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CRUCIBLE: History and Freedom 


QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/23 May) — With recent development happening around, as it is quite related with our concern, it is important to frame our khutbah (discourse) by raising some questions: What is the role of history particularly in terms of forging ethnic formation or nation-building? Why is there such selectivity and exclusion of historical facts especially by those who are in the position of power? Is remembering the past a virtue or vice? Why is freedom an arbiter of history?

These are some questions that we’d like to underline relative to today’s trend of nations and communities engaged in claims and counter-claims about their history.

Affirmation or denial

The most vivid case is the recent exchange of words between Turkey and Armenia with the 100th commemoration of what is referred to as the Turks genocide against the Armenian people during the last phase of the Ottoman Empire.

Turkey, obviously, refused to acknowledge the magnitude of genocide even as Prime Minister Erdogan lectured other world leaders to look at themselves in the mirror and see the stains of their nations’ history in terms of war, genocide, violence, and so on.

Few days ago, too, Iran commemorated the downing of Iranian Airbus, which was fired by a missile from US warship in the late ‘80s – an episode in US-Iran relation that is hardly mentioned in contemporary America’s history.

It is not to mention the continuing denial of Japan regarding her atrocities in China, Korea, and the Philippines including the alleged systematic rape and subjection of so-called Filipino comfort women during World War II.

These are just few issues where countries are trying to expose, and conversely, to shelf them depending on their interest about certain aspects of their history.

Close to home, there are efforts today to account Philippine governments’ atrocities that were committed in Moro areas dating back to 1946. This is in line, accordingly, with the project on Bangsamoro particularly the need to avail data about atrocities in order to address what is referred to as “transitional justice.”

Two years ago, a foundation approached me asking for names of so-called Muslim leaders or personalities to be included in the roster of Filipino heroes who fought against the Marcos dictatorship.

Some months ago also, I invited to my radio program (Salam Radyo DZUP 1602), a government official to discuss Philippine project in accounting human rights victims and the possibility of extending them a package of assistance as government took over some amount of so-called Marcos wealth.

Indeed, today’s external development coincides with recent recognition of the Philippine government to address “transitional justice” particularly those atrocities and oppression committed against the Bangsamoro.

We raise these questions about today’s trend in availing history purposely to, at least, enlighten ourselves how the process of accounting history against victims and oppressed peoples is being done with its attendant implications.

For one, tracing history is a difficult task especially so if it will be used to address perceived historical injustice committed on certain people.

When we speak of the Moros and the atrocities committed against them, such atrocities did not start in the granting of Philippine independence in 1946. It went as far to a long period of colonialism and, if you may, post-colonialism.

We thus raise the question: why is there a need to identify 1946 as the starting point in chronicling atrocities and oppression committed against the Bangsamoro? What about past atrocities committed by previous colonial powers? How are we going to make sense of them given that they are as critical like other phases of oppression and victimization in Moro history?

Moreover, we raise also the question: is today already the time for the Moros to account atrocities committed against them; and correspondingly, the atrocities they committed against the other? What are the conditions into which people would be prodded to dig into their emotion and sentiments about their past? What is the end of this project? Whose interest it primarily serve and what benefit people get?

To begin with, chronicling history including atrocities and violence against other people is a trend that has become global. It is, in our view, intended to legitimize the narrative of power on one side and to contest dominant power by oppressed people on other side. This process of chronicling the past is related to today’s trend of power projection and myth-making.


As we’d underscored in our earlier khutbah, for instance, the 9/11 and the Museum that now stands over the ashes of Ground Zero in New York is a case of tragic event transformed into powerful American myth. It has created a mirage with formidable image where the Muslim world is depicted as the challenging other.

Moreover, the 9/11 has vividly pictured Islam as oppressive, the Arabs and Muslims as violent and terrorist, and so on and so forth. As 9/11 legitimizes America’s global power, it sustains Islamophobia in the United States and elsewhere. It is how powerful myth-making is especially when couched with history and power. It is a trend that becomes a tool of global hegemony and control.

Said trend is not new. It went as far as the time of the Nazis and the Holocaust, and how they have become tools of so-called anti-Semitic propaganda. Israel has undeniably benefited in using the Holocaust as justification for perpetuating brutal State’s violence against the other particularly the Palestinians who ironically had nothing to do with Nazism and the Holocaust.

