Enjoining moderation: the online self-presentations of the MILF [Part II]

In seeking to retain its legitimacy, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) capitalises on a particular construction of Islam to animate its purportedly moderate, yet activist, political strategy. As the first part of this article has shown, the MILF has used its official editorials to frame the peace process as the most moral strategy for liberating the Bangsamoro. At the same time, it condemns as un-Islamic the violence of other Mindanaoan rebel groups.

Enjoining moderation: the online self-presentations of the MILF [Part I]

In its rhetoric the MILF "is forced to walk a tightrope between two extremes", seeking credibility as a negotiator and as champion of Islam.

Creating boundaries around that which is right and wrong is inherent to the act of legitimising oneself in the eyes of one’s constituency. Yet, the MILF’s synthesis of a moderate Islamic tradition notwithstanding, legitimising discourse also requires what Pierre Bourdieu called world-making. To hold symbolic power, the elite must conjure a world wherein that actor has the right to rule.

Indeed, the MILF does well in its championing of a moderate-but-liberational Islam vis-à-vis the radicals, but the vast corpus of its online publications also contributes to the creation of a world where the peace process is seen as a worthy endeavour, the MILF fosters the civic, community space, and Islamic and Moro allegiance remain central.

Reworking a pre-existing Python 2.7 script, all texts of the MILF editorials on Luwaran.net—the official website of the MILF’s Committee on Information—were scraped into a CSV file and another adapted script tallied the 300 most frequent words from the sample. The words were then manually coded according to theme, and irrelevant words (“and”, “to”, etc) were filtered out, yielding the following table.

In the editorials the peace process, alongside general political engagement with the Philippine Government (positive or negative), is a recurrent topic of interest. These categories are then followed by sizeable references to terms alluding to Moro communality, and the expected references to the MILF and MNLF. References to conflict are minimal and are largely negative in nature.

The same scripts were used to collect the titles of all the news articles published on the Luwaran.net website, amounting to 541 articles published between January 2016 to present. They were then manually coded according to topic. This is illustrated in the table and chart below, with a network diagram added to better illustrate not only the clusters of topics, but the 111 news articles in the sample that were double-coded with two topics—these are seen in the blue circles (articles) that have connections to two different green circles (topics).

 

It becomes clearer in these charts how the bulk of the MILF’s online publications revolves around the peace process (with most articles commemorating the MILF’s engagement in peace initiatives) and grassroots engagement. At the same time, the connectivity between their articles concerning general Islamic observations (holidays, schooling, etc.) and those outlining civil societal and/or peace subject matter reinforces the MILF’s moderate-yet-activist Islamic discourse.

For instance, the titles “Peace process-supportive evangelical church group visits MILF leadership” and “Bangsamoro leaders, peace advocates attend Mediation and Negotiation Training Workshop” simultaneously evoke the PEACE PROCESS and COMMUNITY categories, reinforcing a vision of interlinkage between peace negotiations and the development of Moro civil society.

The large cluster of POLITICAL-coded articles refers to the publicisation of MILF political committee meetings, while small clusters of articles also commend the Philippine Government, mostly due to the Duterte Administration’s strides in the peace process.

A smaller cluster opposes select Government policymakers involved in hampering the negotiations. Other clusters of UNITY- and INTERNATIONAL- coded articles refer to MILF-MNLF conciliation and MILF outreach to foreign officials respectively.

The frequency of words or topics constitutes a crude measure of the nature of the MILF’s discourse. Yet, when paired with the close analysis of the MILF’s efforts to authorise its moderation and delegitimise radicalism, the patterns unravelled tend to verify the new direction of MILF self-legitimation.

A world is crafted where the peace process is the dominant paradigm and is entwined with positive civil societal work and Islamic motifs. The MILF is thus rendered the ideal leader because its articulation of Islam enables this world to grow.

The middle way

The survey here has been brief but it is clear that in recent years the MILF has chosen to present itself as providing the Bangsamoro with the spoils of moderation, rather than war. To use Islamic terminology, it uses its online discourse to impress as a movement of wasatiyyah—or centredness, moderation—that can extract the benefits of peace from the Government and reject the chaos invited by a more militant approach. At no point, however, does it de-emphasise the injustice perpetrated upon the Bangsamoro.

The MILF capitalises on the interweaving of Islamic tradition into its pursuit of the middle way. Its online editorials invoke anti-extremist interpretations of Islam as means of delegitimising its rebel competitors. At the same time, the stories it presents to its readership render a world that benefits from peace, civil societal work, and correct Islamic practice.

This methodology does not at all measure how this discourse is received by the Bangsamoro grassroots, or what the MILF actually does on the ground. It is, however, useful for solidifying our understanding of the key components of the Front’s legitimising narrative. As a result, it becomes even more critical that MILF-Government negotiations are permitted to bear fruit.

MILF ideologues cannot sustain the image of wasitiyyah if it does not eventuate in the reprieve it has promised to its constituents. If such an integral component of their legitimacy were to be humiliated in such a way, discourse would likely return to extreme contestation and militancy, whether from the MILF or its more notorious rivals.

Furthermore, with the discursive space turned away from civic ambitions, violent non-state actors will gain more room to grow. It would ultimately precede a relapse into disorder that few stakeholders in the negotiations, the Moro people most of all, could barely afford.

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One Response

  1. Steven Rood

    Very interesting pair of articles (including part 1). This part in particular gets a lot of value out of some quantitative methodological approaches.

    A couple of questions, which result in a comment:
    In the word category table, how can it be that “Islam” is not one of the categories if this is what is being investigated?
    In part 1 the Tunisian Ghannouchi is mentioned, and here the concept of wasatiyyah — is there any evidence of the MILF themselves citing these?

    the comment is a hermeneutical one — that it is best to be very clear in tracing the links between the observer/analyst frame of meaning and that of the subject of study. How are the concepts of the actor/group connected to our concepts?

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