Approximately 81% of the Philippine people identifies themselves as Roman Catholic and yet Islamic separatism has proved a persistent problem in the country’s recent history.
It was the legendary Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan who first claimed the Philippines for Spain and Christianity in 1521 during his attempted circumnavigation of the globe. Magellan would die in the territory shortly afterwards yet by 1565 Spanish colonisation of the Philippines had begun in earnest.
The Spanish had not been the first colonisers to arrive, however. From as early the 14th century, a variety of Islamic sultanates had arrived on Philippine territory and begun the spread of their religion. By the time of the Spanish arrival, Islam was already entrenched on Mindanao, whilst even Manila in the north had a large Muslim population.
The Spanish rule from 1565 to 1821 that trend comprehensively reversed. Ruled as a province of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, the Philippines as we know it was born; a largely united political entity increasingly under the sway of a single overpowering religion in Catholicism, which served as a way of life.
The Spaniards did not lose their Philippine colony until the Spanish-American War of 1898, which spilled over from Cuba. Already long past her glory days, Madrid was powerless in the face of a new global might.
The seeds of Islamist separatism had already been sown during the 19th century, emerging at the same time as Catholic revolutionaries finally lost faith with Spanish rule. With a rapidly declining economy, religious tensions intermixed with societal decline. American occupation, which effectively lasted until 1946, after the end of WWII, increased discontent amongst the still sizeable Muslim minority, now largely confined to Mindanao.
When a finally independent Philippines emerged there were no concessions for the Muslims. Although the Catholic-dominated state was theoretically secular, there was no doubt that Islam was a distant second in terms of economic and political representation, a stark contrast to the Malaysian Bumiputera model or Indonesian development; such was unusual status of the Philippines.
By the 1960s the MNLF had been established, soon to be followed by the equally violent Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) which has continued a more high-profile battle against the Philippine government ever since.
Only 10% of Mindanao’s population are Muslim, thanks to government-sponsored Catholic emigration at the beginning of the 20th century, yet the sporadic battle for an independent Islamic caliphate in the Philippines has been particularly bloody. Both the MNLF and MILF have become linked with international jihadist movements, even spawning the indigenous Abu Sayyaf, which has been responsible for a slew of terrorist atrocities.
All this in the Catholic capital of Asia; the most surprising success story of a remarkable spiritual and political movement: the Spanish missionary movement.
Maybe it is the pride of the Philippine people in their Catholicism that so angers the Muslims of Mindanao and why the government cannot afford but to be ruthless in its attempts to suppress separatism. Either way, the problem is unlikely to die away quickly.