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Philipine: When Christians embrace Islam

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    Posted: 08 April 2005 at 12:29am

When Christians embrace Islam
Source: 17spe1.html
By Johnna Villaviray, Senior Reporter

(First of Three Parts)

When the television reporter Richard Rivera stepped onto the Sulu pier, one thing was on his mind: send stories to Manila about efforts to recover the Abu Sayyaf’s 19 Sipadan hostages.

By the end of the six-week assignment, Rivera brought home not just war stories but a new faith as well.

Now answering to the name Abdurahman Ismail, Rivera has resigned from the network and is now helping to organize rallies to raise civic awareness. He says he doesn’t miss his fast life as a reporter and its perks—booze, payola and girls.

“Before I became a Muslim, the focus was on money, how to get ahead in life. But now, I ask myself, ‘What’s all that for? Isn’t salvation what’s important?’” Rivera said.

Rivera is one of the thousands of former Christians who “reverted” to Islam since the 1990s. The Office of Muslim Affairs estimates that at least 20,000 Balik Islam, or “reverts” as they like to be called, live in traditionally Catholic Luzon. They call themselves “reverts” rather than converts on the premise that everyone was born a Muslim.

Records show that Balik Islam comprises nearly 200,000 of the more than 6.599 million local Muslim community. It is now the seventh-biggest group of the 13 local Muslim tribes. Islam is now the fastest-growing religion in the country.

Muslims believe that the September 11 attacks on the United States, while raising suspicion against them, also piqued public curiosity about Islam.

“After 9-11, we suddenly had a shortage of reading materials. The attack cast Muslims in a bad light, but it also encouraged people to learn more about Islam, which is good,” said Shariff Soilaman Gonzales. Gonzales acts as officer in charge of the International Worldwide Mission (iwwm) after the group’s imam—Mahmoud Al-Ghafari, an Egyptian—was deported on suspicion of aiding local terrorists.

Gonzales, interviewed in the iwwm’s rundown office in the heart of Quiapo’s Muslim quarter, said the age-old misconceptions about Islam and Muslims are now helping to attract the faithful.

The crude explanation is that people are naturally curious about what is perceived bad or illegal. To the Muslims, it’s all part of a divine plan.

“Everything that happens or will happen in this world is the plan of Allah,” Gonzales explained.

The first Filipino reverts were the workers deployed in Middle Eastern countries, especially in Saudi Arabia, where shari’a law is enforced. When they came back, they so impressed many with their zeal and piety that their family, relatives, friends and neighbors followed suit.

Ahmed Santos took the shahada, the Islamic testimony of faith, while working in Riyadh in 1991. From a landed military and squarely Catholic family in Anda, Pangasinan, Santos is now president of the Balik Islam Unity Congress.

“My grandfather is a soldier and he taught me that Muslims would stab me in the back at the first opportunity. Now, I know that he’s wrong,” Santos said while sitting in a lotus position on the burgundy carpet of the air-conditioned mosque he built.

The mosque occupies the second floor of the four-story building Santos constructed in suburban Cubao. The building is a block from the Nativity Parish Church where he was first married.

Islam is heavy with divine predestination. Santos believes that his dreams of a crying Jesus Christ when he was younger indicated that he should revert to Islam.

He reverted in 1990 while working in Saudi Arabia. While he led a comfortable and moneyed life before, Santos now faces constant surveillance by suspected intelligence officers and a daily struggle with finances.

“No regrets. Because this is the will of Allah. And the brothers are there. People see that, and that helps them revert,” he said.

There’s been no serious study on the state of mind of people who revert to Islam, but law-enforcement authorities lump them with Muslim radicals. If that line of thinking were followed, Balik Islam would share the psychological profile of the terrorists arrested since September 11.

A paper prepared by Singapore authorities after the roundup last year of 31 suspected Jemaah Islamiah operatives describes the men as having average to superior intelligence but suffering from low self-esteem. The paper said membership in a secretive organization boosts the suspects’ personal image.

“These men fully understood that they were not dabbling in childish play,” the document said. “These men were not ignorant, destitute or disfranchised outcasts.”

The psychological profile made on the alleged Jemaah Islamiah operatives suggests that they are predisposed to indoctrination and actually crave for the control exercised by charismatic religious leaders.

