Thomas McKenna: Resistance and Rule in Cotabato

This is Chapter 11 of the classic Thomas McKenna book, Muslim Rulers and Rebels: Everyday Politics and Armed Separatism in the Southern Philippines (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998). Aside from being an incisive read, this book takes you to the world of the ordinary Cotabato residents  and their reckoning with colonialism and internal politics. To read more, please scroll below or, better yet, buy the book.

Chapter 11

Resistance and Rule in Cotabato

From the expressions of majesty of the precolonial sultans to the rhetoric of the first post-Marcos provincial election, power relations in Cotabato have been encoded in the language of Islamic authority and identity. Here I consider how power in Muslim Cotabato has been both enunciated by rulers and interrogated by those subjected to it. This study has addressed four key problems corresponding to four configurations of culture and power in Cotabato. First is the nature of “traditional” Islamic rule in Cotabato. To what degree did the myth of sanctified inequality accomplish the ideological incorporation of Muslim subordinates? This question has its ethnographic corollary: how are we to explain the fact that the same Campo Muslim narrators who disregarded dominant cultural productions justifying datu rule often told imaginative stories that justified the prepotency of those rulers?

The second problem concerns the derivation and prevalence of a transcendent Philippine Muslim (Moro) identity. How did American colonial efforts to rule Philippine Muslims spark the development of a transcendent Philippine Muslim identity? What was the nature of that identity and how widely did it diffuse among Cotabato Muslims? Third is the problem of rank-and-file mobilization for the Bangsamoro Rebellion. Why should the separatist rebellion have received so much popular support when its central message was transmitted ineffectively or not at all? What prompted the mobilization of armed force if not the resonant nationalist appeals of separatist leaders? Finally there is the problem of the responses of ordinary Muslims to the postinsurgency movement for Islamic renewal—a project central to the continuation of the separatist struggle in unarmed form. How may we reconcile the popular admiration expressed for the independent ulama with the widespread rejection of most of the elements of their renewal project?

The answers made to these questions challenge prevailing anthropological analyses of ethnonationalism and, more expansively, of the relation of political culture to collective action. They are, in the end, responses to one and the same problem—that of comprehending at once the imaginative and strategic endeavors of subaltern actors and gauging their cumulative political consequence.

Ruling Ideas and The Popular Imagination

To explore the message of the Cotabato case for theories of cultural domination let me return first to the precolonial order in Cotabato. The myth of sanctified inequality entitled an aristocracy to rule Cotabato Muslims based on its members’ ancestral ties to the Prophet Muhammad. Written genealogies—the tarsilas—served as ideological instruments providing “proofs of legitimacy” for the ruling elite (Majul 1973, 3). The core principle of this dominant ideology of sacred ancestry was maratabat (status honor) and its primary dynamic was rank competition within the aristocracy itself.

Ethnohistorical accounts suggest that the myth of sanctified inequality, and the struggle for status it generated, operated primarily to incorporate the precolonial ruling class, penetrating to a much lesser extent among members of the underclasses (compare Abercrombie et al. 1980). Moreover, those aspects of the dominant ideology directed squarely at Muslim subordinates, the legal codes (Luwaran) and the assertion that subjects (sakup) were under the protection of the aristocracy, seem to have been routinely penetrated by Muslim subordinates. Their direct experience of arbitrary punishments and the predations of datus confuted the official transcript of social relations between rulers and subjects. That experiential knowledge remained unspoken (and is only hesitatingly related even today) because of the mortal dangers risked by its telling. Awareness of the existence of hidden transcripts of power relations in precolonial Cotabato (as well as in contemporary Southeast Asia—Scott 1985) challenges those depictions of the precolonial polities of Southeast Asia that rely solely upon official texts or aristocratic memories for the interpretation of traditional rule (see, e.g., Geertz 1980; Wolters 1982; Milner 1982; Errington 1989).

What of the more fundamentally hegemonic qualities of premodern rule, those taken-for-granted features of the system of subjection that, in the conceptual scheme of Comaroff and Comaroff (1992) and others, would have been far removed from the public proclamations of the dominant ideology of sanctified inequality? Various candidates present themselves, among them the correlation drawn between communities (ingeds) and datus, such that it was difficult (though not impossible) to imagine a community without a ruling datu. Another was the social distinction drawn between slaves (ulipun or banyaga) and nonslave commoners (endatuan), or that between Muslim and non-Muslim subjects. To what extent did such cultural meanings and practices reproduce domination by naturalizing it? Undoubtedly some, but attempting to sort out the incorporative effects of those meanings from the material constraints of armed coercion and legal insecurity (manifested in the ever-present threat of expropriation or reduction to slavery) seems an impossible task given the paucity of historical evidence.

There may also be found in traditional Cotabato a distinct set of imaginative representations of rule emanating from below that appear to have had hegemonic effects. These are the symbolizations of power independently generated by Muslim subordinates. They include, most prominently, the monstrous aspect of Datu Utu and marvelous abilities of Datu Piang, but they also include stories of fantastic powers possessed by various contemporary datus. The endogenous character of these popular images of rule is strikingly illustrated in Campo Muslim. There poor Muslims routinely disregarded and often disparaged the ideological assertions of the Magindanaon aristocracy while simultaneously relishing and retelling stories of the supernatural potency of various datus, living and dead.

