By Noor Saada
ZAMBOANGA City – Local election fever is high and many politicos will do many things to scout and win vote, including dirty tricks and negative campaigning. In one sortie, a campaign manager was allegedly heard saying that if the opposing candidate wins, the city will be dominated by Moros because the latter had secretly forged an alliance with Nur Misuari’s group. The horrific experiences during the 2001 Cabatangan and 2013 Zamboanga sieges are continuously recounted and stroked, not for healing, but to create fear and discord among the voters and divide the local election along ethnic lines.
However, beyond this misused for political gains, Chabacanos and Moros have much more in common than what dirty tricks and negative campaigning can achieve. On one hand, Chabacanos look up to Spain with pride and consequent source of their identity and culture. The former ruled the Philippines for 400 years. The city’s patron saint Señora del Pilar finds its roots in the Basilica of the same name in Zaragoza in northwestern Spain.
Zamboanga’s Chabacano language is a Spanish creole variety. While many of its lexicon were Spanish-derived, the grammatical structure is said to follow indigenous languages in the Philippines. Rightly, Chabacanos fear the extinction of their language and culture due to the fact that aside from its smaller population, there is also outside migration and the pull of English and Filipinos in daily conversation, among many considerations. This fear is not without basis as they see the Chavacano de Cotabato, Castellano Abakay in Davao, Chavacano de Nisos in Cavite and Bahra in Ternate becoming endangered with less than a few thousand speakers; while the Ermitense in Ermita is now considered extinct. As there is an urgency to preserve Chabacano culture and language in Zamboanga, this can’t be done to the exclusion and detriment of other ethnic groups who are indigenous to the land and those are considered the city home with all the rights afforded by law through birth or residency.
On the other hand, Moros also look up to Islamic Spain (also called Muslim Spain, Muslim Iberia, or Islamic Iberia) as western frontier of the Islamic World at the height of its power. Islamic rule in Spain lasted for about 800 years. The Islamic and Arabic influences on Spain are still evident in their arts, culture and architecture, to name a few.
Where the Chabacanos find the roots to their patron saint, Moros remember the 11th century ruler of Sarakutsa or Saraqusti (the Arabic name of the city when it was under Muslim rule) Yusuf al-Mu’taman who wrote a treaty on geometry in his Kitab al-Istikmal (Covington, 2017). The Leo See or the Cathedral of San Salvador was built on a former mosque and the Moorish castle of Aljaferia still stands today. Many churches in the city built in the 14th century have 11th century minarets converted as belfries. Overall, the glory of Islamic Spain was an extreme contrast with the rest of Europe. Richard Covington in his paper “Rediscovering Arabic Science” (2007) considered Islamic Spain as “a major educational center for Europe and the lands around the Mediterranean Sea as well as a conduit for cultural and scientific exchange between the Islamic and Christian worlds.”
In the midst of this society immersed in the juxtaposition of academia, culture and science, Muslims, Catholics and Jews live side by side. It is these layers of histories upon which the Christian-Muslim interaction was built and obviously, while they were not always cordial, there is no doubt that beyond the politics of the days are ordinary folks living about their lives and interacting with other ethnic and religious groups. Inter-marriage is not even far-fetched. Although far from perfect harmony, academics and researchers refer to this period of co-existence as “La Convivencia”, in short, live and let live, from the 8th to the 14th centuries. Fr James Heft in his paper “The Necessity of Inter-Faith Diplomacy: The Catholic/Muslim Dialogue” delivered in the First Sheridan-Campbell Lecture at the Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies, Malta, 2011, considered this convivencia as a rare period in human history when Jews, Christians and Muslims were in dialogue among themselves. This convivencia can be highlighted, in his words through interaction of gifted scholars from the three Abrahamic religions – Muslim al Ghazali, Jewish Moses Maimonides and Catholic Thomas Aquinas – who influenced one another in mutually illuminating ways and such cross-fertilization was very rare.
People’s histories need not be simply written by the victors; we are now in the 21st century where peoples can embrace and recognize each other’s histories squarely and equitably. I believe Zamboanga, like the Islamic Spain, is a multicultural, multilingual and multireligious society that can flourish and thrive in coexistence by adapting La Convivencia to her local context, to relive and be influenced by the openness and tolerance of such era.
In contemporary Zamboanga, La Convivencia could mean the recognition and respect of “spaces”, e.g. mosque and church, where each can practice their faith and culture; and creation of “common or public spaces” where the different cultural communities can come to work together on common concerns and aspirations, e.g. climate change mitigation, good governance, peace and security. While La Convivencia is a historical and academic concept, there is another contemporary document that Chabacanos and Moros can build on – “A Common Word” – started in 2007, is a call for peace among Muslims and Christians, to work on common ground for understanding between the two largest religions on the planet. This is recognized in the document, saying, “Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s population. Without peace and justice between these two religious’ communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world. The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.”
Since then, hundreds of Muslim and Christian scholars, leaders and intellectuals have approved and commented on the initiative; including the Pope and many grand muftis. The call to coexist and work on common grounds are established, “it is part of the very foundational principles of both faiths: love of the One God, and love of the neighbor. These principles are found over and over again in the sacred texts of Islam and Christianity.”
In this coming election, I hope the city residents, Chabacanos, Bisaya, Moros and others, will elect leaders who transcend cultural biases, stereotypes and prejudices. Enough with those selling hate and discord to win seat in the local election. We need those calling for peaceful coexistence. We should not forget, the absence of peace and security in one is the absence of peace and security in all. The presence of peace and security in every group is the peace and security of all.
(Noor Saada is a Tausug of mixed ancestry – born in Jolo, Sulu, grew up in Tawi-tawi, studied in Zamboanga and worked in Davao, Makati and Cotabato. He is a development worker and peace advocate, former Assistant Regional Secretary of the Department of Education in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, currently working as an independent consultant and is a member of an insider-mediation group that aims to promote intra-Moro dialogue.)