Zamzamin Amaptuan, chief of Office of Muslim Affairs, agreed that the reverts are prone to indoctrination to the “deviant” interpretation of Islam that those arrested for terrorism follow.

“They’re more aggressive, but it’s very natural and human to be so engrossed in a faith that you recently accepted. In some way, this aggressiveness can be converted to something else,” he said.

Ampatuan continued, “It can be taken advantage of by some people [because it makes them] more prone to conditioning and exploitation, since they don’t fully understand.”

Santos, however, doesn’t mind being lumped with so-called terror organizations.

“If being a fundamentalist or an extremist means following everything in the Koran, like praying five times a day or responding to the call for jihad [holy war], then I’d prefer to be called an extremist or a fundamentalist rather than a nominal Muslim,” he said.

Nooh Caparino, the head of the Islamic Call and Guidance-Philippines’ da’wah (propagation) program, observed that reverts to Islam are searching for spiritual fulfillment.

“Sometimes people transfer from one affiliation to another, usually from Christianity to another, and then when they encounter Islam, they stick there. That’s because it’s the complete religion,” he said.

Rivera was one of those butterflies. Born a Catholic, he was baptized in the Iglesia ni Cristo’s central church in the mid-1990s before reverting a few years later.

“Everybody has it in him to convert. The only blocking factor would be pride,” Santos said. “People who are too proud to give up materialism and too proud to take the persecution will not revert and they will not find peace and salvation.”

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‘Islam attracts the disillusioned’ 
 By Johnna Villaviray, Senior Reporter

(Second of three parts)

Joey Ledesma lived a good life.

A member of Manila’s moneyed elite, he lives in a mansion in Greenhills and teaches economics at La Salle University. His uncle is an ambassador whose connections have opened the door to job opportunities.

Still, Ledesma chose to complicate his life two years ago by becoming a Muslim.

“I used to be very nationalistic. But not anymore, because I’m more Muslim now and Islam transcends ethnicity,” explained Ledesma, who now answers to the name Yousuf.

Ledesma became enamored with how Muslims stick to what the prophets practiced centuries ago, unlike he says how modern Christians improvised in their worship. After a few sessions, he reverted.

Becoming a Muslim was the best decision he ever made, he says, despite the nagging of his mother and wife who are hostile toward his new­found brothers.

Ledesma and his brothers credit the spread of Islam today to Divine Predestination, i.e., Allah chose this time for the faith to spread.

Police Senior Supt. Rodolfo Mendoza has a less profound, but more practical, explanation: social disappointment.

 “Filipinos are fond of searching for new horizons and are naturally very religious. It’s no surprise that they’re turning to religion to escape the disappointments of this life,” said Mendoza, who has studied terrorist groups since the mid-1990s.

He believes the country has become the breeding ground for Islamic radicals because of widespread poverty and injustice and the failure of institutions to deal with these problems.

Mendoza said Balik Islam does not fall into a specific age group or social status, because disappointment at the state of the country’s affairs is not limited to any class or education level.

“But it’s also associated with poverty, people are giving up.” he said. “[Religion] is like a magnetic pole that attracts the poor.”

Islam, like Christianity and most other religions, is heavy with the promise of paradise in the afterlife. According to the Koran, a good Muslim will be rewarded after death with a huge marble palace and virgins and young boys to attend to him.

The promise of paradise in the afterlife after much suffering during this life draws many would-be reverts.

Mendoza and Balik Islam differ on why Filipinos revert, but they agree that the quest for purity is a great attraction for many would-be reverts.

The reverts are disgusted with the open patronage of violence and sexuality in secular society.

“If we were under a true Islamic government, we wouldn’t be complaining of the crime or corruption or poverty. All of that is addressed by the Koran,” Santos said.

The first Islamic preachers here were from the Middle East. The reverts eventually took over when authorities cracked down on foreigners because of their association, real or imagined, with Muslim radicals overseas.

The Islamic Call and Guidance-Philippines (iscag) has about 16 preachers spread over the traditionally Catholic Luzon and Visayas. Iscag alone recorded a total 1,387 reverts since 2000 to June this year. One preacher in Masbate reported that 24 locals reverted this September.

Iscag is one of 78 Muslim organizations accredited by the Office of Muslim Affairs (OMA) as of November 2001. Most of these organizations listed da’wah, or propagation, as their primary objective.

The most effective and active in da’wah, it seems, are Balik Islam. Santos says this is because they speak with the background of other, more popular, religions.