While both critics and proponents of the concept of hegemony have noted that subordinates routinely reinterpret components of dominant ideologies, anthropologists in particular have scarcely discussed the theoretical implications of independently generated popular imagings of rule.[1] Among other social analysts, Jon Elster especially has pointed to “endogenous preference formation” as an important phenomenon in social life (1985, 21). He is referring here to the cognitive process whereby “subjects invent their own mystification” by producing beliefs that justify their subjugation (1993, 65). The psychic mechanism that generates such beliefs is, according to Elster, the tendency to “reduce cognitive dissonance” (1985, 466) or to attempt to attain peace of mind. Following Elster’s schema, the belief of Cotabato subordinates in the supernatural attributes of ruling datus reduced dissonance by placing power out of reach for those with only normal human properties, and thus served as a form of consolation. There are, however, other significances of independent belief formation by political subordinates insufficiently addressed by Elster. Popular imagings of rule such as those found among Muslim subordinates in Cotabato should be seen as creative responses to the direct experience of domination. They do not rely on the representations or even the language of ruling elites. Neither do they simply refract the dominant ideology or naturalize a set of social conditions. Instead, they denaturalize social power by portraying it as depending upon profoundly unequal allotments of supernatural attributes. While such beliefs may, as Elster proposes, serve to reproduce structures of domination, they are, in the Cotabato case, also directly counterhegemonic. For one, they explicitly contradict the dominant myth of sanctified inequality by endowing only certain manifestly forceful members of the Cotabato nobility with extraordinary traits. Additionally, insofar as these endowments (unlike the persuasions of the dominant culture) are independently conferred by subordinates, they may also be unilaterally withdrawn.

Colonial Subjection and the Constitution of Philippine Muslim Identity

We turn next to another arena of cultural domination to review the consequences of American colonial rule for Muslim identity in Cotabato. Various anthropologists have in recent years considered the complex connections between colonial domination and identity formation in postcolonial societies (see, e.g., Fox 1985, 1989; Kahn 1993; Kapferer 1988; Spencer 1990; B. Williams 1991). A brief review of the work of two of these writers will serve to bracket the case at hand.

Two books by Richard Fox (1985, 1989) examining the colonial construction of indigenous identities in India have furnished critical analytical insights into the articulated nature of identity formation and resistance under colonial rule. In his more recent work (1989) Fox has placed the colonial construction of identities in India in the context of a global process he describes as “a world-systemic orientalism”; a process whereby colonized populations “come to define their own culture according to the ‘indigenations’ asserted in Western Orientalism” (1989, 98, 92). According to Fox, “by the late nineteenth century, there was a world system of cultural domination—that is, a set of dominating cultural meanings constructing identity and self-perceptions in most corners of the globe” (1989, 98).

Applying a global perspective to the various “indigenations” associated with colonial situations allows comparison and the discovery of parallel processes. Indeed, Fox’s earlier (1985) work on Sikh identity and resistance offers some rather striking parallels to that of Philippine Muslims under American rule.[2] The British colonial constitution of Sikh identity and its subsequent use as a basis from which to contest colonial domination provides an analog to the colonial origins of Moro identity in the Philippines. It also illustrates Fox’s thesis, developed expressly in his later work (1989), that effective resistance to colonial domination emerges not from some unaffected or “untamed” sector of traditional culture but develops “within the Orientalist hegemony of the world system” (1989, 100). While this “unavoidable accommodation to hegemony” allows effecttive and sometimes successful cultural resistance against colonial domination, that resistance is unable to accomplish a complete escape from cultural domination because it accepts the “indigenations . . . encoded in the world system” (1989, 103).

Fox’s thesis carries us quite far along in understanding the origins and uses of Moro identity in the Philippines but does not provide the analytical tools to make sense of the multiple layers of resistance witnessed in Cotabato. There is also a certain slippage in his usage of the notions of hegemony and cultural domination. At times Fox interprets hegemony as “attempted cultural domination” (1989, 92). More often, however, he follows Raymond Williams’s conceptualization whereby hegemony references accomplished cultural domination—situations, that is, in which domination is “internalized and appears natural” (1989, 91). A second problem arises with the meaning of “cultural domination” itself. Surely, Fox does not mean to say that alternative cultural meanings and identities are necessarily extinguished as a result of “world-systemic orientalism,” but only that cultural practices and definitions authorized by colonial powers become the most salient ones, especially for elite political actors. Yet there are also passages in his work that may be interpreted to suggest that “orientalist hegemony” paralyzes all definitions and identities other than those constructed by the world system of cultural domination (see, e.g., 1989, 99–100).

Another recent work on the colonial construction of local identities comes at the problem from a somewhat different angle and appears directly to challenge Fox’s position. Joel Kahn (1993) traces the constitution of Minangkabau identity in colonial Indonesia. In doing so he launches a powerful critique of the notion, first formally introduced by Eric Hobsbawm and colleagues (1983), of “the invention of tradition,” or the proposition that indigenous cultures in the postcolonial world are predominantly colonial constructs.[3] Kahn finds that argument problematic for various reasons, among them the following: “Traditions appear to be the sole inventions of westerners . . . What is often overlooked is that these very westerners were . . .ruling those peoples by means of the traditions they were inventing; that [colonized peoples] were creating their own traditions within those same colonial societies; that indigenous elites often constructed their traditions in conscious opposition to those of their colonial masters—in short, that a variety of groups and classes, usually in a cultural and hegemonic situation, were all ‘inventing tradition’ in the same social arena” (1993, 29).

Although not as severely contradictory as they first appear, the arguments of Fox and Kahn do present glaringly different perspectives on the generation of group identities in colonial situations. Fox accents the intensely constraining effects of a world system of dominating cultural meanings on identity formation among colonial subjects. Even indigenous resistance to colonial domination is overwhelmingly “secondary resistance” in that it “grows up within, and is compelled by, the world system of domination” (1989, 100–101). Joel Kahn underscores the strategic and creative capabilities of colonial subjects. The dominant cultural meanings and identities authorized by colonial authorities may constrain the cultural productions of subordinates in various ways but do not determine their content. Cultural forms, including forms of resistance, are created for different reasons by a wide range of actors and interrelate on the same social scape.

