A Discussion with Maguid Maruhom, Executive Director, Ummah Fi Salam
Background: The context for this discussion is preparation for a consultation on faith and development in Southeast Asia, held in Phnom Penh Cambodia December 14-15 2009. The consultation was an endeavor of the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD), the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, with support from the Luce Foundation, and the University of Cambodia. Its aim was to take stock of the wide range of ongoing work by different organizations that are, in varying ways, inspired by religious faith, but more important, to explore the policy implications that emerge from their interactions with development organizations. The interview was conducted by telephone between Maguid Maruhom and Michael Bodakowski. Maguid Maruhom is Executive Director for Ummah Fi Salam and works on development and peace-building in Mindanao, the Philippines. In this interview, he spoke about his experience working on grassroots peacebuilding in Mindanao, with particular attention given to the importance of interfaith dialogue for social action.
Interview Conducted on December 3, 2009
Can you begin with describing your experience and inspiration throughout your career? How did you arrive at your present position with its sharp focus on development work in the Philippines?
I have been involved in activism, starting as a student, since the 1970s. During those days, we were quite young and very idealistic. I was then affected by the violence of armed struggle in my village, but I have been able to overcome many challenges because of my faith. My faith has helped me to overcome personal weaknesses and the violence and hardship that so many people unfortunately have to face here.
I met the Socio Pastoral Institute, Manila, a Catholic faith based organization, and they extended a lot of help and assistance, both personally, and professionally to my organization; my own group of Muslims in Mindanao. After personally examining my faith, I now feel I am better able to serve society. I have been able to integrate my social and spiritual life and tried to diffuse my ideas and experience to other people through my organization. My own approach to development is both social and spiritual, therefore. I give a lot of importance to my spirituality because it offers me deep values and righteousness, including commitment, accountability, service, love, kindness, and honesty, that I put to action everyday in my development work.
Can you give us a brief overview of the work that you do with Ummah Fi Salam, and why you focus on those specific areas of work within the Philippine context?
To start, concerning the name of my organization, Ummah means community, and Salam means peace. This name clearly spells out the mission of our organization, which is to build communities of peace. Secondly, we understand the enormous problems in our society, especially for Muslims in Mindanao. We [Muslims] are a minority group affected by a lot of injustices and violence. The violence is largely the result of Muslim groups themselves trying to regain rights for Muslims in Mindanao through a bloody revolution. At Ummah Fi Salam, we look at our challenges, essentially, as both social and environmental and advocate change through the peaceful process.
To be specific, poverty is the number one problem we are facing, leading to widespread suffering. Large sections of the population do not have access to clean water, housing, health care services, gainful employment, and education, among many others. In looking at the Human Development Index, Muslims lag behind in everything compared to other groups in the Philippines. Nevertheless, we believe the problems faced by Muslims are similar to the problems faced by other people in terms of poverty and social injustice, but the effects on the Muslims are worse because we are a minority. Next, climate change is having a large effect on us, resulting in many natural disasters.
Furthermore, I have already mentioned the violence which is displacing thousands and thousands of people. There are also rampant human rights violations because of the on-going rebellions and the global war against terrorism. Mindanao is touted as haven for terrorism. In addition, discrimination against the Muslim minority is pervasive. These result not only in rampant human rights violations against Muslims but also aggravate and create a lack of social services, extended by a Christian majority run government.
We need to organize people, especially the poor Muslims, to empower themselves and create positive change for both themselves and society. We do this through what we call an integral human development paradigm, or a holistic approach of social and spiritual development. Our activities include empowerment or capacity building, advocacy, human rights work, legal assistance, development work, conflict mediation, peace building, etc. We are quite successful in many of our advocacies because of community organizing. Many of our advocacies were accomplished through critical collaboration with the government, what we call “claiming of rights.”
The other important component of our work is networking. We do most of our networking through interfaith dialogue and collaboration with people of other faiths. We aim not only to bridge understanding between Christians and Muslims, but also to work for greater cooperation and solidarity on a personal level. Both Christians and Muslims are facing common challenges.
