face this problem, for example like religious and cultural approach.

In April 2017, the Philippine Military announced a policy to establish a special unit of Muslim soldiers within their military. With this new recruitment system it is expected that Armed Force of the Philippines (AFP) can form a battalion that in the long run will be a brigade or division composed of Muslim soldiers. Then how is the prospect of the existence of Muslim special unit within the Philippine military? On the one hand, the emergence of this Muslim special unit has some positive impact, including: first, religious and cultural approaches will open up a larger dialogue space than conventional military approaches. As fellow Muslims, the army will be more aware toward sensitive matters in their religion and culture. Second, make adaptation and gain local community support become easier. With this new policy, five per cent of all registration quotas in the Philippine Military will be allocated to Muslim applicants. Through this special unit the Philippine army is expected to operate in Muslim majority areas without being suspected by local residents. Indeed, the most Muslims in the southern Philippines see military deployment within their communities as invading forces. Third, facilitate the coordination and cooperation network with the military of Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam as neighboring countries with the majority of the Muslim population. As has also been widely discussed above, ISIS affiliated extremists are often hijacking vessels that cross the border waters so this issue becomes a regional issue. Therefore, coordination with the military of neighboring countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei Darussalam is absolutely necessary.

But on the other hand, the emergence of Muslim special unit within the Philippine military could also have some negative impact, such as: first, potential for the emergence of factions within the military body or gap between Muslim units with other units. There have been many cases in various countries showing the breakdown of the military body into competing and hostile factions. If not instilled in the proper nationalism spirit, the emergence of Muslim special unit would be a new problem for the Philippines. Instead of facilitating the process of realizing peace, it can be a new “fuel” in igniting the already existing conflict. Second, it raises the stigma that Muslims are terrorists and must be fought with hardcore Muslims as well. Islam has always been accused as a religion or belief that is full of violent ideology. The emergence of Muslim special unit in the Philippine military if not properly managed will strengthen the stigma. That it seems as if to fight radical Muslims, it takes other Muslims who are not less radical with wrapped in military gear. In fact the essence of Islamic teachings is peace.

The problem of extremism in the Philippines is quite complicated, but there is always the wisdom behind the problem. In the case of the Marawi, local Muslims have proved that the accusation of Islam as a terrorist religion is an incorrect stigma. The Humanitarian Emergency Assistance and Response Team (HEART) from the special Muslim regional autonomy in Mindanao reports that Muslim majority residents’ was help, hide, and evacuate other religious neighbors from Maute threats. Therefore the Philippine Government, especially in Mindanao, is very grateful to the Marawi’s Muslim population. Related to religious and cultural approaches through the emergence of Muslim special units within the Philippine military, although there are pros and cons, but all of us hope that this will be the right solution for solving long standing issues of extremism, radicalism, and terrorism which haunting the life of Filipino people in particular and affecting to southeast Asia in general.

* Researcher at the Institute of Southeast Asian Islam (ISAIs) and Lecturer of Conflict Management at the Faculty of Da’wah and Communication, Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University, Yogyakarta.

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