These cannot be mutually exclusive analytical stances. Both cultural domination and strategic cultural resistance are evident in virtually every colonial situation. The task is to sort them out and gauge their relative significance. Both elements were clearly at work in colonial Cotabato. The creation of a transcendent Philippine Muslim (Moro) identity during the American colonial period accords closely with Fox’s orientalist hegemony thesis. The term “Moro” itself (with all its colonial connotations) exemplifies the process whereby members of a colonized population define themselves according to the “indigenations” advanced by their Western rulers. Key colonial agents (especially Najeeb Saleeby) sifted out the favorable attributes of “Moro” culture for administrative enhancement: Moros were uncivilized but not savages, fierce fighters though not religious fanatics, politically undeveloped yet not politically unsophisticated. American colonial practice (especially educational policies) encouraged the self-conscious development among certain Philippine
Muslims of the Moro identity that had, until then, been only a Western ascription.

The American colonial promotion of Moro identity had a profound effect on the first generation of postcolonial Muslim leaders. They shared a rationalized and ethnicized identity as Muslim Filipinos—self-consciously Muslim citizens of the new Philippine republic. Their announced efforts to make Muslim Filipinos better citizens by making them better Muslims both acknowledged the legitimacy of the new Philippine state to rule Muslims and recapitulated the American colonial postulate that the principal cure for Muslim underdevelopment was Muslim self-improvement. The colonial notion of a single Moro identity had a dissimilar, yet equally profound, effect on the young, second-generation intellectuals who developed the movement for Muslim separatism. Those leaders manifestly rejected the underlying goal of American colonial policy toward Philippine Muslims—their integration into a unified, Christian dominated, postcolonial state—yet embraced the idea of a transcendent Philippine Muslim identity as well as the term “Moro” itself. They made Morohood, and the presumed cultural essentials it referenced, the fundament of their political ideology. Those essentials included, most prominently, the recognition of the entitlements of a traditional aristocracy and the espousal of a glorious history of unified Muslim resistance to Western imperialists.

Strategic Maneuvers and Unauthorized Inventions

The unapproved activities of America’s Moros at the St. Louis World’s Fair provide a metaphorical reminder of how inaccurate it would be to regard the Muslim colonial elite as simply (or even primarily) objects of colonial manipulation. There were other cultural “inventions” by indigenous elites during the colonial period, by no means all of them authorized, or even noticed, by colonial agents. New datus constructed genealogies to link themselves to the precolonial nobility. Those cultural creations went hand in hand with actions that, if not intended to subvert colonial rule, certainly amounted to individual resistance to colonial supervision. We have seen that collaborating datus used their colonial offices to enrich themselves and fortify their local power bases at the expense of colonial coffers.

It is the strategic nature of the endeavors of the collaborating datus of the colonial period that appears most prominent. Members of the nouveau Cotabato nobility—Datu Sinsuat comes most readily to mind—managed to use American presumptions about the reverence felt by ordinary Muslims for their “traditional” leaders to strengthen their own political positions. They also sometimes used their new colonial posts to conduct “traditional” adjudications and collect “traditional” fines. Even the relatively more impressionable recipients of American educations—the Muslim elites born under American rule—did not routinely comply with American plans. Writing in 1941, Florence Horn reports that Princess Tarhata Kiram, who was sent by Colonial Governor Frank Carpenter to the United States for schooling, disappointed American authorities on her return: “Tarhata had such a fine time in the U.S. that for a while Carpenter was afraid she would never return to her own people. However, she did come back, apparently thoroughly Americanized, looking and behaving just like the short-skirted American girl of the twenties. The experiment seemed to have worked—until Tarhata left Manila and arrived in Jolo among her own people. She quickly reverted, put on Sulu clothes, filed her teeth, became one of the wives of a middle-aged Sulu datu, and with him, in 1927, fomented a minor uprising against the American Government” (1941, 155).[4]

The utilitarian aspect of the Muslim embrace of colonial meanings is no surprise when one remembers that Muslim elites were local rulers as well as colonial subjects. Colonial institutions were viewed by those rulers primarily as resources for power enhancement. Datus sent their slaves rather than their sons to American schools until convinced of the practical benefits of a Western education for continued local dominance.

It is unmistakable that American meanings powerfully influenced the self-awareness of numerous Philippine Muslims during (and after) the colonial era and permeated cultural resistance to Western domination, especially in the Muslim separatist movement. Just the same, it is important not to regard that process as either overpowering or entirely unidirectional. The “indigenations” of American colonialism may have constricted the political imaginations of Philippine Muslims but cannot be said to have paralyzed them.

It is left to ask about the cultural effects of American colonialism on non-elite Muslims. Joel Kahn (among others) reminds us that when juxtaposing local elite versus non-elite responses to colonial rule, it is a mistake simply to assume that precolonial meanings and identities—a “Little Tradition”—survived among subordinates while elites embraced (or were overcome by) “hegemonic modernist or orientalist discourse” (1993, 154). In Cotabato, despite significant legal transformations (in particular, the abolition of slavery and the introduction of private property in land), local relations of domination remained remarkably unaltered under American colonialism. Nevertheless, colonialism did occasion the creation or refashioning of cultural meanings and identities among non-elite Muslims.

Stories are still told today by ordinary Muslims of early encounters between Magindanaon notables and American colonizers. Imam Akmad told me about the first meeting between the Sultan of Magindanao and an American colonial official.