Zamzamin Ampatuan, OMA chief, acknowledges that reverts tend to have more credibility to non-Muslims because they are more fiery about the faith.

“The outlandish propagation could also reflect a deeper commitment to understand the faith. Those born into Islam are more sober toward the faith because we’ve had more time [to digest its teachings],” he said.

Preaching Islam can be as informal as going to a market or street corner and speaking to the crowd from a microphone. Other means are more structured.

The madrasahs, or Koranic schools, are where Muslims teach their children or others willing to learn about Islam. OMA records place the number of madrasahs nationwide at 1,890.

More than 800 of the madrasahs are in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (armm). There are 19 schools in Metro Manila, 48 in Ilocos, Cagayan Valley and Central Luzon, 65 in Southern Tagalog and Bicol, 70 in Western Visayas, Central Visayas and Eastern Visayas, 126 in Western Mindanao and Northern Mindanao, and 480 in Mindanao.

At least 35 of the madrasahs offer secular education and are accredited with the Department of Education. One of these is the iscag school in Dasmariñas, Cavite, which has 112 pupils enrolled from kindergarten 1 to Grade 6. It started with 34 pre-elementary students in 1999.

But a madrasah could also be less structured.

Iscag’s Nooh Caparino said an imam could gather the local children or anyone willing under a tree and that would already be a madrasah. There is no way of monitoring how many of these informal schools are in operation, because they could be organized and disbanded easily.

Balik Islam’s activeness in da’wah was what triggered suspicion that the groups are being used as fronts for terrorist operations, or at least as an avenue for laundering money used to finance training and the acquisition of weapons, ammunition and bomb-making paraphernalia.

It isn’t just the authorities who are suspicious of the activities of the Muslims. Ledesma said his mother is still uncomfortable allowing his brothers full access to their Greenhills home.

“My mother was asked once what a madrasah was, and she said it was where children go to become terrorists,” he said. Ledesma added that his wife is so allergic to Muslims that she spanks their five-year-old son whenever the boy shows interest in Islam.

The boy’s experience is a stark example of how difficult it is to be a Muslim in a predominantly Catholic country. Besides the many required rituals, Muslims must also live with distrust and animosity from strangers to the faith. Still, they stick to their religion, believing that they will be rewarded in the afterlife.

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Muslims identify with ‘terrorist’ ideals 
 By Johnna Villaviray, Senior Reporter

(Last of three parts)

“I am JI.”

It wasn’t a confession beaten out of a detainee. It was the pronouncement of Ahmed Santos, whose property the police raided last year for allegedly hosting guerrilla training for Muslims.

The Jemaah Islamiah he is professing his oneness with is the global community of Muslims, not necessarily the group blamed for the Bali, Indonesia, attack that killed nearly 200 people last October.

Non-Muslims don’t see the distinction, but this doesn’t stop Santos from professing his faith. He explains that it would be like a betrayal of Islam to be cowed by external pressure.

Islam could be the most misunderstood and, since the September 11 attacks against the United States, the most feared of religions. Muslims insist that theirs is a religion of peace, but strangers to the faith find it hard to believe, given the rising number of bomb attacks attributed to radical Muslim groups.

“Projecting Islam as a violent religion is propaganda of the Jews and their surrogates,” Santos said, alluding to the United States, which leads the global antiterror coalition.

The jihad the mujahideen—Muslim guerrilla warriors—have been waging all these decades is rooted in land; they want to retake Israel, which they say belonged to the Muslims before the time of the prophets. That secessionist Muslims in Mindanao have the same argument—that the Southern Philippines was Muslim land before Christian settlers came.

The similarity in goals and the strong sense of brotherhood among Muslims are potentially explosive ingredients in the country’s already unstable security teapot.

The Police Intelligence chief, Sr. Supt. Arthur Lomibao, acknowledged that Balik Islam is a “potential security threat, but not in the short term.”

There is no crackdown on Balik Islam, although Santos’s Fi Sabilillah Da’wah Foundation, iscag, iwwm and some other Balik Islam organizations are under police and military surveillance. At least five Fi Sabilillah members were reportedly abducted by the Armed Forces’ intelligence service.

Suspicion about these Muslim groups could be an extension of the distrust of the organizations established here in the 1990s by Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law, Jamaal al-Khaliffa. These organizations include the International Islamic Relief Organization and the International Relief and Information Center. The other groups Khaliffa established are not as active as before, owing to the negative publicity generated by the US antiterror campaign.

