Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

Muslim Separatists in the Southern Philippines

Publisher: University of California Press, Berkeley (1998)

Publisher: University of California Press, Berkeley (1998)

In light of recent events in the Philippines,  Asia Society spoke with Professor Thomas McKenna, author of Muslim Rulers and Rebels: Everyday Politics and Armed Separatism in the Southern Philippines (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998). Professor McKenna discusses the historical roots of Muslim separatism in the Philippines, the impact of both Spanish and American colonialism on Muslim identity, the implications of the peace agreement in 1996 which resulted in the creation of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), and the distinction between the three principal groups representing Muslim grievances in the Philippines today.

Professor McKenna's book is also available for sale through Barnes and Noble.


The South of the Philippines, where the minority Muslim population is concentrated, managed to evade Spanish colonialism for 300 years. Could you please explain the significance of this, if any, for Muslim-Christian relations in the post-colonial context?

Because of their evasion of Spanish colonialism, Philippine Muslims comprise the largest category of unhispanicized inhabitants of the Philippines. Although they live in the only predominately Christian country in Southeast Asia, they share their religious culture with the neighboring majority Muslim nations of Indonesia and Malaysia. They also retain aspects of an indigenous pre-Islamic and precolonial Philippine culture--expressed in dress, music, political traditions and a variety of folk beliefs and practices-- that are similar to those found elsewhere in island Southeast Asia, but are today almost entirely absent among Christian Filipinos. Thus, while Philippine Christians and Muslims inhabit the same state and are linked together by various attachments, they are separated by a significant cultural gulf as the result of historical circumstances. I argue in my book that cultural differences do not by themselves create ethnic conflict. However, Christian Filipinos, including representatives of the Philippine state, have often tended to view Philippine Muslims as socially backward and untrustworthy precisely because of their history of resistance to hispanicization. For their part, Philippine Muslims have tended to be highly suspicious of the intentions of the Philippine government and generally wary of Christian Filipinos. These prejudices and suspicions notwithstanding, Muslims and Christians have been able to coexist peacefully in the Southern Philippines for most of the time they have lived together.

You suggest in your book, Muslim Rulers and Rebels, that the Muslim nationalist movement emerged out of the period of American colonialism (1899-1946), and not Spanish colonialism, and in fact, that the American colonial authorities actively encouraged its development. Could you please elaborate on this?

I state in my book that American colonial authorities encouraged the development of a transcendent ethnoreligious identity among Philippine Muslims. That unified identity then formed the basis of the nationalist "Bangsamoro" identity of the Muslim separatist movement begun in the late 1960s. Philippine Muslim armed resistance to Spanish aggression was very real and obviously effective, but it was not a unified Islamic resistance in the sense sometimes imagined. As elsewhere in Southeast Asia, sultanates just as often fought with one another, sometimes forging temporary alliances with the Spaniards to do so. Nevertheless, the ability of southern sultanates individually to withstand Spanish hegemony for more than 300 years is a testament to their military and diplomatic prowess. As stated in my book, certain perceptive American colonial agents realized that the "Moros" were not unified and thought it would be a good thing to unite them under leaders the Americans regarded as "enlightened" (i.e., Westernized). American colonial intentions were complex, but a primary intention seems to have been to prepare Philippine Muslims for the eventual end of American colonialism and their inclusion in an independent Philippine republic as a consolidated and relatively progressive ethnic minority. It was a naive intention, and events, of course, didn't work out that way. But colonial practices did have the effect of encouraging the development of a unified Philippine Muslim (or Bangsamoro) identity. Not incidentally, American colonialism also provided a lingua franca--English-- for contemporary Muslim separatists. Philippine Muslims are linguistically diverse and, as is the case with Christian Filipinos, English has provided a neutral political language.