The Sultan and his brother the Amirul were invited to the ship of the American. The American put on an exhibition for the Sultan. He said, “I will throw a bottle in the air and shoot it through the neck with my rifle. The bottle was thrown and the American fired and hit it just where he had promised. The sultan admired the shot and said, “I will do the same.” When the bottle was thrown, the Sultan did not look at it but shot in the opposite direction. His bullet turned in midair and hit the bottle in the neck. When the American saw this he exclaimed, “You have bested me; I must give you a gift.” He presented the sultan with a walking stick and a pair of golden slippers.

Such magical stories of the colonial era are clearly compensatory, relating how Cotabato Muslims answered American technical supremacy with magical prowess. They also speak more particularly to two colonial developments. First, such stories acknowledge symbolically that, despite the presence of a new and seemingly omnipotent external power, local rulers had retained their political potency. That was also the message expressed in the popular story of the magical finger of Datu Piang, which could call down the wrath of the colonizers on recalcitrant followers.

The stories also signify the development of an oppositional identity among ordinary Muslims. The full occupation of Cotabato by an alien power spurred the formation among Muslim subordinates of an identity bound up with the notion of an invaded homeland—an identity that drew a sharp distinction between indigenes and outlanders. They identified themselves as Muslims as opposed to outsiders, almost all of whom were non-Muslims. It was (and still is) an oppositional identity but one quite different from the self-conscious and objectified Muslim Filipino identity enunciated by most Philippine Muslim political leaders in the late colonial and postcolonial period. The unself-conscious cultural identity of ordinary Muslims has been illustrated by Patricia Horvatich’s (1997) observation that the Sama (a Philippine Muslim population) “define almost everything they do [including gathering sea urchins] as Islamic because they are Muslim.” The contrast between that sort of identity and the objectified Muslim identity of most Muslim elites is similar to the distinction made by Jonathan Friedman (1990) between two forms of Greek identity in a discussion of the phenomenon of Hellenism in the ancient world. In reference to Greek colonists in Asia he notes: “Colonists tend to develop a strong cultural identity, primarily as a means of distinction: ‘I am Greek because I live like this, have these symbols, practice such-and-such a religion, etc.’ But this kind of identity expresses a separation of the person from that which he identifies. The content of his social selfhood may become distanced from his immediate subjectivity: ‘I am Greek because I do this, that and the other thing’ does not imply the converse, i.e., ‘I do this, that and the other thing because I am Greek'”(Friedman 1990, 26).

Muslim colonial and postcolonial elites, with the assistance of American colonial agents, developed a self-regarding identity as Muslim Filipinos and engaged in rationalized Islamic activities (including most prominently the development of “Islamic” organizations) to demonstrate that identity to themselves and others. Ordinary Muslims, by contrast, continued to do what they had always done, with these activities now considered to be “Islamic” activities (rather than Sama or Magindanaon or Iranun activities) only because those engaged in them had begun to denominate themselves as “Muslims” to distinguish themselves from increasing numbers of non-Muslim outsiders.

Popular Participation in the Bangsamoro Rebellion

Anthropological analyses of nationalist action have most often privileged the propulsive role of elite-generated ideas and images, especially as they engage individuals at a less-than conscious level and articulate the unreflected anxieties and aspirations of everyday social life. In other words, they make use of various versions of the notion of cultural hegemony to account for the voluntary (and often enthusiastic) participation of members of subordinate classes in such movements.

Unofficial narratives of armed separatism from Cotabato suggest that ordinary adherents of armed nationalist movements are more discerning, and less ideologically incorporated, than anticipated by analyses keyed to the hegemonic effects of nationalist discourses. In Cotabato, Muslim nationalist ideological activity has not resulted in “the experiential starvation of the political imagination” of Muslim subordinates (Linger 1993, 18). Neither have subordinates become dependent upon the symbols issuing from “a nationalist ideological formation that has taken root in everyday life” to make sense of their experiences (Woost 1993, 516). To the contrary, many rank-and-file adherents of the armed separatist movement possessed both vigorous political imaginations and the words with which to exercise them. Ordinary Muslims expressed themselves in the unauthorized narratives of the armed rebellion. Rebel songs used a language notably independent of official separatist discourse to speak of social discontent as well as patriotism. While undeniably supportive of the rebellion, the songs also voiced distance from its official goals.

In the magical stories of the rebellion told by ordinary adherents, that distance begets resistance as storytellers “transform experience into agency” (Rebel 1989, 362). Here the critical assessments made of the rebellion by ordinary adherents questioned not only the claims and promises of movement leaders but also their fundamental aims and assumptions.

While popular support for the separatist insurgency was substantial for most of the period of armed struggle and was expressed unofficially in songs and stories, at certain key junctures, most commonly where national interests collided with local concerns, some of those same narratives were used to voice resistance to official separatist rhetoric. Dissent was voiced obliquely (though unambiguously) through the absence of explicit agreement (some defecting rebel commanders did not suffer supernatural sanctions, some rebel corpses were not magically preserved). Those imaginative narratives were also charters for action. Divine decisions (to bestow or withdraw supernatural assistance) sanctioned popular choices to provide or withhold particular types of political support.

Although the concept of hegemony has been applied widely to explain the popular appeal of nationalisms, its analytical utility fails in the Cotabato case at the point where it is most needed—when one tries to understand the political actions of ordinary adherents of the separatist movement. While leaders and followers of the separatist rebellion in Cotabato shared a common discursive framework, Muslim subordinates evaluated the pronouncements of movement leaders based on their separate shared experience. Those evaluations were autonomously symbolized, and they led at times to actions that ran athwart the official intentions of the separatist leadership. The independent expressions and efforts of rank-and-file adherents of the Muslim separatist movement remind us that the extent to which the “common sense” of subordinates has been reorganized by the workings of a nationalist ideology—the degree to which subordinates have been incorporated into the “imagined community” of the nation—is an empirical question, and one that should not be settled prior to a thorough search for unauthorized narratives.

