American Anthropologist

Abu Sayyaf: Displays of Violence and the Proliferation of Contested Identities among Philippine Muslims

By Charles Frake

March 1998

Killing is an act of classification.

--Michael Herzfeld, paraphrasing Edmund Leach(FN1).

"ABU SAYYAF" BECAME, on April 4, 1995, a new and notorious identity label throughout the Philippines. It subsequently received worldwide press attention. On May 26, the International Herald Tribune featured a story, dramatically illustrated with a pagewide photo, obviously staged, of prototypic terrorists trying to look grim (a difficult task for Filipinos, Muslim or Christian) while brandishing a threatening variety of weapons. The headline read: "Islamic Rebels Stun Manila with Their Ferocity" (see Figure 1). The stunning display of ferocity was an attack, attributed to the Abu Sayyaf, on the Christian town of Ipil, in western Mindanao, by a sizable number of raiders who robbed banks, looted shops, killed some 40 people, and reportedly abducted many others. The actual details of the incident and the identities of the perpetrators are unclear, but the impact on Philippine perceptions of a 400-year history of Muslim insurgency is abundantly plain. My concern here is not with documenting the events themselves or Christian Philippine reactions to them, but rather with examining the entailment of these events and perceptions with the changing social, political, and cultural worlds of Muslim Filipinos. The examination must be historically embedded, not only because the current situation is a very complex product of both history and local perceptions of history, but also because on-the-spot ethnographic documentation of violent acts is difficult to obtain and, if obtained, sensitive to report.(FN2).

This history of local violence, old and recent (like all histories imperfectly understood), contains lessons relevant to current concerns about the sources and effects of displays of violence throughout the world. Current violence, in the mountains of Bosnia, the streets of New York, the pubs of Belfast, the subways of Tokyo, and the islands of the Philippines, is, in the situation and moment of occurrence, an act of individuals with individual motives and intent. Someone has to pull the trigger, activate the bombs, or plant the gas capsules. A major motive in human life, on occasion not even second to survival, is the need to be somebody. To be somebody, one must have recognition from one's fellows. Violence, by threatening survival, one's own as well as others', provides a sure route to recognition. But who are one's fellows? Who are those like you? And who are the "others," those to whose fate one can be indifferent? Whom should you seek to kill? And who is out to kill you? These are the issues from the individual perspective. From the wider social and political perspective one must ask, what are the conditions of conflict and what are the available resources for identity construction? And, historically, how did these particular conditions and resources come to be at hand? Fully appreciating the power of each of these perspectives (agentive, structural, and historical) within a single account is the necessary but elusive goal of any proper social theory.(FN3) The issue is manifest in the paradox posed by Michael Herzfeld (1993) in his classic study of bureaucracy: how can notably gracious, kind, hospitable people be, at times, so maddeningly indifferent to their fellows? This is a paradox of individual actions. The traditional explanation of bureaucratic behavior, given scholarly support by Weber and Tönnies, is structural: bureaucracy is the niche of "modern rationality." Ties of gemeinschaftliche kindness and feeling are not relevant in this realm of implacably rational Gesellschaft. But this explanation, as Herzfeld nicely shows, is part of the problem to be explained. Its invocation allows bureaucratic practice to be a form of symbolic violence against the other. Unlike bureaucracy, militant insurgency confronts us not with a form of symbolic violence, but rather with the symbolic implications of the practice of unarguably real violence. Killing a fellow human is the ultimate mad expression of indifference, a convincing way of classifying someone as the other.

Herzfeld's paradox is relevant here because, as I or any other ethnographer of the southern Philippines can testify, Philippine Muslims (like all Filipinos) are as hospitable, friendly, kind, cheerful, and helpful on most occasions (outside government offices and combat zones) as one could possibly desire. Members of the Abu Sayyaf are no exception. But there is yet another paradox that arises in this case: why is it that this 400-year conflict has been characterized by a proliferation of contested identities among the insurgents, among those who most need to be united? Muslims in the Philippines have no more been able to present a united front to those whom they consider their oppressors than have others in similar conflicts elsewhere in the world. Why is it that in conflict it is so often the weaker side that fragments into rival factions? Is this another case of the mysterious force of "hegemony"? The oppressed seem somehow to be duped into practices detrimental to their own interests. But how? And by what agency? An examination of the Philippine case reveals the challenging complexities of identity construction to be faced in any attempt to reach an understanding of these issues.

A digression deserving more attention than a note is required. I will be talking about labels, proclaimed and imposed, for identities. The highly problematic reference and symbolism of these labels is a subject of this inquiry. But before we can begin talking, we need labels to identify, at least provisionally, the players in this grim game. Following traditional Philippinist scholarly practice, I will simply use "Christian" and "Muslim" to distinguish the major divide among identities in this part of the Philippines. This choice should offer no offense to anyone on either side of the divide, or to those who straddle it. These are, however, only labels. They are not descriptions. The actual religious, ethnic, national, or class components of the identities of those so labeled is, again, a matter for investigation.

The recent notoriety of the name Abu Sayyaf is not the first time in the long history of Philippine Christian-Muslim conflict that a label of Muslim identity has struck terror in Christian hearts. The first terrorist label, Moro, was imposed by the Spanish themselves and has haunted Philippine Christians ever since. The Spanish arrived in the 16th century, rapidly Christianizing the lowland portions of the northern and central islands. But in the south, Islam was too firmly entrenched to be removed. To these pertinacious Muslims the Spanish gave the same name they had attached to their longtime Muslim enemies in Spain. They were the Moors, the Moros. And the bearers of this terrorist identity imposed by the Spanish did indeed create terror. During the following two centuries, Philippine Muslims, taking advantage of their strategic position, frustrated Spanish efforts to gain access to the Spice Islands to the south. The Spanish, consequently, felt forced to abandon Ternate, the central Spice Island, after a brief occupation. After failing to gain control of the two major Moro power centers in central Mindanao and on the island of Jolo in the Sulu Archipelago, the Spanish built a military base located between them at Zamboanga, on the tip of the southwestern peninsula of Mindanao. This base was garrisoned by Christian Filipino soldiers and sailors who spoke a variety of central Philippine ("Bisayan") languages, who intermarried with immigrant and local women speaking an even greater variety of languages, and who raised families among speakers of a similar variety of local languages. Out of this situation there arose, as a native language and local lingua franca, a Spanish creole locally known as "Chabacano" or "Zamboangueño." With this language, a new local identity was born.