This early phase of 21st century therefore hardly grows beyond the age of propaganda and control. Incidentally, it has crept into the discourse of Moro public. Hence, we raise those questions.

In this regard, we need to be, at least, informed about the advantages or disadvantages of such project. As I said, accounting past atrocities is supposedly worthwhile, but it has to come with certain condition in terms of answering the reason why the Moros, for instance, have become perpetual object of oppression and colonialism; and whether such project in accounting past atrocities would help in ushering their freedom and real self-determination or it is just another tool in profiling them and their history.

When we raise the question of chronicling history and archiving people’s collective memory in aid of identity formation and nation-building, we say, this is supposedly a worthwhile cause, as it will reveal certain aspects of the past.

It emboldens certain claims if only to produce a kind of level playing field amongst people. Agreeably, it is not only the powerful that should have the monopoly of narratives and what history actually says about the past; the oppressed (mustaddafeen) and minorities should also have their own narratives with their collective memory enlivened.

Yet, we have to move beyond current trend as we could be trapped into pitfalls of power projection and shallow propaganda even as we could suffer in remembering the past especially those that are too painful to remember.

While remembering can be a virtue as it emboldens people’s identity and collective history; at times, remembering could also be a vice as it can hold people hostage to certain stigma of history where they could hardly move forward and fully embrace the future. It could emboss false nationalism or ethnic pride, which is precisely the raison d’ état for the oppressor in waging oppression.

For the oppressed and victims of history, remembering should not simply be a tool of knowing or a mere desire for recognition; it is, more fundamentally, connected to their pursuit of freedom in their own way without dictate from the other or any entity.

Holistic worldview

Recording the past, while subject or tool of history, has broader dimension. We had partly talked about it in our previous khutbah particularly the Khaldunian methodology as we could probably expand it further in our future discourses.

At this juncture, what interests me is the connection of the concept of history to Qur’anic worldview – a perspective that is holistic and total. It could not be selective as in any other history.

For sure, the powerful would only desire to select some aspects of history that would fit into their interest. In the same vein, the oppressed and minorities would also select certain aspects of their history that would legitimize their claim, but they could only go that far especially if their discourse is already framed by dominant power and if their cause is detached from their pursuit of freedom.

Reflecting on history has certain bearing with Qur’anic imperative given the emphasis to know the past even as the Qur’an exhorts people to travel so that they will know the character of generations before them. As we’d frequently underlined, the Qur’an says: “Why don’t you travel and see the end of those generations that came before them?”

Notice the Qur’an emphasizes a rather simple way in understanding the past: it is through travelling. People are encouraged to know in its raw form or in its original scene the fate of past generations.

Today, travelling is reinforced with other historical methods like archiving, recording and so on. Unless done with strict methodology, selectivity, exclusion and exteriorization of facts could happen. They could be made to pass as truth. There can be problem in representation of the past. And “re-presentation” is most often connected to the interest of the powerful and, to some extent, even those who want legitimacy of their claim.

Whereas the worldview of the Qur’an speaks of “record,” such conception is totally distinct of any record like archiving history and so on. In fact, from one angle, the latter is merely a metaphor, if you may, figment of Qur’anic conception of “Record.”  It is a concept of record that operates in different light, but it is equally significant in Islamic worldview. As you know, such a notion of “record” borders on certain fatalism, but which is couched in Islam’s notion of totality of Truth. The Qur’an speaks of Kitabu n-mubeen (Clear Record) and Imamu n-mubeen (Clear Book). For instance, the Qur’an says:

“Verily, We shall give to the dead and We record that which they send or that which they leave behind, and of all things have We taken account in a Clear Book (of evidence) (Yasin, 12).”

The “Record” that the Qur’an refers to as Imamu n-mubeen which also refers to as Kitabu n-mubeen is the totality of all truth. In Islamic conception, it is the “Record” that is perpetually recording. There are no acts of individuals and nations including the atrocities and oppression they commit or committed against them without being recorded; they are all captured in the said “Record.” Accordingly, those acts will all be revealed openly in the “Final Hour.”

According to Tabari as confirmed by Mujahid, Qatadah and Abdurahman bin Zyed bin Aslama, the “metaspace” of “Record” is referred to as the “Lawhi l-mahfuz” or Preserved Tablet. The Imamu n-mubeen and/or Kitabu n-mubeen is the source of all records. It thus suggests that they are part of the Lawhi l-mahfuz.