The solutions to common problems faced by people of different faiths are similar and interfaith dialogue is inspiring us to find what is common among us. Ummah Fi Salaam was built around this goal. We have been working extensively with the Socio-Pastoral Institute, Christian Aid and other Churches to serve our mission.
Aside from interfaith dialogue, we also network with civil society organizations. We have good coordination and relations with most of the Muslim civil society organizations in Mindanao through the Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society, which we organized in the whole of Mindanao. I am chairperson for this networking outfit in my own region which consists of three provinces and five cities. We also network with international groups, and most importantly with media, which assists us significantly in getting out our information to the public.
What specific programs do you have?
We have lots of programs, both small and large, focused on training to build capacity for present and future leaders. One of our frameworks is that if we have capable leaders, then we will be able to do our work right and expand rapidly. We do a lot of participative collaboration with local governments, mainly through dialogue. Dialogue allows civil society and leaders to engage each other on most governance issues, especially human rights, participation and transparency.
With regards to our work surrounding gender, about two years ago we started organizing women to do development work, an idea controversial to some Muslims. We are hoping to expand this effort, but as of now it is still in the early stages of development. We also focus on children and youth formation, especially teaching them about the Koran, Islam, and moral values drawn from the scripture. In addition we have a health program working on nutrition, hygiene and sanitation issues, as well as programs in disaster/emergency response and microfinance.
Interfaith dialogue is an important component and cross-cutting to all of our programs. We have recently been successful in intra-faith or inter-Muslim dialogue as well, bringing together Ulamas, conservative Muslims with progressive individuals. This is an important requisite of our interfaith dialogue engagement. Before we expose Muslims to interfaith dialogue, we make sure that we have leveled off on several important social and spiritual issues.
All of our programs are structured within a development framework. Our framework holds that morality and understanding are at the root of our social problems, and that they are intrinsically spiritual in nature. Spirituality, as it is understood by religious fundamentalists, is in many ways causing problems in our society to be worse. Mindanao is basically comprised of fundamentalist Muslims, and it is important that we change the mindset of our people. By maintaining this kind of faith belief, we cannot effectively respond or adjust to the fast changing society and keep pace with its development.
For this reason, we are bringing critical thinking into our approach, encouraging our leaders to engage in rational re-interpretation of the Koran and the Islamic tradition to make it up-to-date, relevant and responsive to the present challenges we face today. But Islam also suggests you will never succeed in changing society unless there is personal transformation at the individual level. Faith is very important in personal development, and though we are an organization working on social issues, we believe that personal transformation is quite necessary and essential. In this respect we do a lot of formation work aimed at personal transformation. This, together with training of our leaders to be capable as catalysts of development forms essential component of our engagement in development work.
How do governance issues, including corruption, challenge your work?
Corruption is very much considered as an urgent problem. But we are a small organization, and as such, it is hard for us to deal with corruption if we speak alone. That is why we have interfaith engagement and collaboration. Most of our advocacy with regards to good governance (corruption, participation, accountability, transparency and other morality issues) is done together with our Christian brethren through interfaith work. I think we have been quite successful on the local level with respect to this.
You mentioned that you also have microfinance programs. Can you speak a little more about this work?
We follow the Islamic concept of finance by trying to eliminate excessive interest. Many of our loan recipients have been the victim of loan sharks and that is why we are in microfinance. By just eliminating excessive interests from loan sharks, we believe we can improve the economic condition of our people a bit; however, we have only just begun the program. Though we do not charge interest, we do have a small service charge, but this does not create a contradiction.
We are giving our micro-grants from a grant we received from Christian Aid, and Christian Aid does not charge us interest. The service charge simply allows us to generate some funds to help us to carry out our program. Our microfinance program has proven the hardest to implement out of all of our existing programs, but we hope to gain experiences and expand it further.