To Christian Filipinos, the base at Zamboanga must have seemed more a prod that stimulated Moro aggression than a shield that deterred it. The central and northern islands of the Philippines were plagued for three centuries by raids of plunder and pillage from the south, terrors that have been enshrined in popular folklore and folk drama in the Christian and pagan Philippines.(FN4) Although typically all raiders from the south were called "Moros," a few other, ostensibly more specific labels sometimes gained prominence. In this atmosphere of violence, what promoted an identity distinguishable from the ordinary violent Moro was a display of extraordinary fierceness, on the one hand, or of exemplary docility, on the other. "Tidong," "Ilanun," and "Balangingi" were, at various time in history, the bad guys; "Lutao," "Samal," and "Bajao" were the (relatively) good guys. Neither set of identities was typically "Moro." In fierceness of reputation, the former, like the Abu Sayyaf today, rose above an ordinary "Moro" identity, whereas the latter fell below it (Frake 1980:311-332, 1996). These were distinctions imposed by outsiders on a cultural world of which they had little understanding. Yet they do reflect something of the bases of differentiation recognized by the Muslims themselves. In fact, each side provides for the other the context for giving meaning and purpose to displays of violence. Being recognized by outsiders because of displays of stunning ferocity becomes, with opposite evaluations, a basis of internal recognition, differentiation, and ranking. But talk of "sides" introduces an anachronistic distortion of the Muslim perspective. During most of the 400-year history of Christian-Muslim struggle, the players on the Muslim side played without benefit of any encompassing framework of a Moro (that is, a Philippine Muslim) identity. The Muslim appropriation of the Christian-imposed identity of "Moro" is a recent event in this unfolding story of identity construction.

If it is "anachronism" (history's version of the anthropologist's "ethnocentricism") to project a present conception onto the past, it is equally a distortion, one akin to the anthropologist's tendency toward "exoticism," to construct, as a beginning point of one's history, an imagined past of unchanging traditional societies, each a neatly bundled package of cultural, linguistic, and political distinctiveness. When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, they found peoples in the midst of rapid economic and ideological changes, impelled by long involvement in a proto-world system focused on a circulation of tropical products, Chinese manufactures, and Hindu symbols. Local societies, in competition for power and wealth, were manipulating material and symbolic resources, of cultural identity with as much fierceness as today. Local traditions, fragmentary historical sources (largely Chinese), and linguistic evidence (relevant archaeology is practically nonexistent) enable us to project this picture of change and complexity back several hundred years prior to the coming of the Spanish. In known history, the big pre-Spanish event was the appearance of Islam in the southern Philippines, beginning at least by the 14th century.(FN5) Islam's triumph here, as elsewhere in island Southeast Asia, was a conquest not of invading peoples but of an inviting identity, a new kind of cosmopolitan identity that was particularly appealing to seafarers and traders in a vast multicultural, maritime area that reached from China to southeastern Asia and across the Indian Ocean to South Asia, Arabia, and East Africa.

Well before Islam arrived in the Philippines, the Sulu Archipelago, which straddled the trade routes between the Spice Islands to the south and China to the north, had been playing a major role in this commerce. The rising prominence, as an entrepôt and a political power, of Jolo, the archipelago's central island, entailed a very revealing example of identity construction with consequences that still inform current events in the southern Philippines. We do not know quite what happened, but we do know the outcome. A new language and a new identity appeared in Jolo that distinctly stands out amidst the other Sulu languages, all of which form a closely knit group of "Samalan" languages.(FN6) This new language was one of the Central Philippine languages of the Bisayan group, closely affiliated with languages spoken now by Christians in the Butuan area of northeastern Mindanao, some 500 miles by water from Jolo (Figure 2). The language, as well as the identity of its speakers, have come to be called "Tausug" in contrast to what the bearers of this new identity called the "Samal," a language and identity attributed to most other peoples of the archipelago.(FN7) The appearance of a Bisayan language in Sulu could have been the result of a population intrusion from northeastern Mindanao or of the appropriation, by local Samalan speakers, of a new language, access to which was achieved through trade and intermarriage, as a means of securing economic and political domination by means of a cultural identity distinct from those now deemed inferior.(FN8) An ethnohistorical account, which survives locally among both Tausug and Sama speakers, enshrines the Tausug accomplishment in a story that reverses known historical fact: it makes the Tausug the original occupants of Sulu and relegates the Sama to the status of late, post-Islamic arrivals invited by the Tausug to work for them in maritime endeavors, a sort of seagoing Gastarbeiter. Whatever the actual events and their sequence, it is clear that, with the arrival of Islam, the Tausug embraced the new religion, giving it a prominent role in securing a dominant mercantile and militant identity in Sulu and southwestern Mindanao.(FN9) Their rivals in central Mindanao, already securely distinct from their neighbors in language, gained, at the same time, equal prominence as militant Muslims.(FN10) From Sulu and Mindanao, Islam spread northward to trading centers in the Bisayas and Luzon, but its hold there proved too weak to resist Spanish-imposed Christianity. The current division between Muslim and Christian in the Philippines is a survival of the conflicts of this era. The position of the divide is a geopolitical product that is arbitrary with respect to preexisting linguistic and ethnic boundaries. The peoples who became Muslims did not share anything in common, other than their new religion, that distinguished them as a group from other inhabitants of the Philippines. Moros did not become Muslims. Muslims became Moros, Philippine Muslims. But first there had to be a Philippines.