Analysts agree that cultural hegemony does most of its work not by defining what is legitimate but by establishing what is. Popular narratives that denied divine mercy to certain slain rebels or that declined divine retribution for certain rebel defectors, amounted to refusals of official reality. Despite the discursive efforts of movement leaders, ordinary adherents elected a separate reality, one that elevated local concerns above the Muslim nationalist cause.

The Bangsamoro Rebellion had considerable success relative to other separatist insurgencies despite the notable misalignment between the official discourse of the rebellion and the language, perceptions, and intentions of its ordinary adherents. While rank-and-file fighters and supporters held certain beliefs and motivations in common with movement leaders, they possessed others that were more situational—more “practical”—than those enunciated in the authorized discourse of Muslim nationalism. As long as the separate considerations of subordinate adherents were not contradicted by the official aims of movement leaders, popular mobilization was achieved. My interpretation of the separatist insurgency waged in Cotabato suggests that anthropological analyses of armed separatism (and of ethnonationalist collective action in general) could benefit from keener attention to the collateral concerns of ordinary adherents and less energy invested in searching for the hegemonic effects of nationalist ideas.

Unarmed Struggle and Islamic Renewal

The Muslim separatist movement in Cotabato transformed itself into a self-consciously Islamic movement in 1984 with the creation of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). While Islamic clerics had played key roles in the Cotabato movement from its beginnings, the launching of the MILF amounted to a formal declaration that, henceforth, the independent ulama (as well as ulama-led Islamic renewal) would predominate in the struggle for Muslim political autonomy.

The emergence of an independent, Middle East-educated ulama in Cotabato was an epochal event accomplished by means of international assistance and individual courage. Cotabato lies at the easternmost extremity of the Eurasian Islamic world. No significant Muslim populations of the Old World are further distanced from the central sites of Islamic ritual and instruction than are those of Mindanao. Islamic practice in the Cotabato sultanates for most of their history had reflected that extreme distance from Islamic centers. It was only as a result of the pan-Islamic initiatives of Nasser’s Egyptian government that significant numbers of Philippine Muslims were, for the first time, able to pursue Islamic studies in the Muslim heartland. Those scholars returned to Cotabato after their long courses of study to encounter firm opposition from established Muslim elites and armed antagonism from agents of the Philippine government. With martial law, most were forced to flee underground or return abroad. Those who, like Ustadz Ali, remained visible suffered continual and sometimes brutal harassment at the hands of the Philippine military. None were able to speak out freely in public forums prior to about 1980. When finally free to speak they did so energetically, advocating the reordering of social and ritual as well as political life and garnering a great deal of attention from ordinary Muslims. That attention, however, was not entirely, or even primarily, approbative.

In what actual sense was the popular, aboveground, and ulama-led movement for Muslim political autonomy from 1980 onward an Islamic movement? To what degree, that is, was the collective political action of ordinary adherents motivated by Islamic imperatives and interpretations as enunciated by the ulama? At least two components of the Islamic appeals of the ulama resonated deeply with non-elite Muslims. There was first the notion of “Islamic unity.” That concept is of course a universalistic one, referencing the establishment of a more uniform Islamic community in Cotabato, one encapsulated within a worldwide community of believers (the umma ). For ordinary Muslims in Cotabato it was also a notion with very specific circumstantial connotations. “Islamic unity” was promoted by the ulama and the opposition alliance as the antithesis of familiar politics in Cotabato. The umma as political community offered the solution to internal divisions based on class, ethnicity, familism, and political factionalism in general. Islamic unity, it was said, would also accomplish what the armed rebellion had not—genuine political autonomy for Muslims—because a unified Islamic community could better withstand the divide-and-rule tactics of the Philippine government.

A second popular component of the ulama’s message was the ideal of juridical equality for all Cotabato Muslims. The notion that datus and endatuan, rich and poor Muslims, ought to be judged equally by indigenous adjudicators was a radical one that greatly appealed to ordinary Muslims. There is a sense in which the ulama personified for non-elite Muslims the ideals of Islamic unity and juridical equality. Individual ustadzes had resisted co-optation by the Muslim establishment and the Philippine government. They lacked the usual accoutrements of authority—automobiles, armed escorts, and entourages—and those who hailed from powerful families did not conspicuously favor their relatives in their official pronouncements or activities.

On the whole, ordinary Muslims genuinely admired the ustadzes and those political leaders closely aligned with them. It was that admiration, more so than anxiety about applications of armed force by the MILF, that seems to have motivated much of the popular political support for the ulama-MILF coalition. The voluntary nature of that popular loyalty was illustrated by a 1986 incident recorded in my field notes—the arrest and subsequent release by government forces of Hadji Murad, the top military commander of the MILF.

Hadji Murad and some of his companions were captured by the PC [Philippine Constabulary] on their way back from Marawi when their jeep broke down. They were taken to PC headquarters in Marawi City. Within a very short time many people (“thousands”) had surrounded the PC camp, some with guns. The people gave an ultimatum that if Hadji Murad was not released by 10 P.M. they would storm the camp. Some women protesters did enter the camp. PC commander Gutang and Governor Zacaria Candao were told of the arrest and went to the camp. Governor Candao reportedly announced to the crowd that if Hadji Murad were not immediately released he would resign his post. General Gutang signed the release papers and Hadji Murad was freed that same night.

