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Phillipines Sees Enormous Growth In Muslim Converts

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Phillipines Sees Enormous Growth In Muslim Converts



Former Christians convert to Islam, forming a new and still largely unknown and ill-defined subgroup within the Filipino Muslim community.


by Jose Torres Jr.


MAR AMORES was already in his late 20s when Islam caught his attention. Born to a traditional Roman Catholic family in Samar, in the Visayas, Amores was enraged by stories in the media about Moro bandits killing Christians in Mindanao. His hate pushed him to learn about the “enemy,†the Muslims.


“I wanted to discover what kind of people they are,†recalls Amores. He read history books and studied every available material on Muslims and Islam. After two decades of “discernment,†his hatred against Muslims turned into “understanding.†In 1999, Amores decided to change his name to Zulfikar Muamarjalil Amores, and became a Balik-Islam.


Muslims believe that people are born into Islam and converts are just “reverting†to their original faith. They are thus called “Balik-Islam†or Islam returnees.


“It was a long process,†Amores says of his return to Islam. He also says it became a “cultural liberation†for himself, and that his concept of God became clear and his view of life and society changed. “I learned discipline and became free from idols,†says Amores. “It’s a conversion from vices and sin to humbling oneself before God. It’s a personal discovery.â€


But it has also been difficult. “It’s hard to be considered an apostate and live in a society dominated by Christians,†he says. He became the first Balik-Islam in his hometown of Calbayog. “I did not shout from the rooftops and declared that I was a Muslim,†he says. But his friends laughed at him anyway, and called him “bandit†and “Abu Sayyaf.â€


“It shows how insensitive the majority of our society is,†says Amores.


These days, life has become even harder for Balik-Islam like him after the reported involvement of Muslim converts in terrorist networks. Chief Superintendent Rodolfo Mendoza, former intelligence group chief of the Philippine National Police, has even said, “The new wave of converts to Islam could prove more dangerous than established Muslim guerilla groups. Converts are ideal terrorists and they are eager to prove themselves worthy of their new faith.â€


Those are words that Amores, whose latest act of daring consisted of having his head shaved clean, may find fault with. Yet he goes only so far as remarking, “It seems that Muslims themselves are the ones who hinder the growth of the religion.â€


The police say they have the goods on some Balik-Islam-dominated organizations, which they say have links with international terrorist groups like the Al-Qaeda. They have also trotted out the likes of Marvin Geonzon — a Christian who became Balik-Islam in 1997, and who later confessed to being part of the same terrorist network responsible for the 9-11 attacks in the United States — to support their claims


Geonzon, now 26, had been convinced that converting to Islam would help him overcome his drug addiction. Invited by a Saudi national who befriended him, Geonzon attended an “Islamic school†where, he later said, subjects like jihad (holy war) and bomb-making were taught.


According to the police, Geonzon’s Saudi friend was Sheikh Hamoud Al-Lahim, who had connections with Mohammad Jamal Khalifah, a brother-in-law of Osama bin Laden, head of Al-Qaeda. Khalifah headed the Philippine office of the Saudi charity International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO) from 1986 to 1994. Al-Lahim joined the IIRO in Manila after Khalifah left.


The police said the “Islamic school†that Geonzon attended in Pangasinan was actually a training camp for future terrorists. After his arrest in Zamboanga City in 2002, Geonzon admitted to being part of an Al-Qaeda cell in the Philippines. He also owned up to setting off a bomb in a Zam-boanga restaurant in October 2001 that killed six people.


Geonzon’s aunt said her nephew had “psychological problems.†But police claimed they found posters of bin Laden on the walls of Geonzon’s rented room, as well as a piece of paper listing targets of bomb attacks, blasting caps, and other bomb-making equipment. Still, they had to release him from detention in February last year, when the court found out the arresting officers did not have a warrant to search his apartment. He has made himself scarce since, and has not been seen since October 2002.


About six million of the country’s 84 million-strong population are Muslims. Records at the Office for Muslim Affairs estimate that more than 110,000 Filipinos have converted to Islam over the past three years. Balik-Islam groups, however, say converts have already reached a million in number.


Islam RETURNEES, though, are nothing new in this predominantly Roman Catholic country. Even during the Spanish period, some Christians embraced Islam for reasons that ranged from the very personal to the practical.


One of the more prominent converts was a Christian fugitive from Cavite named Pedro Cuevas. In 1842, Cuevas escaped to the island of Basilan in Mindanao where he fought and killed a Muslim chieftain named Datu Kalun. For him to be recognized leader of the mostly Muslim Yakan natives, Cuevas had to convert to Islam. He adopted the name Datu Kalun, married a Yakan woman, and instituted sociopolitical changes in the island. Datu Kalun consolidated the natives, led battles against invaders from Jolo and rid Basilan of pirates and marauders. He died in Basilan on July 16, 1904.


Islam is said to have begun taking root in the Philippines in 1380, although some scholars believe that it spread in some areas of the archipelago during the early 1200s. The inhabitants of Sulu have been described as among the earliest converts to Islam in the country. Historians, however, say the converts retained much of their pre-Islamic beliefs because the conversions were mostly done not by full-time religious teachers but by Arab Muslim traders.


By the early 1700s, the Sultan of Sulu defeated the Sultan of Maguindanao, signaling the rise of the Sulu sultanate in Mindanao and the spread of Islam. The Spaniards made several attempts to control Jolo, the capital of Sulu, but failed.