After Islam came the Europeans, competing with each other first for resources and ultimately for colonies, a competition that accelerated the development of nationalism in Europe while inflicting colonialism on the peoples of much of the rest of the world. At the beginning of European colonial rivalry in the 16th century, the Pope divided the world between the two major players, Spain and Portugal, by a great circle of longitude: 45(degree)W-135(degree)E.(FN11) Both the limitations of mapping technology and the realities of political power (including the rapid entry of further players into this game) prevented the Pope's actual line from having much subsequent influence (the Philippines were in fact on the Portuguese side of 135(degree) E), but the idea of the entire world being cut up into discretely bounded polities, each separated from its neighbors by a precisely drawn line, has shaped the political map ever since. Ironically, in contrast to the national boundaries drawn in Europe, it has been the colonial borders imposed by Europeans, mostly in complete disregard for any local ethnic attachments, that have shown the most remarkable resilience through all the subsequent transformations and ultimate demise of colonial power. It was the fate of Sulu to find itself just on the Spanish side of one of these border lines. On the other side lay colonies of the Dutch (who quickly replaced Spain's original rivals, the Portuguese) and the British. Even though effective Spanish political control rarely extended anywhere close to this invisible line drawn on water, it has had surprising and lasting consequences for local identities. Unlike the mountains of the Pyrenees (Sahlins 1989), the seas of Sulu did not provide suitable material for the construction of national identities. Nevertheless, local cultural identities and political allegiances were warped and reshaped by the border. And even though the border did not easily make "Filipinos" out of Muslims on the Philippine side of it, it did, in the course of four centuries, manage to make "Moros," Philippine Muslims, out of them. This making has been reflected in a linguistic boundary, not of local language affiliations, but of language use.

Negligently patrolled as it was, the Spanish colonial border seems to have been curiously effective in restricting the spread of the Malay language as a lingua franca, a usage prevalent since before colonial times, among sailors, merchants, traders, and officials from Malacca to the Moluccas ("Melaka" to "Maluku" in current national spellings).(FN12) The de facto exclusion of Malay was not the result of any Spanish policy to discourage its use. The Spanish appear to have had no language policy at all. Local Spanish clerics, officials, and merchants evinced little interest in promoting their own language or any other. No alternative lingua franca appeared in the Philippines until the arrival of the Americans, who quickly sent over a troop ship of English teachers to set the country on the right linguistic track. Since those turn-of-the-century days, English has become an effective second language throughout most of the Philippines. It is also the language of a vibrant press, of government publications, of the courts, and of the American movies shown throughout the Philippines without dubbing or subtitles. But the Muslims of the south, especially prior to recent decades, were less well served by the English-promoting public education system and national media. A rival lingua franca, Tagalog, the language of the Manila area and the official national language, has been gaining in use in the southern Philippines. It is, for one thing, the language of communication with the military. A minimal proficiency in checkpoint Tagalog is advisable for anyone, Christian or Muslim, who ventures very far on public highways or seaways. Several Basilan Muslims of my acquaintance learned their fluent street Tagalog while serving time in the national prison near Manila.

Such a history of language use has left the Philippine Muslim world not only with practical difficulties in communication across local language boundaries but, more significantly in that multilingual world, with conflicts in the symbolic implications of language choice for the presentation of cultural and political identity. One's own native language has a place in a regionwide ranking of languages and associated ethnic identities. A property of language use that bears on this ranking is whether nonnatives regularly learn it. Hardly anyone (except the local anthropologist) who is not Yakan speaks Yakan, the language of Basilan Muslims. The same is the case for most other Samalan languages. Tausug, on the other hand, is widely spoken in Sulu by non-Tausug Muslims (but hardly ever by Christians) in interaction with Tausug and with each other in multilingual situations.(FN13) It is also a language used by non-Tausug among themselves in certain formal legal and religious occasions, in certain genres of heroic songs, and when writing in Arabic script (Frake 1980:233-252). Yet nonnative use of Tausug is colored by the considerable animosity, expressed in a history of violence, felt toward the Tausug by other Sulu Muslims. Outside of Sulu, in central Mindanao, the Maranao/Magindanao language occupies a place of prestige equivalent to that of Tausug in Sulu. Neither language has yielded to the other as a pan-Muslim lingua franca, a Moro language. The Tausug-Maranao/Magindanao linguistic divide and the identity division that goes along with it has not yet been effectively bridged, not even by the most militant insurgents. The first major pan-Moro organization, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), soon split along this divide, even though the ostensible reasons were matters of policy and challenges to leadership. The only common languages between Sulu and Mindanao Moro leadership are Tagalog and English. Tagalog is too closely associated with Christian Filipinos, the government, and the military to be appealing. English is more practical, and until Abu Sayyaf, most insurgent groups, such as the MNLF, named themselves with English-based acronyms. But for militant Islamicists, English, a language identified with Christians, the national government, and (perhaps most importantly) the MNLF university-educated elite, has little symbolic appeal. Yet it is the militant Islamicists, fiercely dedicated to uniting all Moros in their struggle, that most need a common language, if only for the practical purposes of planning their next raid.

These practical issues of language use reflect the ethnically based fault lines that shape divisiveness among insurgents. There are other fault lines as well. There are, as everywhere in the world, conflicts between those who support their social position by appeal to the "tradition" of their particular local culture and those who challenge these traditionalists by appealing to the rival attractions of the "modern" world. But for Philippine Muslims, there are rival modern worlds vying for attention. There is the world of Western technology, Western education, the Philippine political system (or its Marxist alternative), and the English language. Then there is the world of modernist (as seen from the Philippines) Islam: Koranic education, "authentic" Islamic religious service, the pilgrimage, and Muslim (as opposed to traditional or Western) dress. All three routes are available to Philippine Muslims in their very competitive struggle to realize their social and political aspirations.(FN14) Each has its appeal; each has its problems. Each route has its moderate and extremist versions; all jointly have an "outlaw" counterversion, of which more later.