Just the same, non-elite Muslims also responded with argumentation and resistance to a number of the specific endeavors of the ulama. They objected to ulama attempts to reform ritual practice and made clear by their continued attendance that they opposed the ustadzes’ denunciation of dayunday performances. While appreciative of moves to-ward juridical equality, they were intensely troubled at reports of severe applications of Islamic punishments by some nontraditional (i.e., ulama) adjudicators. In Campo Muslim, some of the disagreements were more expressly political. Many community members contested attempts by ustadzes to expel the CCF (Christian Children’s Fund) program without replacing it with comparable resources. They also disputed the continued characterization by the ulama and MILF in the 1980s of the separatist struggle as a jihad, because they resented making obligatory contributions to support mujahideen who were neither engaged in armed conflict nor experiencing economic conditions more difficult than their own.

Contemporary social analyses of Islam-in-place have emphasized the significance of the dynamic relationship between the ideal life prescribed for Muslims and the actual lives Muslims lead (Bowen 1993; Eickelman 1976; Ellen 1983; Kessler 1978; Roff 1985).[5] The expression of tensions between ideal and actual Islam in Campo Muslim highlights the two-sidedness of the dialogue between the “prescribers (ulama)” and those they perceived as backsliders (Roff 1985, 9). Among the independent ulama of Cotabato there had developed the notion that the Muslims of Cotabato had progressed partway toward the goal of becoming “genuine Muslims” (in Magindanaon, tidtu-tidtu a Muslim) and had to be gradually but firmly propelled farther along the path. An alternative opinion was evident among ordinary Muslims. As expressed by Imam Akmad of Campo Muslim, it turned the ulama’s notion of incipience right around by maintaining that with time the ustadzes would obtain practical knowledge, relax their prohibitions, and accommodate certain local practices. The view expressed by Imam Akmad and other elders amounted to the assertion that there were two morally acceptable directions in which to move on the path of Islam: toward strict scriptural interpretation and toward local knowledge—what Roy Ellen (1983) has termed “practical Islam.” Movement in the first direction was not invariably preferable, and movement in the second did not necessarily constitute backsliding.[6]

How then should the Islamic identity of ordinary Muslims in Cotabato be characterized? First of all, it is not, and probably never has been, predicated upon their holding their traditional nobility in “religious awe and adulation” (Glang 1969, 33). At the same time, as we have seen, most ordinary Muslims are not the sort of Muslims the independent ulama would have them be. They are Muslims who rely on magical charms and amulets and appease local spirits. They are Muslims whose religious practice exhibits a good deal of ritual impropriety, who may drink and gamble, neglect their prayers, and perform religious rituals quite at variance with Islamic orthopraxy. They are Muslims who embrace many ingredients of the highly Westernized culture of their Christian neighbors. While Muslim subordinates have, to a significant degree, accepted the new source of moral authority represented by the independent ulama, they have done so despite its associated call for Islamic orthopraxy and the disenchantment of their world, not because of it.

They are Muslims, they declare, because their forebears were Muslims, because they live in a Muslim homeland, and because they profess Islam. As we have seen, their “Muslimness” (Ellen 1983, 56) is an oppositional identity but not one constructed for them by political leaders. The ordinary Muslims of Cotabato have never uncritically embraced any of the dominant meanings of Islamic identity either ascribed or proposed to them. Their Muslimness is self-sufficient and has resisted symbolic definition or moral supervision by either ulama or datus. That is not to say that it is a fixed identity. Rather, it may be said to represent “only the current state of play” (Bowen 1992, 668) in three continuing and complexly intertwined dialogues: that between ordinary Muslims and the independent ulama over styles of religiosity, between traditional leaders and followers over the sources of political legitimacy, and between Muslims and the Christian-controlled Philippine state over the parameters of regional self-determination.

As for the political potential of that Islamic identity, it is clear that the ulama’s message of Islamic unity and equality resonated far more deeply with Muslim subordinates than the datu coalition’s often awkward appeals to traditional loyalties. The popular appeal of the political message of the ulama coalition allowed them to mobilize large numbers of Muslims to support them in public demonstrations and provincial elections (there were also, to be sure, some more practical incentives for political mobilization, ranging from entertainment-seeking to severe social pressure). In the municipal elections, however, the ideal of Islamic unity ran directly up against the particularistic goals of Muslim politicians and vote brokers and the practical economic considerations of Muslim voters.


What, finally, does the Cotabato case contribute to the broader debate about cultural domination and resistance? On one hand, the evidence from Cotabato provides superficial support to those who argue, contra James Scott (1985, 1990), that domination and resistance should not be imagined as discrete categories nor should their cultural expressions be dichotomized into public versus hidden transcripts. Cultural domination in Cotabato has been embedded, to some extent, in everyday designations and distinctions as well as in the more formal assertions of power holders.

Resistance has not only been found hidden away in private transcripts but also has been expressed, at least occasionally, in the public dialogue. These readily observable exceptions to the strict dichotomization of domination and resistance are joined in Cotabato by a less obvious one: the development of images of rule endogenous to Muslim subordinates, demonstrating that the private, unofficial transcript of power relations may serve to reproduce as well as express resistance to those relations.

On the other hand, important aspects of the Cotabato case do not sustain arguments for hegemony as a potent concept for the analysis of cultural order. For one, it offers no strong evidence for the political effects of the central ideological operation claimed for hegemony—the naturalization of the existing order. While some naturalization is indicated in that Muslim subordinates have tended to accept domination as a fact of life, it is far from clear that their acceptance of the inevitability of domination in general has played any significant role in maintaining particular social orders. As we have seen, endogenous collective representations of rule have actually denaturalized social power, an imaginative operation that exhibits counterhegemonic potential.

