Wednesday, July 29, 2009

When The President Comes A-Calling

John L. Silva

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s visit on July 30, 2009 with President Barack Obama comes with the likely request for more military aid in to continue the war against Al Qaeda terrorists in her country. A similar request was made five years ago on the last visit with then President George Bush.

The former American colony hasn’t resolved the decades long conflict in the southern island of Mindanao, home to the country’s Muslim population. The government’s army fight against separatists and the more sinister Abu Sayaf group funded by Al Qaeda, continues despite millions of dollars of American military hardware and up to 600 American military advisers on the island.

Despite the occasional capture of senior Al-Qaeda commanders, Mindanao has paid a heavy price. The war and the spate of bombings (38 so far since January) have killed hundreds of civilians, displaced over 500,000 people, orphaned children, and in resentment, recruited boys as young as ten years old to fight for the Abu Sayaf terrorists. Mosques have been destroyed, school houses turned into refugee centers, and with the conflict, human rights violations have increased.

The United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) program has for the past five years poured money (much of it to Mindanao) into lackluster programs like promoting democracy and governance to increasing business opportunities. Its education funding component has fared better.

Muslim public school students have the lowest literacy rates and the highest drop-out rates in the country. Started seven years ago by the Ford Foundation, and expanded later by USAID, public school teachers are given skills to teach English, Science and Math and school textbooks distributed to elementary students. In just three years, and with smarter teachers, illiteracy rates once as high as 80% among first graders in Muslim dominated areas declined sharply to just above 10%. Working through local non-government organizations (NGO’s) in combat zones, the programs are supported by Muslim parents and the staff work unimpeded and without danger.

One thorny aid issue is the long held practice of using American intermediary organizations, usually Washington D.C. based, who successfully bid for large chunks of USAID funding, and then turn around and issue funding guidelines to local NGO’s working in the field. Oftentimes the guidelines have scant regard for local conditions, verging on impossible objectives, like training out-of-school youths and imposing quotas for job placements in a region where there are no jobs to be had except to be a terrorist. These myopic guidelines have more relevance in America’s inner cities and President Obama’s Indonesia childhood and his community organizing experience may encourage him to review the efficacy of distant funding intermediaries and instead award local NGO’s working in the field.

Meanwhile, there is a disturbing trend of imported Muslim fundamentalist culture appearing in Mindanao impeding the gains made. More teachers and women on the street wear borqas, the all black veil and garment with only the eyes seen and imported from the Taliban culture of Afghanistan.

Teachers confide of increased pressure to ban dancing and singing and the visual arts confined only to calligraphy. A hundred years ago, photographs of Mindanao show Muslim women with heads uncovered or lightly veiled and dancing sensually to native gongs.

An increasing number of informal study centers called Madrasahs have sprouted teaching young boys the Qur’an and Islamic values, its course content not reviewed by the government’s department of education. Government textbooks for Muslim-majority public schools are in scant supply in contrast to a $10 million dollar ten-year commitment by the Libya based World Islamic Society Foundation to distribute textbooks in the Philippines.

The Obama Administration’s new policy of diplomacy with the Muslim world, a precursor to dialogue and debate, and its emphasis on education and cultural exchange may be the novel prescription needed in war torn Mindanao.

Instead of the usual knee-jerk reaction in committing more military aid, President Obama could start reviewing with President Arroyo how his approach to the Muslim world can be translated into more non-combative ways to establish peace in the region.

The Philippine government recently incorporated Madrasah education in the public schools and it would benefit from adapting curriculum reforms being done in the United States and implemented in Saudi Arabian textbooks deleting references like jihad, or holy war and walaa wal baraa, the notion that Muslims should be emancipated from “non-Muslims.” By extension, the Obama Administration could meet with other education funders in Mindanao, like Libya and Australia, to ensure the curriculum they sponsor and the textbooks they distribute have the same reformist orientation.

Despite the hubris about American military might as the harbinger of peace and ensuring global security, it is (until the Iraq war) in universal education, cultural creativity, and advancing diversity that has won much of the world to past and present Pax Americana. Establishing a public education system in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century ended a bloody Philippine American War. Transporting 700 American teachers (called the Thomasites after the ship that carried them) to teach the ABC’s to peasant Muslim and Christian children established the foundation for an egalitarian society, and did more to establish peace and amity than the 126,000 American soldiers sent to fight in that war.

Implicit in advancing diversity in the United States was many years of hard non-violent struggle, eschewing dogma and always finding common ground. One resulting outcome, the election of President Obama, resonates deeply with tens of millions of young people throughout the globe who by circumstances are poor, discriminated against, deprived of freedom and opportunity. It resonates as well with young Filipino Muslims today, on the brink of changing their lives for the better or for the nightmare we dread and will regret.

Instead of arms, send books of the widest breadth in subject matter. Send cultural performances and exhibitions that expand notions of aesthetics and exalting the human form. Send Muslim-American clerics who foster inclusive and peaceful interpretations of the Qur’an. Send civil libertarians, peace and gay activists proving tolerance makes a great nation. Send the enormous assemblage of talent that promote cultural excellence and pluralism as the preferred ammunition for this administration and the allure and cachet of Islamic fundamentalism will, in this region, wither on the vine.

John L. Silva is a trustee of Synergeia Foundation, an education reform organization, teaching public school teachers throughout the country including Mindanao.