Unlike other programs, microfinance needs some specialized skills for our leaders especially in project management, bookkeeping and accounting. Microfinance projects are managed like real business ventures. Many of our leaders had no formal education and cannot even read and write. We find we need to engage in literacy program first and train our leaders in skills that are needed for microfinance management. Our microfinance projects are controlled and managed directly by the beneficiaries themselves with minimal supervision from us.
You mentioned that you also work with secular organizations, including the government. Do you face any challenges in this area of your work?
The problem we face here is largely caused by discrimination. Muslims are a minority, and we are not represented well in the government bodies at the city and provincial levels. You seldom find Muslims working in official establishments as well. However, it is not only the government’s fault; Muslims are also to be blamed because we do not engage government to claim our rights. There is a prevalent culture of silence for Muslims, and that is why we focus our programming on empowerment. People need to talk, have a common voice and should know how to advocate for their rights.
We are beginning to see improvements in levels of government collaboration, and the government is allocating some development funds to the communities we work in. Demolition of homes and forced eviction is a major problem facing Muslims in Mindanao because many of the Muslims living in the cities are squatters. There is a need for increased relocation programs by government, and little by little this is improving. Dialogue and engagement with government is helping us a lot.
I have read some about the Bishops-Ulama conference and its work in Mindanao. Is their work resonating on the ground? Have you collaborated with them?
It is a good organization and they have inspired us a lot. For the first time since 1996, Bishops and Ulamas are cooperating on peacebuilding in Mindanao. Just recently, they have been called upon by the government to cooperate and have been very successful, with over 300 consultations on the grassroots level on the Mindanao peace problem. Because of their work, I foresee more successes in organizing Muslims and Christians in interfaith dialogue. They have legitimized our work in a sense; we can now go to the people and say, “look, the Bishops and Ulamas are talking and collaborating together, so why don’t we also talk.” They have been an inspiration to our work.
You recently attended a workshop in London; can you speak about this experience?
It was basically on same topics as ours here today& development and faith, but it was more centered on interfaith dialogue. The problem is that when we address development we are not only looking at local issues, but also global ones. We cannot effectively address development at the local level if we do not also take into account issues of globalization, trade and climate change, for instance. It is hard to solve development problems without creating a worldwide movement. The conference in London opened the debate to contribute to find a solution to our global development problems, from a faith perspective. Our economic problems are the world’s problem. Values are the missing link, and this conference was trying to fill this gap. Interfaith work is the centerpiece of the voices of people of different faiths, and that was the main subject matter of the conference.
Our involvement was to present a case study about our Philippines experience in interfaith collaboration for development. I also witnessed that many international NGOs now are interested in interfaith dialogue, and that there is a need for faith to be involved in a quest for solutions to our social and economic development needs.
Faith is often a topic that is not on the official agenda of development organizations, yet it is a crucial factor that should be given ample consideration, especially in Asia. What, from your view, is missing on the development agenda with regards to faith, and what should be added?
For some time now, we [the development community] have been pursuing development with a sole focus on economic and political policies, policies that are becoming valueless.
In the Philippines, the constitution says that our government is responsible for promoting truth, justice, equality, and love for society, within a greater purpose of independence and democracy. But in reality, I think there is much yet to be seen; if these values have really been promoted. Have we promoted social justice? Have we promoted love for society?
Most of the time government policies are created by a privileged few without consulting with and involving the greater society. Morality and faith is the missing link, unfortunately; it is put on the sideline. There are many social and environmental challenges that have to be solved, but I’m afraid that we are not solving them effectively! They are, rather, becoming more serious. We cannot continue in this situation where only the few are deciding solutions to development challenges for the masses.
I think it is time for faith-inspired organizations to have their common voice heard. We should be included in the debates, negotiations and decision making. This is important for international NGOs to realize. We must unify the voices of different faiths to work for the betterment of society. Faith based NGOs have expertise to contribute along this line, especially on empowerment, community organizing, advocacy, and networking. Faith-inspired organizations have demonstrated successes in solving local issues, discrimination, human rights, etc. through interfaith dialogue. If this can be enacted and replicated all over, surely the world will succeed in its quest for social change and peace.