Orientations toward modernity and religiosity crosscut ethnic loyalties that, in turn, are constructed atop local political networks, cobwebs of fragile and unstable threads linking a set of supporters to a central leader, who, though he may (but need not) claim a title from a large traditional hereditary set, maintains and extends his power by constant reweaving and expansion of the delicate ties of dependency and obligation that link him with his supporters. From the supporters' point of view, such ties form a kind of local political identity, which in Yakan is queried by asking, "Who do you follow?" (amban sine kew, literally "from whom are you?"). The response can have critical, even fatal, consequences for the outcome of the interaction (Frake 1980:202-213; Kiefer 1972).

These problems of adaptation to the conflicting pulls of modernism in the context of the intricacies of local political conflicts became manifest in the emergence in the late 1960s and early 1970s of several insurgent groups, each bent on overriding local ethnolinguistic divisions by forming a truly Moro resistance movement.(FN15) Their appearance reflected the intensifying pressures of government-supported Christian settlement in Muslim areas, which led to increased violence by paramilitary groups such as the Christian ilaga' ("Rats"), led by Kumander Toothpick, and the Muslim "Barracudas." The national government was seen by Muslims as supporting the Christians, though this was during a period of widening Muslim participation in national and local government politics. In Muslim localities, political contests for official government offices were fought with as much passion, frequently leading to violence, as among Christians. And, as among Christians, local Muslim political figures often had their own miniature armies. These political battles were fought within the framework of the national two-party system, with party affiliations mapping onto local, regional, and national dualistic factions without any pretense of ideological agendas.(FN16) As this free-for-all violence escalated, and amidst other events--such as a mysterious massacre (the "Jabidah" incident) of Muslim recruits from Sulu to a secret government military force (reportedly assembled to invade north Borneo) and a particularly fierce power struggle between Muslim politicians in central Mindanao--there arose several organizations, each proclaiming itself to represent a pan-Moro movement demanding independence or autonomy from the Philippine state.

Early on the scene appeared the MIM (Mindanao/Muslim Independence Movement) in central Mindanao, the result of an apparent move by a traditional political leader in both local and Philippine government spheres to strengthen his support among Muslims by challenging the government and demanding independence for Mindanao. Intensified by local and national interpretations of this move, the MIM quickly became involved in armed conflicts. During this time, in the late 1960s, a new and quite different insurgent movement appeared among Muslim students at the national university in Manila. These radicalized students challenged not only Philippine government rule but also the leadership of the traditional Muslim elites in Mindanao and Sulu. The group they formed under the leadership of Nur Misuari, the MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front), together with its military arm, the BMA (Bangsa Moro Army), was destined to become the dominant Muslim insurgent group. As a radical, secular Islamic movement led by intellectuals, the MNLF was able to develop associations with other Muslim countries, notably Mu'ammar Gadhafi's Libya.

In a tactic now familiar in ethnic conflict, the MNLF appropriated the ethnic slur "Moro" as a label of self-identity. Misuari explicitly denied that this was a religious movement. It was a movement of the Moro people, the Bangsa Moro. Even a Christian, he announced, could be a Moro: "The correct name is Moro, because that is our nationality.... This is not a religious war. Christians can also be Moros." Ethnic divisions among Moros are to be ignored: "From this very moment there shall be no stressing the fact that one is a Tausug, a Samal, a Yakan, a Subanon, a Kalagan, a Magindanao, a Maranao, or a Badjao. He is only a Moro" (Misuari, quoted by Cayongcat 1986:118). Not unexpectedly, neither the religious nor the ethnic proclamations had great effect. The MNLF was, from the beginning, seen as Tausug-dominated and secular. Neither the ethnicists nor the Islamicists were long to be denied.

In 1972 a political event occurred on the national scene the motivation for which had little, if anything, to do with the Muslim insurgency. To preserve his own regime, Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law and established a military dictatorship. His efforts to extend military control in the south simply escalated the violence. Terrible battles occurred in central Mindanao and throughout Sulu. The town of Jolo was devastated, as was the island of Basilan. New communities of refugees within the Muslim areas had to remake their lives and redefine their identities (see, for example, Blanchetti-Reville 1993). Following a visit to Libya by Imelda Marcos, a meeting between the Marcos government and the MNLF was held in Tripoli in 1976, resulting in agreement, "in principle," to the establishment of regional autonomy in the "southwestern" Philippines (no boundaries specified). But challenges to this agreement were quick to come from the Philippine Muslim camp. Though couched in Islamicist and revolutionary rhetoric, these challenges were motivated by local politics and took advantage of the old, familiar ethnic affiliations. The MIM faded away with the defection to Marcos of its leader, but an established Maranao political leader of central Mindanao formed the BMLO (Bangsa Muslimin Liberation Organization), a name that rejected Misuari's use of "Moro" as demeaning. In meetings in Mecca in 1977, a Magindanao leader, Hashim Salamat, unsuccessfully challenged Misuari for leadership of the MNLF. He received backing from Libya's enemy, Egypt, and was thereby branded an agent of Anwar Sadat by Libya. Philippine Muslim divisiveness had become enmeshed in Middle Eastern conflicts.(FN17).

Back home, Salamat formed a rival Magindanao-dominated organization, the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front), which remains a major player today. In the meantime (we are now in the early 1980s), Maranao members of the MNLF again broke away. An elitist leader formed the MNLFR, the R standing for "Reformist." Radical, largely Maranao groups also appeared: the RNRC (Ranao Norte Revolutionary Committee) and the MNRDF (the Moro National Revolutionary Democratic Front). These groups challenged traditional Muslim elite leadership, as well as the Philippine government, by linking themselves (or threatening to link themselves) with the NPA (National People's Army), the national revolutionary organization then fighting Marcos. There was also an official Communist Party Muslim organization, the MCCCP (Moro Commission of the Communist Party of the Philippines) that formed the MRO or MORO (Moro Revolutionary Organization). None of these radical leftist movements has had much appeal to Philippine Muslims, not so much because of their Marxism as because of their Christian Filipino associations.