We raise this point to emphasize the fact that while Muslims appreciate history and the chronicling of their past – be they beautiful or ugly – they are however even more enriched by a “higher” vision of history as they struggle to appreciate yet have to transcend mundane ones, while they have firmed belief of the truth and the totality of records about themselves and about their nations.

Although, seemingly, such a conception has no immediate, pragmatic significance, as it cannot be utilized for historical or political purposes by certain entity or power, the value of this perspective is empowering: it is what sustains hope on the oppressed (mustaddafeen).

Incidentally, the sigh of the oppressed is, by itself, the oppressed’s source of power. As long as that sigh remains, the oppressed have no time to account of their gains. Their march to freedom is their primary, unadulterated pursuit. The mark left on them with their struggle whether in victory or defeat is their history’s endowment. They have to live by it and be proud of it even as they pursue persistently their sacred cause. If they waiver and seek petty recognition or beg pittance remuneration, that sacred endowment is diminished if not wholly rendered into complete insignificance. It is what Jesus (AS) prohibits not to throw pearl into the swine.

In its ethical side, it could be inferred that since human beings should be fully aware that all of their acts as individuals and as nations are recorded then they should be aware and, by implication, they ought to stop or substantially reduce their propensity to commit atrocities against themselves and the other. At least, the oppressed are empowered with their belief that all atrocities will be bared be their individual records or as records of their nations. To say the least, constricting people’s freedom is the worse of all atrocities.

This point gives us a view that there is more than the need to record our past and use it for narrow ends. Most important is the birth of consciousness for the pursuit of universal values: whether ones are oppressors or oppressed they have their own “record.”  Ethically thus, they should consciously develop their “record.” Such a task of developing consciousness should grow incrementally, say, from worse to good, from good to better, and from better to best. Both of them ought to be conscious that they have their respective “records” that will be accounted for in the “Final Hour.”

It goes without saying that the onus in correcting the past is in the hands of oppressor not the oppressed. The former should have the fortitude to clear their conscience to do their own historical correction. Willingness to do so would free the oppressor from suffering the weight of historical guilt. Well, this point smacks a contradiction. How can the oppressor know oppression and be made to account of its inequities? Yet, civility dictates that who messes up dirt should clean the mess himself.

Whereas the oppressed could not be made to suffer from a kind of double jeopardy – that is, after the oppressor inflicts pain upon them, they are made to re-suffer by letting them dig into their emotion to remember such pain. There can be no hiatus between two pains. They are psychologically similar. Domination connects them together. It can only be broken with freedom. Despite the fact that time heals, real “record” of atrocities remains indelible. Trivial propaganda has no place in sacred history of the oppressed.

The oppressed have their ingenious way of coping. They have their own ways in reifying their own “heroes.” They have their rich folklores, narratives and other sources of collective memory. These are far more powerful than those in State archives. In short, the oppressed know themselves quite well. They don’t need to be told who they are. They cannot stand seeing the other shedding crocodile tears. Remission of guilt is not asked; it is freely given.

When we mention this point it is to soothe the hearts of victims and oppressed people since, in most cases, there is practically nothing left with them about their past – their culture, their relics, and so on. In truth, those things they consider history are now “housed” in other countries, in other homes, in other museums, other libraries, and on and on.

Archiving and freedom

To reiterate, this is not to argue that archiving past atrocities committed against oppressed peoples is not important. It’s one level, albeit lower one. What we are saying is we have an even enriching and transcending view, as we could not have guarantee by using ordinary methods of recording, that details of atrocities and oppression committed against them would be dispensed with given the longue duree that many oppressed peoples have suffered from both colonial and post-colonial powers. In fact, the irony of those who’d been standing on the perch of power, they have unduly controlled for long the history of other people. We say this is unfair.

Again, if 1946 would simply be the beginning of archiving atrocities committed against the Bangsamoro, we say, there are far more catastrophic and oppressive events that happened in the past dating back to practically all colonial and major powers.

Where do Moros get justice? What institution would they approach in order to effect historical justice? There is none.

In fact, another irony is that proponents in chronicling and archiving past atrocities committed against many minorities are, in most cases, the ones who were engaged in colonial oppression in many parts of the world. Thus, why do we allow ourselves to archive our own pain, the pain inflicted against us by the other?