Neither is there much support to be found for the postulated correlate of naturalization, the “experiential starvation of the political imagination” of subordinates (Linger 1993, 18). Ordinary Muslims have been well able to imagine political realities alternative to those envisioned by their rulers. That such images have not resulted in a fully formed and publicly articulated vision of a social order that counters the predominant version does not diminish in the least their political significance. These independent cultural productions do demonstrate that Muslim subordinates have not been paralyzed (in imagination or action) by elite-generated political discourse.

The political imaginations of ordinary Muslims reflect their experiential knowledge. The daily life of political subordinates consists of more than ritual practices within taken-for-granted social configurations. It is also made up of historical events that test the core assumptions of the dominant culture. Subordinates’ “experienced encounters with the limits of their own culture” and its sometimes savage incongruities create opportunities for insight and “the possibility of creative innovative practice” (Rebel 1989, 125).[7]

The materials from Cotabato suggest that those who depict hegemony as both vulnerable and imperishable have gotten it half right. Whether or not a particular array of dominant meanings has accomplished the ideological incorporation of a set of political subordinates is more properly an empirical question than an epistemological assumption. There is plentiful evidence from Cotabato of what may be termed failures of hegemony—”points of rupture, areas where a common discursive framework cannot be achieved” (Roseberry 1994, 366). Such ruptures are most apparent in the hegemonic project of the Muslim nationalist movement. There, rank-and-file adherents routinely resisted official interpretations of events, often by means of independent imaginative narratives that served as charters for political decisions directly at odds with the directions of movement leaders. Ordinary Muslims did not depend on elite-generated language and images to make sense of power relations. They were in no sense paralyzed by contradictory consciousness.

It is not at all difficult to find hegemony in the sense of attempted cultural domination at work in Cotabato. All who have sought to control Cotabato—both indigenous and external rulers—have had hegemonic projects. Such a project is most clearly evidenced, again, in the Muslim nationalist movement. Movement leaders articulated a coherent nationalist narrative intended to mobilize ordinary Muslims to rally to the separatist cause. While the separatist insurgents did gain a broad popular following, that successful mobilization had relatively little to do with the resonance of their nationalist message. A great number of factors motivated individual Muslims to fight for or otherwise support the armed separatist movement—selfdefense, revenge, plunder, defense of local communities, social pressure, armed coercion, and personal ambition, among others. The idea of fighting for the Bangsamoro—for a nation of Philippine Muslims united by culture and history—was but one of those motivating factors and, if we use the popular songs and stories of the rebellion as indicators, not an especially potent one.

Those who observe the partial and often insignificant nature of everyday resistance and envision a web of cultural domination inexorably entrapping subordinates even as they attempt to resist provide a poetic but inapt metaphor. The weak, as James Scott (1985) reminds us, do not struggle helplessly but have their own weapons, among them the critical and imaginative faculties with which to cut through or dissolve the discursive snares of the powerful. Just the same—and despite hegemony proponents’ useful reminders of the fragility of power—it must be remembered that the powerful do possess arsenals of their own with weapons quite capable of dispensing unambiguously deadly force. It is the difficulty of disentangling the effects of cultural domination from those of the more physical sort that has most vexed advocates of the hegemony concept (including Antonio Gramsci himself).

Derek Sayer has commented recently on the relationship between compliance and coercion in some remarks toward a reconceptualization of the notion of hegemony. He begins with an example drawn from Václav Havel—that of a Prague greengrocer who hangs a sign in his window saying “Workers of the World Unite.”

Havel’s greengrocer had no interest in the fate of the international proletariat; he was merely participating in a ritual. But the “merely” is deceptive . . . We cannot infer from the greengrocer’s likely nonbelief in what the sign says that his action is meaningless . For his displaying the sign—or more dramatically, failing to do so—sent out signals, clear to all . . . What displaying the sign signified was his willingness to conform, to participate in the established order as if its representations were reality. It also said, in a language all could read, that the greengrocer shared a real sociality with others, that of living the lie itself. (1994, 374)

Sayer observes further that while such “knowing complicity” does not constitute ideological incorporation (and is, in fact, “the exact opposite of ‘false consciousness'”), these “ritual accommodations . . . disempower their participants, and the participants know this, too” (1994, 374). Hegemony, in Sayer’s usage, resumes its inceptive Gramscian sense of consent to rule. Its power’ lies in the process of consenting itself. The act of publicly accepting the representations of rule as social reality diminishes individuals—by splitting public from private selves—and shapes social life by producing and reproducing “quite material forms of sociality” based on collective complicity (1994, 374). The source of hegemony’s power, however, “is also exactly what is most fragile about [it], precisely because it does depend on people living what they much of the time know to be a lie” (1994, 377).

Sayer’s thoughts on hegemony are both intriguing and unsatisfying. The cynicism displayed by Havel’s greengrocer, while anticipated in a Stalinist panopticon, is probably not the most accurate exemplification of political subordinates on the whole. Nor does “living a lie” provide a complete description of the public selves of subordinates. As we have seen in Cotabato, subalterns may both invent their own mystification and engage in subtle negotiations with power-holders over the contours of social reality.[8]

All the same, Sayer has provided a critical insight into the hegemony concept—one pointedly illustrated by the material from Cotabato. For Sayer, the “moment of consent” that Gramsci termed “hegemony” is always a public moment. Hegemony references public consent to rule—consent expressed in public rituals. The power of hegemony lies not in its saturation of individual interiors but in the act of public accommodation to dominant representations. That power has two forms, one immediate and the other indirect. Public enactments of consent are directly useful for rulers in terms of the mobilization of bodies (if not minds) for particular purposes. They are also indirectly efficacious (and this is where Sayer proceeds beyond James Scott). Public accommodations to rule also reproduce domination insofar as the outward acceptance of dominant representations as social reality systematically disempowers subjects by making them collective (and conscious) accomplices in their own subjugation. Their public consent, however, is not the result of paralysis but of active (though very narrowly constrained) decisions.