With the demise of the Marcos regime, the Philippine government and the MNLF have resumed negotiations under a cease-fire. The government thereby acknowledged the MNLF as the political voice of the Moro region. The MNLF, in turn, has agreed to settle for an "autonomous region" rather than a fully independent state. Tense negotiations over just what an "autonomous region" means, and who is to be included in it, have been going on for the past several years. Opposition to the negotiations by Mindanao Christians has been vociferous. They do not want any autonomy at all. There has been opposition by rival Muslim groups as well, especially the MILF. They demand independence rather than autonomy, thus challenging MNLF leadership of the proposed autonomous region. Despite the opposition, progress was being made in the negotiations and a shaky peace prevailed over most of Mindanao and Sulu.

But as in Palestine and Northern Ireland, just as peace seems to be at hand, the process quite literally gets blown apart. Abu Sayyaf attacks Ipil. "Spoilers of the Peace," announced the Washington Post in its coverage of the Ipil raid: "Militant young Muslim force emerges in Philippines as older rebels negotiate" (Richburg 1995:A33). Faced with such a reality and such a representation of that reality, it is to the advantage of both parties in the negotiation to attribute the disruptive violence to an extremist splinter group. That way negotiations can continue even as one side engages in retaliatory violence, not ostensibly against the opposing negotiating party, but against the extremists. By such devices of attribution, the MNLF negotiations have struggled on in spite of repeated outbursts of violence and recriminatory accusations by both sides. Abu Sayyaf, however, is not simply a convenient invention. It is a self-proclaimed identity.

Whatever its actual role in the Ipil raid of 1995 and in the many other attacks attributed to it, Abu Sayyaf undoubtedly had existed for at least several years beforehand. During the previous year, Abu Sayyaf was mentioned in the Philippine press in connection with several attacks, a few kidnappings, and a provincial hall burning on the Muslim island of Basilan, but given that Muslim raids have been regularly reported in the press for at least the previous 40 years, the new nom de guerre received little national and no international attention before the Ipil attack in a solidly Christian area. On Basilan, reportedly the group's initial home base, I heard references to "abusayap" in early 1993. The name Abu Sayyaf literally means "sword of the father" in Arabic, though, in the tradition of acronymic names, the most common local explanation in Basilan and Jolo is that it represents the initials of the founders of the movement.(FN18) The new kind of name signals a new kind of insurgent group, though the tradition of English nicknames for notorious battle leaders continues: following "Kumander Toothpick" of the old Christian "Rats," the Abu Sayyaf now has its "Kumander James Bond" (vicious violence cannot kill Filipino humor). The founders of Abu Sayyaf were neither from the traditional elite, like the leaders of the MILF, nor were they university students, like the founders of the MNLF. Principal founder Abubakar Janjalani was a student of a fundamentalist imam in a Muslim community in the otherwise Christian city of Zamboanga, a community then filled with refugees from the violence. He was sent for religious and military training among revolutionaries in Egypt and then returned to organize a militant fundamentalist insurgent force. For recruits he tapped a large pool of young, unemployed, and disaffected Muslims, many of them torn from their ethnic roots during the preceding decades. The members of Abu Sayyaf are said to be mostly Tausug and Yakan (a combination of historically bitter enemies). Their main bases are in Basilan and surrounding islands. This ethnic and local provenance has not, however, prevented the press from blaming them for attacks all across the breadth of Mindanao, as far as the city of Davao in the southeast end of the island. The Philippine military has linked them to "a worldwide Muslim terrorist network." Their name is now enshrined in the Britannica Book of the Year for 1995 (Bradsher 1996:456).

The appearance of Abu Sayyaf filled a logical gap in the identity matrix of Philippine Muslim insurgency. The Tausug-dominated MNLF is identified with secular Islam and is led by a nontraditional, university-educated elite. The leadership of the Magindanao-dominated MILF, on the other hand, though it sometimes employs Islamicist rhetoric in opposition to the MNLF, is drawn from the established political elite, which is secular in background and orientation. In contrast to these two movements, the program of Abu Sayyaf is militantly Islamicist. Its leadership comes from neither the Westerneducated elite nor the traditional local elites.(FN19) Its heavy recruitment from the displaced, unaffiliated youth of refugee communities, as well as its geographical base in traditional "outlaw" areas of Basilan and neighboring islands, frees it to some extent from the stigma of a dominating ethnic identification. Members are typically seen not as Tausug, Magindanao, or Maranao but as being "like outlaws," but outlaws with an agenda and an ideology. These differences are sufficient to mark out the Abu Sayyaf as representing a new layer in the strata of kinds of identity laid down in the long history of conflict in the Muslim Philippines. The appearance of pan-Moro groups beginning in the late 1960s added a stratum of "political" identities to the previous layers of ethnic and religious divisions. These identities were political in that their agendas were defined vis-à-vis the Philippine state. They construed "Moro" as political identity, a distinct "nationality" deserving its own sovereignty. To this stratum of political identities, Abu Sayyaf adds an Islamicist identity defined not only in opposition to the Philippine state but also in opposition to secular leadership in the Muslim community. Familiar enough in the Middle East, this militant cry for an Islamic state is a new voice in the Philippines.

Our story of identity proliferation among Philippine Muslims is not quite over. The mention of outlaws in connection with the Abu Sayyaf points to another identity, an alternative to all the rest which has long been available as sometimes convenient to embrace and sometimes useful to attribute to others. I encountered this identity early on, in the 1960s, when collecting life histories among Yakan elders. Quite commonly, the narrator would describe a period of his or her life as being "when we usually a whole kin group was involved were mundu," that is, when they, for a time, became "outlaws." Being a mundu frequently entails being a wantid sought by the authorities, a proudly proclaimed identity that provides one with sanctuary in the homes of nonhostile fellow Yakan (Frake 1980:225-226). The outlaw identity has a long history in the Muslim Philippines.(FN20) The earliest recorded mention of the Yakan, by a 17th-century Jesuit, refers to a Yakan bandit named Tabaco (Combés 1897:498-502). Among Philippine Muslims, the careers of famous outlaws of history are enshrined, like that of Jesse James, in story and song. In this day of political conflict with the national authorities, an outlaw is someone who is seen to fight without an agenda other than personal gain. When a violent attack such as the Ipil raid occurs, there is always the option of attributing it to "outlaws, bandits, and pirates," an option with a continuous record of use throughout colonial history. The title of one 19th-century Spanish history of the southern Philippines translates as "The Pirate Wars of the Philippines against the Mindanaos and Joloanos" (Barrantes 1878), and another, in two volumes, proclaims itself as "The History of Malayo-Mohamedan Piracy in Mindanao, Jolo, and Borneo" (Montero y Vidal 1888).