Authorities believe that these nongovernment organizations were used as fronts to fund the training of mujahideen and to acquire weapons and ammunition. With the NGOs under scrutiny, interest was supposedly transferred to select Balik Islam groups.

The following Balik Islam groups have aroused official curiosity: Al Maarif Educational Center in Baguio City, Da’rul Hijra Foundation Inc. in Makati City, Fi Sabilillah, Islamic Information Center in Quiapo, iscag, and the Islamic Learning Center of Pangasinan. None of their principals, however, has been directly associated with illegal activities.

Jamil Almares, iscag’s operations chief, acknowledged that iscag still receives donations from overseas, primarily from philanthropists in Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries. He acknowledged that funds are not as easy to come by now as before, but explained that the drop in donations started long before the anti-terror campaign.

“Some of our brothers took advantage of the goodwill of the donors, sometimes using funds for mosques and madrasahs for personal use. That’s why the donors are more careful now,” Almares said.

He said being identified as a terrorist supporter or financier just added to the reasons not to send as much zakat, or the mandatory donation of at least one percent of one’s annual savings. To offset the decline in donations, iscag is renting out apartment space inside its Dasmariñas, Cavite, compound.

The iscag compound is one of the Muslim communities established in Luzon. This was what Santos aimed to set up in Anda, but the project was abandoned after a police raid in 2002. Another community is being established in Tarlac.

Yousuf “Joey” Ledesma, a former La Salle economics professor, said Muslims would only feel wholly comfortable within an Islamic community.

“There, we can be far from the temptations of Western culture,” he explained. 

The increasing number of Muslim communities and mosques in Luzon is a sign that Islam is spreading fast here.

In December 2000 the Office of Muslim Affairs (OMA) recorded 33 mosques in Metro Manila, 29 in Northern Luzon, 15 in Central Luzon, 56 in Southern Luzon including Bicol, and 38 in the Visayas.

“The spread of Islam is not necessarily the problem; it’s the spread of the radical interpretation of Islam,” said Senior Supt. Rodolfo Mendoza. He was a key operative in foiling a plot to kill Pope John Paul II during his 1995 Manila visit and the bombing of several US jetliners bound for Japan in 1995.

“We are at war with Islam, and the Muslims are the aggressors. Nobody wants to recognize that, but that’s what’s happening,” Mendoza said.

Nobody else in government has gone public with views similar to Mendoza’s, although some could be thinking along similar lines. Acknowledging a religious war would only widen the divide between the Muslims and the secular government.

The government recognizes, however, that it cannot sit back and watch the rise of what even some Muslims call a deviant form of Islam.

“The spread is chilling because of the radicalism of Islamic converts. There has to be a paradigm shift in the thinking of the political leadership [to deal with],” Mendoza said.

He lamented the harassing or arresting of suspected terrorist supporters as an ineffective way of dealing with the problem. It would only heighten the animosity of Muslims toward the government, he said.

The government has been adopting a rounded approach to the secessionist problem in Mindanao—military and economic.

It hasn’t been very effective. But it is adding another factor to complete the equation: education.

The Armed Forces is carrying out a distance-learning program to ensure that residents provide an alternative to the jihad-locked minds of some Muslims. It involves hooking up remote barangays to a satellite dish where educational programs for the residents could be beamed from Manila.

“The aim is not to destroy their culture, because the idea is to get programs from Muslim countries, but to make sure they get inputs from other sources, not just from whom they have access to,” Brig. Gen. Victor N. Corpus explained. Corpus is the chief of the military’s civil relations service.

He acknowledged that radicalism could gain a foothold, especially in remote areas, because residents have no access to alternative points of view.

But he stressed that it should not be viewed as an attack on Islam. “The majority of Muslims do not believe that the Philippines is an area where jihad is necessary, because everyone is free to practice his or her religion.”

The office of Muslim Affairs chief, Zamzamin Ampatuan, agreed that “improving the quality of life for Muslim communities” is the key to dealing with the secessionist problem in Mindanao and the pockets of radicalism in the local Muslim community.

But he pointed out that Muslims should share the responsibility.

“We don’t have a bad image, because of misimpressions alone. The image is created by the community also and we have to work to change that image,” he said.

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