Home Muslim culture A Brief History of Muslim Violence in Mindanao

A Brief History of Muslim Violence in Mindanao

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By Lisa Navarrette

The Philippines is made up of over 7,000 islands, which makes governance a challenge. Filipinos come from hundreds of different tribes, each with unique languages, customs and religions. The peoples are divided and known collectively as Christians, Muslims or Lumads (indigenous tribes with their own religions).

Historical records show that Islam entered the Lower Islands in the 13th century. These regions were ruled autonomously as sultanates, with Islamic ideals and native statecraft well established.[1] Spain, seeking riches in the wealthy epicenter of the southeast spice trade, took control of the islands as a colony in the 16th century. They not only took governmental control but also religious control. They converted the population to Roman Catholicism, as they had done in Latin America. However, the sultanates were well established with wealth and armament and fiercely opposed Spanish military forces throughout the 300-year period of Spanish colonization.

When the United States acquired the country from Spain in 1898, under the Treaty of Paris. Opposing sultanates were included in the treaty as they considered themselves self-governing. Fighting ensued. In 1913, the United States succeeded in incorporating Mindanao and Sulu into the Philippine-American Colony. The US government created a homestead policy that encouraged northern Christian tenants and sharecroppers to move south to Mindanao. This, they hoped, would solve two problems: 1) make the southern country more diverse and 2) curb the communist insurgency that northern poverty was fueling. The policy failed because Muslim southerners reacted violently against both the government and their Christian neighbors. He also failed to stop the communist insurgency.

Disgruntled Muslim residents formed the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). In the 1960s they rebelled against the US government. The fighting continued after the end of American colonization. Thousands of Christians were displaced and murdered in the rebellion. Like many rebellions, the MNLF demanded equality. They cited grievances of inequality between Muslims and Christians, with Christians being favored. They wanted more access and control over the island’s economic development and resources, and the return of land to those who came from the north.

When innocent lives are taken, it is the government’s job to protect people. President Marcos met the rebels with a brutal military response. This inadvertently bolstered the membership and resolve of the MNLF. The pervasive belief of politicians and scholars was that the Muslim rebels only wanted to reclaim their autonomy and their ancestral lands. With these, they believed, the violence would end.

In 1976, Libya intervened and the Tripoli Accord between the Philippine government and the MNLF was established. He gave political autonomy to four provinces in the southern region. However, these new governments were weak. Many Muslim rebels disagreed with the terms of the new agreement. They rejected the original MNLF and created factions. The newly created Moro Islamic Liberation Front and MNLF reformists began targeting their former members. For the first time, the violence was not just targeting non-Muslim residents and the government, but now included Muslim-on-Muslim violence. Again, the Tripoli Agreement failed to achieve its objectives and the violence continued.

In 1986, seeing that the Tripoli agreement was not enough to put an end to the violence, the country adopted a new Constitution recognizing the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. The four provinces included established weak and poorly funded governments that were no match for the violence. In 1992 and 1996, new agreements under President Ramos were reached to establish areas of peace and development. It allowed MNLF fighters to join the Philippine Army and Police or receive provisions for socio-economic, cultural, and educational assistance. The national government helped establish a functional government with a legislature and an administration to oversee the provinces. It enabled Sharia and representation in the national government. Muslim schools were established in accordance with Islamic tradition. Politicians and academics hailed this deal as a champion of culture and inclusion. Everyone agreed that the violence would finally end. Then the longtime leader of the MNLF attacked the national army after failing to win re-election. The fighting resumed once again.

With each succeeding president, new treaties, agreements and concessions were granted to the southern provinces and violence always ensued. In 2014, a “final” peace agreement was reached, supposed to end the violence once and for all. As recent events show, violence still rages on the island today, and Christians are often the targets.

The Islamic State entered the Philippines in 2014, and now these Filipino Muslim terrorists are linked to ISIL, ISIL and the Abu Shayyaf group. These international terrorist networks provide funding and training. The Philippines has been labeled a terrorist breeding ground by the National Security Agency, due to the huge number of “homegrown” terrorists it has produced. They attack not only the Philippines, but also the surrounding Southeast Asian countries. The government is constantly fighting to maintain order against terrorist groups. “The Philippines is not a safe haven for terrorists. We are not raising terrorists. Instead, we protect our citizens from them so that our citizens live in a peaceful and orderly society,” armed forces spokesman Colonel Medel Aguilar said in a recent interview.[2]

Filipinos aren’t the only ones at risk. Anyone visiting the Philippines, including Americans, is at risk of kidnapping, rape, forced conversion and even death, as seen in the 2000 kidnappings in Dos Palmas. Terrorists seized the city of Marawi in 2017. The Philippine army took 5 months to end the siege. This single event displaced 400,000 people.[3]

The centuries-old struggle against colonial domination has turned into terrorism. The original reasons for the resistance are barely recognizable in today’s Mindanao. The struggle is no longer about ancestral lands and cultural identity, but as a way for extremists to terrorize peaceful people.


Lisa Navarrette studied at Roosevelt and Harvard universities and is currently pursuing her doctorate in law and policy at Liberty University. She writes for several human rights organizations and hopes her writing will have an impact on ensuring justice and human rights for all.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates.


[1] https://www.niu.edu/clas/cseas/_pdf/lesson-plans/topical-overviews/mindanao-peace.pdf

[2] https://www.ucanews.com/news/hundreds-flee-as-philippine-army-fights-communists/99023

[3] https://www.acaps.org/country/philippines/crisis/mindanao-conflict