How Clan Feuds and Ethnic Tensions Breed Terrorism in the Philippines

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How Clan Feuds and Ethnic Tensions Breed Terrorism in the Philippines

Existing patterns of violence and narratives of marginalization provide fertile soil for terrorism.

How Clan Feuds and Ethnic Tensions Breed Terrorism in the Philippines
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Mark Jhomel

Seven weeks of war with Islamic State-inspired local terrorists, the Abu Sayyaf and Maute groups, has been a blow to the popular administration of President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. The catastrophic, painstaking, and destructive campaign to end terrorism in Marawi City has not yet achieved its end, despite tactical operational support from the United States and the donation of defense materiel from China.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines remains hopeful about the manhunt for Isnilon Hapilon, dubbed as Southeast Asia’s “emir” who has eluded capture even as the world witnessed the fall of Marawi, Mindanao’s favorite “Summer Capital of the South” and a recreation destination for many Filipino Muslims who enjoy the cooler climate and the small city’s educational amenities.

Duterte himself blamed his fellow ethnic group, the Maranaos, for allowing the “corrupt ideology” of Islamic State to penetrate Marawi. His statement calls to mind an important question: how do clan feuds and ethnic tensions intersect with the sprouting pockets of jihadi terrorism in the southern Philippines?

The Philippines is no stranger to family feuds or clan feuds. In the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), ethnic Maranaos and Maguindanaons refer to such feuds as rido while the Tausugs call it pagbanta. Regardless of nomenclature, these three major ethnic groups in the country’s second largest island all recognize the customary practice of the clan feud, a state of recurring hostilities between families and kinship groups characterized by a series of retaliatory acts of violence carried out to avenge a perceived affront or injustice.

“One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter” is a commonly heard phrase when it comes to using violence to achieve political goals. In Mindanao, where violence in the form of rido has become customary, the situation is even more complex. Rido involves a vendetta killing provoked by an affront or disgrace to the honor of a family or its members. This phenomenon is deeply rooted in the local culture of the dominant ethnic groups in Mindanao.

Clan feuds oblige even the youth and future generations to participate in defending their kin network against a rival clan. It can be deadly when unresolved violence lasts through years, decades, or even generations taking thousands of lives, destroying property, and displacing affected families.

Rido is a reality that may permeate to the growth of local terrorism in the southern Philippines; however, it can be mitigated through attempts to effectively resolve the conflict. Military tactic are a short-term solution to the vicious cycle of violence, while medium- and long-term solutions would require addressing the socioeconomic conditions in Mindanao. The effects of jihadi terror in Marawi cannot be countered by force of arms alone. Guns and bullets merely destroy the body but not the corrupt ideology that propels the struggle.

In addition to clan feuds, ethnic factors in southern Philippines create a tapestry of secessionism and extremism. The Tausugs head the Moro National Liberation Front while the Maguindanaons reign supreme in the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Most members of the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups are ethnically Maranaos.

The disunity and mistrust between and among various separatists and terrorists in Mindanao can either become a boon or bane for Muslim Filipinos. Differentiated interests blur the collective interest in achieving peace, the ultimate hope of all people in the southern Philippines whether Christians, indigenous peoples, or Muslims. Ethnic identities are socially constructed but can be deconstructed through political affiliations and philosophical beliefs. The real enemy of the Philippines, then, comes from a crooked dogma that offers false hopes of a united caliphate in the region.

This angle of conflict between the state and tribalism revives the issue of ethnonationalism versus Filipinism. Patterns of displacement and narratives of marginalization are reflected throughout all the provinces of Mindanao that became targets of past resettlements. In the end, the story of amalgamation is the story of marginalization; Filipino Muslims believe they were pushed to the periphery. As a result, Filipino Muslims’ perception of Filipinism is ambiguous and often merely territorial or geographic in nature, which is a serious ideological problem for the state.

Such ethnic tensions are exacerbated through terror acts. If clans and tribes have made the Marawi crisis complex, terrorism has made it chaotic.

Chester Cabalza, Ph.D., is a security anthropologist. He is an Associate Professor at the National Defense College of the Philippines and a Senior Lecturer at the University of the Philippines Diliman. The views of the author are his and do not represent his organizational affiliations.