Conversion to Islam peaked in the 1970s during the height of the Moro uprising against the government. Fearing for their lives, many Christian settlers in Mindanao converted to Islam. “It was this strong feeling of insecurity that made them decide to convert,†says Dr. Luis Lacar in his unpublished study “Balik-Islam: Christian Converts to Islam in the Philippines.†He also says that the converts, finding security in their newfound religion, became zealous defenders of Islam.


Lacar, who teaches at the Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology, adds that the Balik-Islam “tend to identify more with their newfound faith†that born Muslims even think “the converts are overdoing it.â€


He says the most significant factor in bringing about such zeal among the converts is the “dawah (propagation of Islam) especially by the Tabligh.†A missionary movement, the Tabligh became strong in the Philippines during the 1980s when foreign preachers, especially from Pakistan, Libya and Egypt arrived in Mindanao. “It is inevitable,†writes Lacar, “that some of the missionaries teach radical Islam.â€


The number of Filipino workers who went to the Middle East in the 1980s boosted the ranks of the Balik-Islam. Amores says, “There are Filipinos who became Muslims for practical reasons while working in the Middle East as laborers.†Having the same faith as their employers was apparently regarded as a plus and enabled them to enjoy benefits denied other workers such as being able to stay on and look for other jobs once their contracts had ended. But indications are many of the converts took their new faith to heart.


In the 1990s, groups propagating the Islamic faith multiplied, some of them composed mostly of converts. Among the more prominent organizations are the Fi Sabilillah Dawah and Media Foundation, the Islamic Studies for Call and Guidance (ISCAG), the Islamic Information Center (IIC), and the Islamic Wisdom Worldwide (IWW).


Former overseas Filipino workers from Saudi Arabia who became Balik-Islam established the Fi Sabilillah in 1998. The organization produced a weekly television show on SBN21, “Discover Islam,†and a radio program on DWBL.


The IWW has similar activities with Fi Sabilillah, although most IWW members are born Muslims, not converts.


The IIC is a library and resource center, which gets “financial and moral support†from “generous brothers.†The center declares “to uphold the banner of Islam and to propagate its religious beliefs to the unbelievers†by “propagating the religion of Allah, follow-up of new Muslims, media programs, and distribution of literatures and other dawah materials.â€


In 2000 alone, IIC “sent follow-up letters to 4,000 new Muslims, conducted prison visitations, visited 325 brothers, printed 90,000 books and pamphlets, and distributed 4,570 pieces of Islamic literature, 307 copies of Koran in English, and thousands of cassette tapes in lecture form.†Its resource center gets thousands of visitors each year.


Islam IS “under attack,†says Abdullah Yusuf Abu Bakr Ledesma, spokesperson of the Balik-Islam Unity Congress. “If we were terrorists, we would have gone into hiding.â€


He says he has court papers to disprove allegations that the Islamic school in Pangasinan was a military training camp for terrorists. He also denies statements that accused converts of being prone to terrorism. If one chooses to become a Muslim, he or she might be more zealous, but not turn terrorist, says Ledesma, a scion of a landed Bacolod clan who converted to Islam two years ago.


He says, though, that he expects more crackdowns against the ranks of the Balik-Islam, especially with the renewed military campaign against Moro rebels in Mindanao. In the last few months, he has already spent days on end tracing the whereabouts of converts who were reported to be arrested by the police or picked up by the military. Those he found, he has had to raise bail money for, which meant soliciting extra funds from Muslim businessmen.


Ledesma, who used to be called ‘Joey’ by his friends but now answers to ‘Yusuf,’ assails the “black propaganda†he says is being waged by the government and the media against Muslims. He says of the media reports linking converts to terrorist groups: “I would like to ask, why do they continue to publish military intelligence reports verbatim without checking?â€


To Ledesma, “What we feel as Muslims is different from what comes out in the media.†Yet he also says that many Muslims are filled with a deep “anti-Western anger†especially after authorities linked Islamic groups to terrorist organizations. He adds that the methods used by some Muslim groups in their effort to assert their rights “may be questionable, although not wrong.â€


The “brotherhood of Islam†is under a global attack spearheaded by the United States right now, says Ledesma. If pushed to the wall, Muslims might fight back, he warns.


Ledesma, who holds a PhD from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States, says he became a Muslim because Roman Catholicism has been “hijacked by the West.†He also says the history of persecutions and dictates by the West “leaves not a very good taste.†He believes that unlike in other religions, there is no mystery in Islam, only “pure logic.â€


“When you do something for God, everything comes easy,†says Ledesma. But he admits that his conversion has cost him a lot of work opportunities. His mother even drove him out of their palatial home soon after she learned of his becoming Balik-Islam. Although she has since welcomed him back, other relatives have not been as understanding, and have taken to excluding him from clan gatherings.


Ledesma now goes around wearing a scarf, which he spreads on the ground and kneels on whenever it is time for him to pray. Says Ledesma: “In Islam we are called upon to establish the rule of God on earth. In spite of all the deceptions, lies and other evil doings that the unbelievers are trying to do to suppress our faith, they will not succeed.â€


“Allah has promised us that His Religion or deen, the path of submission to His Will, would eventually succeed even if the unbelievers like it not,†he says “Our Muslim brothers will continue to unite and propagate our faith until it is safe for anyone in the world to say La ilaha illallah. There is no god but God. There is not god but Allah.â€


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Filthy people have found a solution for it . Arroyo signs anti-terrorism law yesterday so i guess now all devout muslims will be arrested based on 'suspicion' :sl:

Edited by PeaceAll

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