The German ethnologist Blumentritt (1882), using Spanish sources, published an ethnographic map of the Philippines identifying 51 ethnic groups, each with a distinctive color. One color, green, covers all the Muslim areas. The ethnic identification is Die Piratenstämme pirate tribes von Mindanao und Sulu. A U.S. Army poster, published in 1963 and entitled "Knocking Out the Moros: The U.S. Army in Action" (see Figure 3 and cover photo), commemorates a 1913 battle in Jolo now conveniently forgotten, during which U.S. forces (under the command of soon-to-be-famous General Pershing) annihilated a defending Tausug force of men, women, and children. The poster describes the defenders (pictured falling under the firepower of the .45-caliber pistol, invented to stop "fanatical charges of lawless Moro tribesmen") as "outlaws of great physical endurance and savage fighting ability."(FN21) A current variety of outlaw is found among the "lost command," consisting of bandit gangs reputedly made up of MNLF deserters who no longer fight for the cause but for plunder and pillage alone. Yakan life histories show that being an outlaw can be a self-proclaimed identity (after all, the law one is "out of" is not one's own), but it is equally an identity ascribed by others as a way of attributing base motives to acts of violence. If outlaws did not exist, they would have to be invented to account for what one sees, or would like others to see, as totally unjustified violence.

All these possibilities of identity choice create lines of potential cleavage, which together shape the outcome of conflicts that are typically quite parochial in origin. And when disparate local conflicts independently produce eruptions of violence sufficiently impressive to receive regional and national attention, they are subject to interpretations that, even though uninformed as to local causes, provide a new context for framing "what happened." This new context, in turn, becomes a frame that shapes local interpretations of subsequent events. Interpreting what happened requires identifying agents and victims. It requires identity ascription. Repeated cycles of contested interpretation and reinterpretation foster identity proliferation. Each attribution is made in an arena of competing political agendas under an ever-present cloud of threatening violence. Local and national reactions to the Ipil raid and its precedents nicely illustrate this process.

During the year prior to the raid, there had been in the Zamboanga-Sulu area a number of incidents of violence, mostly kidnappings of local Christians and of an American missionary/linguist which were locally attributed by some to the Abu Sayyaf, by others to the MNLF, by others to the "lost command," and by still others simply to common outlaws. One that received national press attention was the June 1993 burning of the provincial hall in the Basilan capital. A Manila newspaper ran the story under the headline "Abu Sayyaf Eyed in Basilan Capitol Blaze" (Philippine Daily Inquirer 1993:A1). The Abu Sayyaf, at this time new to Manila readers, were characterized by the paper as a Basilan-based gang of "Muslim extremists" responsible for recent kidnappings. Inserted into the story, with no obvious direct connection, was a report that Philippine president Fidel Ramos had warned against terrorist attempts to "sow terror and destruction" during the upcoming Independence Day celebrations. The article also acknowledged that local authorities had in fact suggested faulty wiring as the cause of the fire. Locally in Basilan, I heard both of these stories, but the real truth, I was told, was that the fire was set by provincial government officials in anticipation of a national government audit of their records, now conveniently transformed into ashes. The provincial government has been in the hands of local Yakan politicians since the fighting during the Marcos period drove out most of the Christian residents, who previously controlled Basilan politics. These local politicians share official power with a large contingent of Philippine marines stationed along the north coast. They represent one of several Yakan factions contending for land and power after the violent upheavals and diasporas of the 1970s and 1980s. The story I heard was told as a strategic move during a land dispute between two other factions, by a disputant who was seeking some basis of strength in an appeal to unity in common opposition to the faction then in provincial political power. Yakan friends not involved in this particular labyrinth of disputations acknowledge that the story of deliberate arson was, given the state of Basilan government, quite plausible. Most also granted that, given the state of local electrical installations, bad wiring was an equally plausible cause. Nevertheless, on the national scene, the Abu Sayyaf got the credit. It was, for the national audience, a better story.

Less than a year later came the Ipil attack. This blow was big enough and destructive enough to receive much greater attention locally, nationally, and even internationally. By the time this happened, an abundance of usable interpretative resources had accumulated from the history of accounts of prior conflicts. Only the bare essentials of what happened at Ipil were needed to construct long narrative accounts of the event in local storytelling and in national press reports. None of these accounts seemed particularly constrained by the lack of reliably confirmed data or by the absence of any public claims of responsibility by the perpetrators. The military, vowing to avenge the attack, embarked on raids by air, sea, and land, striking alleged Abu Sayyaf bases on islands in the Basilan area. The MNLF denounced these raids as arbitrary attacks on Muslim communities, attacks that thereby violated the cease-fire agreement with the government. Neither side challenged the attribution of the deed to the Abu Sayyaf, who themselves seemed to have had no voice in this discourse. In spite of the mutual recriminations, these attributions did in fact enable negotiations between the government and the MNLF to stumble on through the subsequent year. In August 1996 an agreement between President Ramos and MNLF leader Nur Misuari was announced. It involves setting up a Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development, to be led by Misuari, which will oversee the 14 provinces of the Mindanao-Sulu region for three years. During this period the Philippine military and police will absorb some 7,000 MNLF fighters into their ranks. There will then be a referendum to decide which provinces want to join an autonomous Muslim region.(FN22) Opposition from local Christians, as well as from Muslim groups opposed to MNLF leadership (notably the MILF and the Abu Sayyaf, who are of course opposed to each other as well), remains firm. An atmosphere of threatened violence continues to hang over a fragile peace.

