ILIGAN, Philippines: Senior Islamic leaders in Lanao del Norte say they are too fearful to criticise the actions or philosophies of Islamic State (IS), for fear of reprisals or community backlash as fighting rages around the city of Marawi.
Fighters have laid siege to the city for nearly four weeks, despite intense efforts by the Philippine military to liberate the approximate 10 per cent of Marawi still under militant control.
Grand Imam Idah Ali of the Lanao Islamic Center in Baloi, just a few kilometres from Marawi, refused to denounce the militant movement saying speaking out could upset stakeholders in the conflict.
“I cannot do anything about IS,” he said. “These people have a personal interest. I cannot say about this because if I talk about them, what will happen? Maybe they will be angry at me.
“If I say something, maybe the government will be angry with me, maybe the people of Marawi will be angry with me, maybe the majority of people in the Philippines will be angry with me.”
While much of the country is Roman Catholic, Marawi’s residents are overwhelmingly Muslim.
The groups that have taken over the city have declared intent to forge an Islamic caliphate and enforce Sharia law. Foreign fighters from Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Europe are believed to have joined the conflict.
For local Muslim residents, there is a clear hope for peace to prevail. However, there is a division creeping into the community about which side of the battle to support, according to Sultan Abuk Hamidula Atar, a prominent religious leader from Marawi.
The divide has been bred from the education system he said, which is split between the madrasah (religious school) system and the secular form of schooling. The result is a “lot of clashes among the school of thoughts” within institutions in Marawi.
“Most of the people on one side may be neutral or pro to the advocacy of the radical groups, while the other side is mostly, if not all, anti that advocacy,” he said.
He said he witnessed firsthand the intent of those laying siege to Marawi during the six days he remained in his house while fighting was underway.
There was an undeniable pressure to also take up arms, he claimed.
“Hey Sultan, bring your own gun to fight this military,” he was apparently told by fighters. “I didn’t say no. I said I will preserve myself. You would not be able to negate or refuse because of a feeling that they will question you. It is very hard.”
Sultan Abuk argues that the presence of fighters from overseas and other parts of the Philippines also adds complexity and complications to situation.
But the violence and destruction of the city could critically cause permanent damage to local community relations, without considered attempts to negotiate and a recovery process focused on dialogue.
“At the end of the day if you’re going to have to return to our city, the relationship is already a strained hurdle,” he said.
“If some members of a family see that another family is connected to IS and to the radical groups maybe they will kill, especially those families whose houses were burned and whose family members died – maybe they will do some retaliation.”
He argues that if the solution to heal Marawi comes through money and physical rebuilding efforts, it is bound to fail. Instead there needs to be an understanding of the causes of radicalisation, particularly among disenchanted youth who have been victims of conflict for years.
“I am afraid of this situation, instead of crushing the militants you are now producing another big radical group.”
‘I STILL BELIEVE I CAN GO HOME’
For many Muslim evacuees, the holy month of Ramadan has been soured by their experience; more than 200,000 people have been displaced and martial law across the region has restricted movement and normal prayer times.
With the end of Ramadan looming on Jun 25, plans are underway to ensure that the Muslim community can gather together for Eid al Fitr. It is normally a time for celebration, but displaced residents know that this year will be very different.
“Actually Eid al Fitr is a very happy event but only if there is no crisis happening,” said evacuee Farida Daud, who was living in a madrasa in Baloi.
“But now things are chaotic in Malawi, I really don’t know what will happen. I don’t know how we will do what we used to do.”
There is still a great hope among Muslims that will be able to break fast in their own homes.
“I pray that we’ll have another shot a new life and that we can go. I still believe I can go home,” Daud said. “Maybe Eid al Fitr will still be happy because this is a month that is important to us.”
However, with no signs of the conflict ending soon, that optimism may be foiled by the harsh realities of war. Tens of thousands of Muslims are displaced in Iligan City alone, and while the government is assisting with distributing food and money to coincide with Eid, assembling together could prove problematic.
While Sultan Abuk is also hopeful of being able to return home soon, patience is wearing thin among those left with little but the clothes on their backs.
“For short period of time we can wait but if they (the military) cannot crush these people, we are pushing for negotiation – because at the end of the day if we cannot, this war will drag on, not only for one week but for months,” he said.
“Most of us are suffering. Most of us were evacuated or evicted forcibly from our communities – and we brought nothing along.”
In the mosque in Baloi, Grand Imam Idah Ali preaches the need to maintain prayer and the strict observances required by Islam and believes the events that have unfolded are punishment from Allah.
“We cannot blame anybody, first of all we have to blame ourselves. What is happening today, this is the programme of God,” he said. “We are worried and we are very sad.”