THE FIRST blast came during mass on January 27th in the cathedral of Jolo, an island at the southern extreme of the Philippines. The second detonated as soldiers were rushing to the scene and the terrified congregation was fleeing. Together they killed at least 20 people and wounded scores more.
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The bombings also dented hopes that a new era of peace had arrived in the heartland of the Muslim minority in the otherwise Christian country. Filipino followers of Islamic State set off the bombs just six days after mainly Muslim areas in the south of the country had approved by plebiscite a scheme to enhance the region’s autonomy. The vote, held as part of a peace agreement with a larger Muslim group, was intended to end 50 years of separatist rebellion. The presumption is that extremists were hoping to derail this process, or at least demonstrate that they were not mollified by it.
Rodrigo Duterte, the president, blamed the attack on Abu Sayyaf, a loose grouping of bands of armed Muslim Filipinos notorious for moneymaking crimes such as kidnapping for ransom. Some factions within Abu Sayyaf have pledged allegiance to Islamic State. The latter’s statements claiming responsibility for the attack said only that its followers had struck a “crusader temple”, without reference to politics. But it is probably no coincidence that the bombing came so soon after the plebiscite, in which 87% of the 2m voters of the largely Muslim areas of the south voted in favour of the creation of the “Bangsamoro Autonomous Region” (see map).
Much of the island of Mindanao and surrounding, smaller islands already enjoy a form of autonomy, including the power to levy local taxes and to set up sharia courts. That is the result of a peace deal with the Moro National Liberation Front, the main separatist group, in 1996. But a splinter group called the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fought on until 2014, when it struck a deal with the central government to increase the authority of the autonomous one. It will now receive fixed transfers from the central government, as well as retaining a greater share of tax revenue from the region. The president will no longer have the power to suspend the regional governor. The governor, meanwhile, will have the power to appoint the head of the local police force. The new deal is a “peacock” compared with the “chicken” of the existing system of autonomy, the MILF insists. A second plebiscite, on expanding the autonomous region, will be held on February 6th.
The political settlement is meant to do more than end a war that has killed tens of thousands of people. The MILF and the government alike hope peace in Mindanao will allow the economy of the resource-rich region to develop, reducing poverty and so soothing Muslim disaffection in a virtuous cycle. Generations of armed, unemployed Muslims have grown up knowing nothing but lawlessness and war. They have been easily recruited by groups like Abu Sayyaf, with promises of either earthly riches (obtained through kidnapping, robbery and extortion) or an eternity in paradise for battling the enemies of Islam.
Talk of jihad against the Christian central government reached its zenith in 2017, when armed followers of Islamic State occupied the centre of the city of Marawi in Mindanao. Government forces eventually succeeded in dislodging the occupiers, but the battle took weeks and destroyed much of the city.
The army has been trying to mop up the remnants of the force that seized Marawi. But even though Abu Sayyaf is thought to number only a few hundred fighters, the government has not managed to eradicate it despite nearly 25 years of trying. It hopes that greater peace and prosperity will help to drain the pool from which the jihadists recruit. In the meantime, the jihadists are bound to mount further attacks. But the plebiscite showed that the tide of Filipino Muslim sentiment is running against the men of violence—even though it may take time to sweep them away.