Saturday, February 10, 2007

Tolerance from YOUNGBLOOD of

By Vida Soraya Verzosa
Last updated 01:46am (Mla time) 02/10/2007

MANILA, Philippines -- "Khadaffy Janjalani is hot!"

That was what a former classmate said after seeing his photograph in the Inquirer, back when we were 18 years old. Later, she joined the New People's Army and disappeared in one of the provinces near the University of the Philippines in Los Baños.

With news reports confirming Janjalani's death after DNA testing, I wonder how that old classmate of mine reacted when she learned that he had taken a bullet in his neck during his Fajr (Dawn Prayer). Several times in the past, we would closely scrutinize the ubiquitous poster of Most Wanted Terrorists at the Metro Rail Transit station and she would sigh that so much violence in this world resulted from lack of religious tolerance and respect for cultural differences. But for hose who ended up on the "wrong" end of the religio-political spectrum as defined by the al-Harakatul al-Islamiyyah, or the Abu Sayyaf Group, I doubt if tolerance and respect would help ease the pain of being kidnapped and held for ransom.

I grew up in a family that is half-Muslim and half-Catholic. My mother is the granddaughter of an imam, while my father is a former Jesuit ex-seminarian who converted to Islam so he could marry her. And in our home, tolerance is scrupulously observed. We are used to seeing the Koran and the Bible placed side by side. We make sure that our meat is halal for my maternal grandfather, yet we followed traditional customs in the all-girl Catholic schools where we went for grade school. My mother initiates development projects for disadvantaged women in Mindanao, while my father is active in the Bible Study Fellowship. My siblings and I were baptized in Muslim and Christian rites and we have both Muslim and Christian names. We were made to understand that we could choose our spiritual path when we reached the age of majority.

When we were younger, my grandfather, the first Muslim ship captain of his generation and a star athlete in Zamboanga, would take us to the Eid'l Fitr celebrations after Ramadan. After that, he would delight us with stories about our Tausug and Samal-Bangingi family history. One of his oft-repeated tales was about how his grandmother, a Dutch missionary in Borneo, was abducted by his grandfather, a pirate.

At that time, not having read the Revised Penal Code yet, being a pirate seemed to me like an exciting occupation that involved traversing the high seas, visiting exotic islands and bringing the loot home. Of course, in grade school, I didn't know that piracy also includes a host of other felonies now associated with terrorism. Before 9/11, the only conflict we read about in the newspapers concerned Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's tantrums and the Gulf War. Terrorism became real and apparent to us only when tragic events abroad triggered a global paranoia. Locally, terrorism and Islam were still mutually exclusive.

Among the educated, well-traveled Muslims I've met outside of my family, no one can even remotely be associated with terrorism. They always emphasize that peace is something they constantly aspire for, despite being stereotyped as either hawkers in shopping centers or people who are prone to running amok.

When my grandfather was still courting my grandmother, he had to endure discrimination and the malicious talk of their neighbors in their small town. Whenever our Theology teacher talked about the conflict between Catholics and Muslims, the rest of the class would steal glances at our lone Muslim classmate to see how he would react.

My grandma eloped with her Moro suitor. Now she never tires of telling visitors that she was lucky to have married him. "Pulido siya, hindi naman Abu Sayyaf" ["He is high-quality, not a member of the Abu Sayyaf"], she would say, with a hearty chuckle that belies her resigned acceptance of the reality that as the first wife, she had to put up with a second and a third one, and so on.

Since we moved to Metro Manila, we knew very little about how the rest of the clan was doing in Mindanao. In hushed tones, my mother once related how a distant uncle joined a separatist group and was among those killed when government troops overrun Camp Abubakar. She said that this particular uncle was known to be quick tempered, so his death didn't come as a surprise to her.

To me what is surprising is that despite all the resources funneled to the modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, an egalitarian, lasting peace remains elusive. In this regard, I must agree with my friend, the New People's Army amazon. No, I am not going to say that Janjalani was indeed an attractive man, but I happen to believe that whether we go to a mosque or a church to pray, peace will continue to elude us for as long as the sounds of gunfire drown out the voices calling for sincere inter-faith dialogue.

Vida Soraya Verzosa, 24, is a student at the Ateneo School of Law.

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