With Sayer’s comments in mind, there are at least three additional inferences to be drawn from the Cotabato case in respect to cultural domination and resistance. First, as Sayer observes, public acceptance of the representations of the dominant order stems from “everyday fear” (of ever-present coercions) but also from the promise of individual empowerments (Sayer 1994, 376). Ritual accommodations may be made either to avoid losses (of individual freedom or property) or to obtain access to various enabling resources. It follows that accommodations to ruling representations, whether by local elites to colonial control or by underclasses to local domination, are all of a kind and should be considered together. The accommodations to power observed in Cotabato—both of local elites to external rule and of Muslim subjects to indigenous leaders—comprised a single process operating at two levels.

Cotabato Muslims have signaled their acquiescence to rule in manifold public rituals, displaying themselves as subjects of a sultan or as America’s Moros or as citizens of the Bangsamoro. In every case, their acceptance of the social reality of the moment has been
motivated less by the persuasiveness of the official discourse of the powerful than by other considerations. For Muslim elites, who had their presumed control of political subordinates with which to bargain, public submission to external rule was often exchanged for access to symbolic and material resources. The accommodations of ordinary Muslims stemmed more directly from the profoundly coercive nature of everyday life, and some of those coercions were not only explicitly recognized but also independently symbolized by subordinates. Yet for ordinary Muslims as well, public consent was also given to obtain access to resources: primarily protection but also economic resources and entertainment.

A second inference concerns everyday understandings, “practices and expectations” (Williams 1977, 110)—all of the more nondiscursive, taken-for-granted elements that occupy such an important place in various formulations of the hegemony concept. If, however, the focus is public consent and its consequences, then such everyday understandings are more straightforwardly theorized as aspects of material coercion, broadly conceived, rather than of hegemony. The organization of time and space within which individuals live their lives may have consequences that are profoundly coercive even if not fully recognized as such.

“Power enforces the terms on which things must be done at the most everyday of levels” (Sayer 1994, 375). Muslim subordinates in Cotabato have found it difficult (though again, not impossible) to imagine a community (inged) not ruled by an autocratic datu because they have never been free of autocratic datus. They perceive an important social distinction between themselves and ordinary Christians at least in part because their treatment at the hands of the Philippine state has been so much worse than that of ordinary Christians.These examples constitute just the reverse of the “cultural shaping of experience” claimed for hegemony (Linger 1993, 4). On the contrary, the experiences of Muslim subjects have shaped their cultural perceptions.

Finally, a conception of hegemony stressing the distinction between public consent and private lives allows ample room for genuine resistance in spite of the disempowering effects of ritual accommodations. As we have seen, that resistance need not only be isolated but may, under certain circumstances be collectively expressed and acted upon. In Cotabato as in Havel’s Czechoslovakia, the most politically consequential messages sent by subordinates were not those intended for official eyes and ears.

Chapter 11 Resistance and Rule in Cotabato

1. See Chatterjee (1993), Comaroff and Comaroff (1992), Fox (1985, 1989), and Scott (1985, 1990) for examples of subordinates reinterpreting dominant representations.

2. Fox reports that the term “Sikh” refers to several cultural identities prevailing in the Punjab in the nineteenth century, identities that “subsumed a range of quite different religious beliefs and social practices” (1985, 7). The British, however, regarded only one Sikh identity—the Singh variant—as the significant form and, in fact, believed the Singhs to be a separate race. In the early twentieth century, urban-based reformers “appropriated the Singh identity fostered by the British to launch an anticolonial protest” (1985, 12). In doing so they themselves merged the Sikh and Singh identities, promoted a single image of Sikh orthodoxy, and directly challenged Sikh collaborators with British rule.

3. Kahn is not alone in objecting to Hobsbawm’s notion of “the invention of tradition.” See Friedman (1992) and Kapferer (1988) for additional critiques.
4. For details on that armed uprising, which resulted in the deaths of thirty-five Muslim insurgents (Princess Tarhata and her husband escaped), see Thomas (1971, 73-76).

5. William Roff has described the source and consequence of that dynamism succinctly: “[T]he recognition of [the]non-congruence [between ideal and social reality] by both prescribers ( ulama ) and backsliders acts as a dynamic force within Islamic cultures, resulting in what can be seen as dialectic constantly engaged in translating synchronic tension (the aspect taken by the lack of fit at any given moment) into diachronic ‘oscillation’ (social, cultural, political, or ideational change in one direction or another)” (1985, 9).

6. For an engaging account of recent generational conflict among the Sama (a Philippine Muslim group of the Sulu archipelago) over “ways of knowing Islam,” see Horvatich (1994).

7. William Roseberry presses a similar point in his writings on hegemony. Like Rebel, he proceeds from an explicit
recognition of “differential experience in terms of . . . structures of inequality and domination” (1989, 48). The “common understandings and modes of interaction” that emerge across this differential experience ”can never encompass” all of it. “Cultural production is not limited to those who control the means of cultural production. Experience constantly intrudes” ( 1989, 49).

8. Caution is required when assuming the widespread living of lies by political subordinates. The absence of ideological incorporation is just as much an empirical question as is its presence.


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