In Islamic conception, isn’t it that when people enter into a struggle to right the wrongs done against them is that they supposedly commit beyond worldly pursuit? Many of them become martyrs, as they do not struggle for mundane recognition. When they die, the Qur’an is so strong in proscribing not to refer to them as dead. The Qur’an considers them as very much alive. The Qur’an says:

“And say not those who are slain in the way of God: “They are dead.” Nay, they are living, ye perceive it not (Baqarah: 154).”  

Those who perished in struggle simply live in a different state. Because they have reached such lofty status, their struggle could not simply be reciprocated by mere State recognition or simply to emboss national or ethnic pride.

For those “immortals,” let them live in anonymity to relish their “life” of real freedom. This way they would not be “divinized” as another gods and demigods or another heroes to be “worshipped” by the living – a pitfall that would only “anesthesize” the oppressed in pursuing freedom. “Hero-worship,” to use Thomas Carlyle’s term, has its underside too. It can make the oppressed sterile and suffer with false veneration. Instead of being awed to reach greater heights, it fossilizes history and makes the oppressed content of status quo.

In one of his powerful lectures, Renato Constantino, an exceptional Filipino nationalist and author, exhorted Filipinos that their main task is to render Jose Rizal irrelevant – that is, for them to right what Rizal considers as wrongs about themselves and their society. As Filipinos fail to remove the “social cancer” in their midst, then Rizal becomes even more relevant today.

This is the reason why I have some trepidation when I was approached by certain foundation asking me to suggest some Muslim names to be included in the roster of so-called Filipino heroes.

For one, it is difficult to identify those so-called Muslim heroes. It is also difficult to assess their struggle given the problem in knowing them as individuals and understanding the context of their time. As many of them have checkered past, we might be putting someone in pedestal when s/he is far from being the representative of the oppressed and marginalized.

More fundamental, appreciating and understanding Moro history requires total and holistic perspective – not segmented or selective, while dictated by certain historical moments like Martial Law, Philippine independence, and others. Finally, as Moro history is currently in the making, its present appraisal remains incomplete and is thus continuously unfolding.

On the contrary, this is not to argue that there are no so-called Muslim heroes. Problem is, if we list them their number could be too overwhelming given the longue duree, as we said, of Moro struggle. And they would even dwarf those considered “heroes” by the other.

Finally, as every inch of Moro territory and Muslim historical space is practically spilled with blood with centuries of struggle against colonialism and oppression, how can justice and recognition be served without polluting them with false plaques and platitudes?

In this regard, how can practically all past and present colonial powers beginning with Portugal, Spain, Holland, Germany, France, Britain and the United States be made accountable with their series of unrequited historical debts on the Moros?

To be fair, how can those so-called Moro pirates particularly the Ilanaon and Balaguingui marauders be historically forgiven with their looting and slave raiding in many parts of Mindanao, Vizayas, and Luzon as Pampangos, Ilokanos, Vizayans and many others became too willing and compliant rowers of Spanish armada to subjugate the Moros?

Finally, how can the United States and the Philippine Commonwealth be made accountable when the former maneuvered the transfer of Moro sovereignty to the latter in cahoots with Filipino nationalists and Moro leaders as early as the 20th century? Lest we forget, how can today’s status quo be reconfigured with the Moros appearing as oppressor than as oppressed?

Although, we say, the State has all the right to engage in personal or heroic reification, we should not be easily prodded to join the bandwagon. We believe, to reiterate, those who struggle and pass away in their struggle did not simply struggle to get recognition. They entered the realm of jihad fii sabilillah (struggle in Divine path) with the highest ideal. Thus, they should not simply be objectified for worldly show.

These are our reflections in the way we have to make sense in chronicling history especially if done without providing real answer whose interest it serves and who would benefit from it.

What we know is that those people who struggle in the past had nothing in mind but for their people, their children and their children’s children and the generations to come, to smell the scent of freedom and to exercise their comprehensive right of self-determination so that they become like other free peoples of the world.

In the end, freedom is the arbiter of history as it is the guarantee where aggrieved peoples would not be subjected to perpetual oppression. By that time, when freedom is in their hands, the oppressed would be in the better position to project what they want of their history. [MindaViews is opinion section of MindaNews. Thi khutbah (with major revision) was delivered at the UP-Institute of Islamic Studies on 08 May 2015. Julkipli Wadi is Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines].

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