Peace can only be negotiated when the parties of the new political order are publicly identified. Those not a party to the proposed new order may well be tempted to challenge the prospective leadership by disrupting the peace process with a display of violence identified with a new and more "nationalistic," "revolutionary," "fundamentalist" movement. As Donald Horowitz puts it in his worldwide review of separatist conflicts, "Quite often the swirl of conflicts is reflected in a bewildering succession of separatist organizations, each with more uncompromising demands than the one that preceded it" (1985:237). As a move in this game of political challenge, renewed violence has the property of promoting solidarity among those who, at risk to themselves, join in perpetuating it (Keane 1996). As a device for political challenge, violence becomes more attractive when the existing political order is weak. It becomes even more attractive when the common culture of "civility," extending through that political order, is also weak. These weaknesses, confronted by the eruptive pressures of everyday political conflict, easily allow violence to erupt through widening faults of ethnic, class, and religious divisions. An end to violence means the acceptance on all sides of some kind of political order and, ultimately, the appearance of some kind of framework for a "civil society," a culture of the everyday in which political violence is not a moral alternative.

In the southern Philippines, violence, in varying severity, has been a pervasive context for even the most mundane activities over at least the last 400 years. Like the climate, it is a prevailing condition to which individuals and groups must adapt. One may stoically submit to it, desperately flee it, or defiantly adopt it. But one cannot ignore it.(FN23) A violent event commands attention. It cries out for explanation. It demands either condemnation or justification. Its interpretation requires attributions of the identity of perpetrators and victims in a context of multiple, fiercely competing political agendas that foster flexible, ambiguous, imaginative constructions of what happened. And the assignments of identity that result are not idle games. They have fatal consequences.

During the course of southern Philippine history, ethnic, religious, political, modernistic, and religionistic strata of identity formation, together with outlaw outcroppings in each stratum, shape the fault lines of divisiveness along which violent conflict threatens to erupt. Political violence seizes on fault lines of identity construction to define and promote itself. But the fault lines do not cause the quakes. What causes acts of violence to occur? The unleashed passions of individuals? The machinations of evil villains (thanks to Adolph Hitler, a notion not easily dismissed)? The temptations of fanatical, self-righteous ideologies, be they nationalist, religious, racist, or anarchist? The hidden hegemony of cultural power? The not-so-hidden power of the political state? The easy availability, right in one's hand, of weapons with incredible destructive effect? The opportunity, thanks to the reach of the modern media, to display one's violence (if horrific enough) to the entire world? Since political violence is a recurrent phenomenon in all sorts of polities around the world and at all stages of economic development, it would seem to be a promising candidate for understanding within a general sociopolitical theory. Political scientists and sociologists have produced a number of treatises on violence, each of which seems to bemoan the lack of a general theory of violence.(FN24) The theories proposed are quite diverse in their approaches and assumptions, but for anthropologists what they seem to share is a tendency to ignore the meaning of violence to the participants: victims, perpetrators, onlookers, and commentators. These meanings are constructed by participants' interpretations and experiences of particular events. How do they, in all their antagonistic diversity, decide who did it, to whom, and with what motive? These issues, not Harry Eckstein's (1992:334) vain search for the "underlying determinants," are what need attention. And they are issues to which anthropologists, immersed in the complexities, the passions, and the sorrows of particular cases, can make a contribution. Ultimately, perhaps we can come to an understanding of the paradox with which we began: how can such nice people, at times, do such horrible things?

Several decades ago Clifford Geertz made his now famous appeal for "thick description," produced by the investigator's interpretive skills, as the goal of a proper ethnography. The force behind Geertz's appeal lies in the reality of how people do things in the conduct of their lives and in the explanation of their experience: always thickly garnished and embellished to make a dramatic story, an effective argument, a moving complaint, a funny joke, or a memorable event. But thickness in everyday accounts, as well as in professional ethnographies, can cover over the unremarkable but hegemonic details of everyday life and the basic structural regularities of history's longue durée. For the participant and the investigator alike, much of what is going on in the production of social and cultural worlds may be hidden. As the ethnomethodologists were insisting way back in pre-Geertzian times, "interpretation" is not only a method of the investigator but also the proper object of investigation. It is in the everyday repetitive application of interpretative procedures by ordinary people advancing pressing agendas, in the face of deadly indifference, and within constraining contexts of prevailing violence that results in the proliferation of contested identities among those who most need unity. In a world where one is continually redefined as nobody, one can only keep trying to be somebody.

Added material.

CHARLES O. FRAKE is the Samuel P. Capen Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Anthropology, State University of New York at Buffalo, Buffalo, NY 14261.


I am indebted first of all to my old Yakan friends who welcomed me back to Basilan with their indefatigable spirit and humor after a long and, for them, horrendously violent hiatus. One old friend, especially, who has become an accomplished master of military-checkpoint-interaction ritual (a topic itself worthy of a paper), made it possible for me to get in and out of Basilan on a number of occasions. Jayoung Park, currently doing doctoral research in Jolo, has kept me up to date on events from the Tausug perspective. Readers of earlier drafts, notably Joanne Coury, Robert Knox Dentan, Michael Herzfeld, Ray McDermott, and Keith Otterbein, have made helpful suggestions and corrections.

Figure 1 A display of violence: Abu Sayyaf fighters pose for the press. Drawing by by Terence Loan, based on newspaper photos of purported Abu Sayyaf insurgents, with modifications to disguise persons and place. Used by permission.

Figure 2 The southern Philippines. Map by Terence Loan. Used by permission.

Figure 3 "Knocking Out the Moros: The U.S. Army in Action." U.S. Army poster 21-48, 1963. Commemorates a 1913 battle in Jolo.


1. Herzfeld 1993:173 paraphrases one of Leach's arguments. Leach summarizes his own argument with somewhat less felicitous wording: "killing is a classifying operation" (Leach 1965:175). I am grateful to Keith Otterbein, who has himself had occasion to cite this quotation (Otterbein 1974:931), for supplying the Leach reference.

2. Both the difficulty and the sensitivity are apparent in Feldman's (1991) impressive ethnography (and in reactions to it) of violence in Northern Ireland.

