MANILA – Bai Rohaniza Sumdad-Usman, Chairperson of Teach Peace Build Peace Movement, Inc., was in the process of obtaining a housing loan from a big finance corporation when she was asked what her religion was.
“Islam,” she answered, and her application was promptly rejected.
The financing company representative told her that they did not offer loans to Muslims because the latter “did not know how to pay them back.”
Professor Hadji Balahadia of Ateneo de Davao University is Christian, but he often experiences the hostility and humiliation that many Filipino Muslims face on a daily basis – because of his name.
Born in 1980, during one of the intense periods of fighting between the government and the Moro National Liberation Front, Balahajia was named “Hadji” because his father, also a Christian, did not want him to be “discriminated against” by the Muslims.
As an infant, he was initially barred from being baptized because the priest thought he was a Muslim. His uncle, a lawyer, had to threaten to sue the Catholic leader before the family was finally allowed inside the church to proceed with the ceremony.
Balahajia grew up with almost everyone thinking he was a Muslim, even when he studied in Catholic schools.
Having experienced Islamophobia, he took up Psychology to understand why people thought and behaved in such a way. He now specializes in Christian and Muslim relations.
“The Bangsamoro struggle is still happening. The struggle of being a Muslim Filipino is still happening,” Usman said Tuesday, at the public forum and exhibit launch of Stories of Bangsamoro, a project that aims to promote wider understanding and appreciation of Bangsamoro history and culture in a safe space conducive to dialogue.
Muslims young and old have been victims of injustice, Usman stressed, which is why there is need for genuine peace and social justice.
Otherwise, he added, another generation of Muslims will inherit the conflict.
“Stories of Bangsamoro” is one step toward this rationalization of peace with justice.
Organized by the fourth batch who finished the Academy of Political Management (APM) program run by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Philippines office, the undertaking has four components:
- A Facebook page (www.facebook.com/storiesbangsamoro) inspired by Humans of New York and filled with profiles and pictures of ordinary Muslims;
- A forum for youth to confront their biases and provide a venue for meaningful dialogue;
- A video titled “Moros in Motion” highlighting Moro Filipinos’ image of themselves; and
- An exhibit showing the different facets of Muslim life.
Facebook followers and exhibit viewers can get to know Musalik, a kulintang player; Ainah, a seamstress; Monalisa, a government employee; Sahara, a singer and actress; and Kari, a nurse and fashion designer, among others.
According to Stories of Bangsamoro project coordinator Jasmine Pagdanganan, the initiative is not about dividing people between those who are for and against the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL). Rather, it is about divesting people of their long-held biases and prejudices against Muslims and the Bangsamoro.
Pagdanganan acknowledged that she herself used to be guilty of being biased against Muslims because of lack of knowledge. The fear of the unknown, she explained, made it easy for people to judge others.
She and 27 other young professionals who took the APM course believe that the project will enable more non-Muslims to familiarize themselves with, and understand, Muslims.
The hope is that the gaping divide between the two sides will disappear, and “solidarity and humanity” will reign.
From the launch at Torre Venezia Hotel on Tuesday, the exhibit will be open to the public at StrEat: Maginhawa Food Park in Quezon City from Wednesday to Friday.
The organizers are also collaborating with institutions to bring it to Congress, as well as other parts of the Philippines, and to create a 2016 calendar featuring the photos compiled by the project.
Netizens can find daily updates on the Facebook page, which was launched about a month before the exhibit opening and now has 2,000 likes.
For Friedrich Ebert Stiftung program coordinator Gus Cerdeña, this project is an opportunity to combat ignorance and hear stories that are not often made public.
Cerdeña, underscores that this is especially important, given that at least six to 10 percent of Filipinos are Muslims.
A democracy that ignores the demands of at least 10% of its people – who experience discrimination, marginalization, prejudice, and stigma – cannot not a viable one, Cerdeña said.
Stories of Bangsamoro is a campaign to let people understand that, within these vignettes are more similarities than differences. The things the Moro people dream about, what makes them laugh, and what they want out of their lives, are no different from what non-Moros do, he added.
Kathline Tolosa, executive director of Security Reform Initiative, explained that prejudice against Muslims became ingrained in the way non-Muslims were socialized: “The latter saw the former as different, separate from them. And from this, the non-Muslims harbored distrust and fear.”
This led to the infliction of pain upon Muslims, even if not through violent or physical acts. For example, a student might be bullied, a job seeker could become a victim of workplace discrimination, or a commuter wearing a hijab could be ignored or turned away by a taxi driver.
But, Tolosa reasoned, shouldn’t non-Muslims see their Muslim counterparts as one of them? Being one of them does not have to imply sameness. Rather, non-Muslims should respect and accept Muslims as equals, and give them the dignity they afford themselves.
It is important to acknowledge that, no matter how different “we” are from “them”, there are universal experiences, such as fear, love, and fervor, which are shared by both sides, she explained.
“Through Stories of Bangsamoro, we can start seeing each other as kapwa,” Tolosa said, pertaining to Filipinos’ shared identity.
This was not something that could be legislated. Rather, it was the fruit of more education, exposure, and engagement with Muslims.
Undersecretary Jose Lorena of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process added that it was important to continue efforts toward peace, despite the hurdles that get in the way.
Or else, he said, “How do you ward off the growing attractiveness or enticement of Islamist extremism, especially among the educated young?”
Balahadia added that individuals have their own roles to play in combating discrimination. “For one thing, a person must never be silent in the face of discrimination.”
Once, Balahadia shared, he was in a restaurant when he saw a teenager wearing a shirt emblazoned with the words “Islam sucks”. He approached the teen and told him, very firmly, that he should be ashamed of what he was wearing, especially since he was a Christian.
Afterward, the Balahadia noticed the teen’s girlfriend berating him for wearing that shirt in the first place when she already told him not to.
Balahadia said it was also vital that individuals study and be critical of their own values and mentality.
Follow @BangsamoroStory on Twitter and like www.facebook.com/storiesbangsamoro. Want to host the exhibit? Contact Jasmine Pagdanganan at 0926-559-5478.
Source: Aquino, Tricia, ‘STORIES OF BANGSAMORO’ | Portraits of Filipino Muslims to combat discrimination”, 10 December 2015, www.interaksyon.com, http://www.interaksyon.com/article/121284/stories-of-bangsamoro–portraits-of-filipino-muslims-to-combat-discrimination