OPINION: The Abu Sayyaf, shared secrets, and lingering lies

Amir Mawallil

Posted at Jul 08 2016 04:14 AM

Today, I sit in a café reading about the ordeal of Marites Flor, a Filipina who was abducted by the Abu Sayyaf along with three foreigners, one of them her Canadian boyfriend Robert Hall who was beheaded by the bandits.

I sift through stories related to the release of Flor -- how she, along with the other hostages were treated like dogs and how she was told he would be beheaded just like her boyfriend -- and I catch a glimpse of the video of the actual beheading of Hall. It's horrendous.

Worse, it is out there available to anyone who has access to the Internet.

Members of the Abu Sayyaf make it a point to document their brutality, their acts of heartlessness and gore. They seek an audience. They want us to watch in terror. They want us to be scared, to think that we are not safe.

They have been successful so far.

Today, the Abu Sayyaf is as ubiquitous as ever, an everyday reality in the form of veritable news items. They have become an undeniable fact.

For more than 20 years, we have come to know what the Abu Sayyaf can do. We know their atrocities and the limitless boundaries of their violence against people living in their own backyard, whether they be Filipinos or foreigners, Muslims or Christians.

But what else we don’t know about them? What is left for us to learn about them as we are bombarded by news of their brutality and terrorism?

Stories about the Abu Sayyaf are part of our lives as Muslims who grow up struggling to divorce the group's acts of terrorism from the practice of our faith.

As a Muslim who grew up in the Sulu archipelago and now working with people on the ground, I grew up hearing narratives about Abu Sayyaf that are seldom part of the daily news. Despite this, these are stories locals consider as incontestable facts.

It doesn't matter if others consider these stories as fabricated -- half-truths shared in half whispers, tall tales that do not conform to the template that authorities reinforce when it comes to supposed character of the Abu Sayyaf in the national narrative. These stories exist and persist, shared in silence within communities like a prayer that can only be uttered at midnight.

I remember a conversation with someone years back. When I asked him about the Abu Sayyaf, he retorted with an answer that left me dumbfounded. “Which Abu Sayyaf?” he began, “Because there are two kinds of Abu Sayyaf.”

After my provocation, he explained to me that there were two groups. One was the real terrorist group, while the other was a Robin Hood organization of sorts, the latter choosing people in power and wealthy Chinese businessmen as victims and then distribute the fruit of their labor to their communities.

A collective consciousness within certain communities finds a way to justify the lawlessness of this group. To them, the Abu Sayyaf is not just the failure of justice system taking its toll but a proof of distorted values, no matter how personal, that has been unchecked for so long that it has evolved into a culture—one that is against the teaching of Islam. More than that, it is against the values of our shared culture in a country where community should always be intact, bound together by either the secular law of the Philippines or the traditional laws.

The orality of my culture has always offered solace despite truths considered too taboo when placed beside the constructs of the dominant narrative. Truths about the Abu Sayyaf in our communities aren't left unspoken. These are also shared in whispers.

The history of the Abu Sayyaf has been appropriated by some communities in ways that can compliment the official reports and news from mainstream media and government agencies.

The early days of the Abu Sayyaf carries a history of a fisherfolk community’s resistance to big fishing vessels whose presence endangers the livelihood of local fishermen.

Armed with guns and ammunition, these fishermen took the law into their hands as they drove away these invaders. This narrative shows how the genesis of a terrorist group like the Abu Sayyaf can also be a justification of a community's resistance against oppression.

The problem with narratives like these, of course, lies on whose interests these narratives will serve. The justification provided by these narratives may overpower other those of other social movements in the region geared towards real emancipation of the Bangsamoro people from the bondage of oppression.

Whether these are carefully constructed tales or merely an unwritten history kept by the community is out of the question. What stories like this reveal to us is that the Abu Sayyaf’s myriad narratives are deeply embedded in the communities and crucial in the construction of a collective consciousness that neither resist nor support, but is always welcoming.

Recently, a former military general criticized the Aquino government’s failure to contain the rise of Abu Sayyaf. The general once thought that the administration failed to engage communities in countering the terrorist, until he realized that engagement wasn't the problem. The communities' suspicion against the military outweighed their fear of the resurgence of the terrorist group. This, he said, paved the way for the Abu Sayyaf to return with a vengeance.

The public’s perception of the Abu Sayyaf is also as problematic as its narratives as a terrorist group. It has always been a challenge for freedom fighters, community workers, and peace advocates to carefully disentangle the image and narratives of Abu Sayyaf from those of legitimate social movements geared towards liberation, self-determination, and an ongoing struggle for peaceful and just Muslim societies in Mindanao.

There is a need to engage local communities as we make sense of this terrorist group’s narrative and their propaganda, to engage those who live under the shadow of terror. We cannot rely on media alone. We have to provide spaces for stories and narratives that are being shared on the ground as secrets, and afford them a place in national discourse.

We must also prioritize and not let the aspirations of people for peaceful Muslim communities in Mindanao be discarded as part of 'collateral damage.' Failure to do so will only spur more violence in the region.

Aside from military operations and government intervention, there is a need to be part of a collective effort to subvert the terrorist narratives of justified fear.

We need to stop terrorists that only serve the interests of their patrons from hijacking religious discourses. We need to stop them from affirming the notion that we are doomed to living with the atrocities and terrorism of Abu Sayyaf in our everyday lives. We need to stop them and, in doing so, band together in a joint effort to counter their propaganda.

The Abu Sayyaf is a betrayal of our values. They are not part of our lives. In their presence, our lives and those of others are held hostage in more ways than one.

Amir Mawallil, 27, is a member of the Young Moro Professionals Network, the Philippines' biggest organization of Muslim professionals.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.