3. Comaroff (1996) provides an important theoretical treatment of these issues in his recent discussion of "the politics of difference.".

4. Combés 1897; Forrest 1779; Montero y Vidal 1888; Warren 1981.

5. There is a Muslim grave in Jolo dated A.H. 710 (A.D. 1310) (Majul 1963:xii). The standard works on the introduction of Islam to the Philippines, based on local traditions and documents, are Saleeby 1905 and 1908. For evidence of the economic and social complexity of Island Southeast Asia at the time of the spread of Islam, see Reid 1993.

6. Though not a conventional practice and one whose political correctness may be suspect, it is nevertheless convenient to use "Samalan" as a purely linguistic label for a set of closely related languages, with no implications for the cultural identities assumed by or assigned to speakers of those languages.

7. Most, but not all, of those labeled "Samal" by the Tausug (and traditionally by anthropologists) prefer to call themselves "Sama," the final l having become a symbol of imposed (versus embraced) identity (Blanchetti-Reville 1993; Cojuangco 1993; Geoghegan 1975; Horvatich 1993). The name "Tausug" (tausug) is relatively recent in the literature and, though understood, is not commonly used locally in ordinary reference to the language or the identity. Locally, the terms su(l)ug (Tausug) or su(l)uk (Samalan) name the language, the people, and the island of Jolo. The Spanish, in borrowing and spelling the term, dropped the final letter, retained the medial l (often dropped locally in pronunciation), and applied it to the whole archipelago. In spelling the name of the island proper, they used an initial j and then pronounced it as a sibilant in Spanish. For some reason they here spelled /u/ as o. (In Tausug, but not in Samalan languages, there is no contrast between u and o .) For added measure, perhaps in tribute to the discarded terminal consonant, they accented the final vowel. When the pronunciation of j changed to a velar spirant in Spanish, the new pronunciation, a simple h in the Philippines, made possible a distinction between the island holó and the archipelago súlu , a distinction maintained in Philippine English usage. In Spanish accounts, the Tausug people and their language were generally called "Joloano," a label still common among local Christians. Such accidents of linguistic change and orthographic practice in a colonial language produce distinctive ethnonyms and toponyms that mark out and put in place enemies and allies.

8. Bentley 1981; Frake 1980:311-332; Pallesen 1985.

9. Sather (1971:62) has proposed that it was in fact the peoples subordinate to the Tausug who, in an effort toward empowerment, first embraced Islam. Whatever the sequence of events, the Tausug now definitely consider themselves the primary upholders of the faith in Sulu.

10. These central Mindanao peoples are known in the literature as Maranao, Magindanao, and Ilanun, depending on whether their locus is the upland lake area of Lanao, the riverine plain of Cotabato, or the maritime coasts of central Mindanao and eastern Zamboanga. Similar distinctions have been made locally, but to the peoples of Sulu their central Mindanao rivals are all "Ilanun." All of these terms (Lanao, Maranao, Magindanao, Ilanun, and Mindanao) are Western-language versions of variants and derivatives of the common local form lanaw(similar)danaw(similar)ranaw (lake), referring to central Mindanao's large upland lake or, according to some, its often-flooded river basins.

11. For a map of the world displaying this line, see McEvedy 1972:18-19.

12. Evidence of the lack of use of Malay in the Philippines during Spanish colonial times is presented in Frake 1980:317-318. Further sources on the colonial period in the Muslim Philippines are Blair and Robertson 1903-09, Cojuangco 1993, Forrest 1779, Geoghegan 1975, and Warren 1981.

13. Among Christians, and in some Muslim-Christian interaction, Zamboangueño (the Spanish creole) has practical use as a lingua franca, but it is accorded very little prestige even by native speakers, an evaluation stemming from colonial attitudes toward this "corrupt Spanish.".

14. See Horvatich's (1993, 1994) accounts of the complexities of these alternatives among the Sama, Muslims of the western Sulu archipelago.

15. Of course I cannot report these developments without framing them within my own interpretations, which are severely weakened by limitations of my (or anyone else's) first-hand knowledge of all the relevant events, by weaknesses of my narrative skill, by the thinness of my allotted journal space, and by my undoubtedly already too-generous estimation of readers' patience for obscure detail. On the other hand, my interpretations are minimally warped by any agenda to favor any particular side in conflicts reported. For more details and varying interpretations, see Casiño 1987, Cayongcat 1986, Che Man 1990, George 1980, McKenna 1993, and Noble 1987.

16. See Lande's (1965) description of Philippine politics, which holds true today since the old system has prevailed over both the National People's Army's revolutionary agenda and Marcos's fumbling attempts at military dictatorship. The description is updated by the papers in Lande's (1987) edited collection.

17. Compare Eckstein's (1992:304-342) remarks on the importance of external support to the relative success of competing successionist movements.

18. The information from Jolo was provided by my colleague Jayoung Park.

19. See Horowitz 1985:238-239 on the critical role of elites in successionist movements among what he, in his developmentalist framework, terms "backward groups in backward regions.".

20. I use the term outlaw here because the distinction between bandit and pirate, based on whether one finds terra firma or a wobbly deck under one's feet, is not reflected in local languages. Also, outlaw, being a bit antiquated, seems somehow less pejorative.

21. This poster was first brought to my attention long ago in the form of a gift from my colleague Karl Heider. The fine-print text at the bottom notes that "it is suitable for framing and preserving for permanent display in dayrooms, clubs, and offices of the Army." Then in larger and bolder print comes a restriction: "Distribution will not be made to units in Korea." It would be interesting to uncover the military logic (or fear?) that lay behind this prohibition.

22. For the terms of the agreement, see Economist 1996.

23. The dilemmas of adaptation to pervasive violence in Ireland, Guatemala, and Palestine are vividly described, respectively, by Aretxaga (1993), Warren (1993), and Wood (1993).

24. Examples go back to Leiden and Schmitt 1968 and continue with Horowitz 1985, Eckstein 1992:204-342, and Keane 1996.


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