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Igniting the spark of radicalisation in the Philippines

Quiapo is a Muslim town in Metro Manila, Philippines, where thousands of local Muslim families live. The town, which houses the Manila Golden Mosque and Cultural Centre built in 1976, is abuzz with trading, dining and learning Islam. For this reason, according to local Filipino Muslims, Quiapo is their centre of gravity.

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Quiapo is a Muslim town in Metro Manila, Philippines, where thousands of local Muslim families live. The town, which houses the Manila Golden Mosque and Cultural Centre built in 1976, is abuzz with trading, dining and learning Islam. For this reason, according to local Filipino Muslims, Quiapo is their centre of gravity.

But this lively town also harbours elements threatening Philippines’ national security. A stone’s throw away from the Golden Mosque are two shops selling documentary DVDs romanticising Muslims’ victories in wars against foreign forces such as the Libyan-Italian War, the Algerian War, the Soviet-Chechen War and the Soviet-Afghan War. There are also videos on the Bosnian Civil War and Palestinian-Israeli conflict and those that show Sunni-Shia rivalry throughout history.

The most massive collection of all is on the Islamic State (IS). There are more than 60 volumes of uncut raw war footage believed to be downloaded from jihadist websites. The video narration is either in English or in Arabic and other foreign languages with English subtitles, clearly catering to the largely English-speaking Filipino audience.

Similar activity of a smaller scale and intensity can be observed in other parts of the country, such as Marawi City and Cotabato in Mindanao. Towns with high concentration of Muslim population and rural areas with no access to Internet service are also targeted.

The situation in Quiapo is worth scrutinising for three reasons. First, the town is the melting pot and a transit point for Filipino Muslims who relocate from other regions to Manila in search of a better life. Second, the volume of DVDs sold here is far greater than those sold in other regions because of the larger population. Third, the Sunni-Shia rivalry is more visible here. DVDs on Iran vis-a-vis Shia provide fast passage for learning historical facts about the sect and consequently boost sales.

The videos are not only a public radicalisation tool and recruitment agent for IS; it is also fuelling the Sunni-Shia rivalry. The underlying message is that the Sunni-Shia war can occur in other places including in the Philippines.


There is a movement to spread Shiaism in this predominantly Sunni area. Imamate Islamic Centre is a Shia organisation that has been here for almost two years. Several Sunnis that I spoke to acknowledged that both camps are progressively hardening their claims as the rightful representatives of Islam.

Both groups engage in numerous open debate on the street of Quiapo to outplay one another. Shia Muslims also aggressively push their agenda publicly at coffee shops and restaurants. Sunni Muslims are even offered a free meal in exchange for engaging in a dialogue promoting Shiaism.

IS and anti-Shia DVDs could well be a response to this Shia proselytising. These activities, if left unchecked, are providing fertile ground for the Sunni-Shia conflict to escalate.

For example, after IS conquered Mosul in northern Iraq in June 2014, the Shia community there was among the first to be persecuted. Besides retaliating against a pre-dominant Shia Iraqi government, IS called it an internal cleansing strategy to regain the purity of Islam. The same could happen in Quiapo, as the steady demand for propaganda videos indicates that radicalisation is brewing in this backyard. This is a ticking time bomb and there are lessons to be learnt from Indonesia’s earlier experiences.

Since the late 1990s, Indonesia has been the hotbed of Islamist terrorism. Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) originated in Indonesia to become Southeast Asia’s number one terrorist organisation connected with Al-Qaeda. At Al-Qaeda’s bidding, JI carried out many successful attacks across Indonesia, including the 2000 Christmas Eve church bombings, the 2002 Bali Bombing and the 2009 JW Marriott Jakarta and Ritz-Carlton bombings.

JI also used video compact discs and tape-recorded sermons to propagate its ideology and highlight Muslims’ sufferings in Indonesia and other parts of the world. The Soviet-Afghan War (1979-89), the Bosnian War (1992-95), the First Chechen War (1994-96), Muslim-Christian fighting in Poso and Ambon in the late 1990s and in the Sulawesi region in mid-2000, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, all became part of a staple video diet fed to would-be jihadists who were hungry for alternative news.

These videos and sermons stirred the emotions of JI members, supporters and sympathisers, sending them on the pathway of radicalisation. It fuelled in them the desire to retaliate for the perceived atrocities inflicted on Muslims.

As a result, they were waiting to be deployed for “jihad” operations that they mistakenly believed were justified. They were eager to be hailed as heroes and war veterans upon their return from operations or as martyrs should they die in the attacks.

Clearly, there is a danger of history repeating itself in Quiapo. For a start, Filipino authorities should step up enforcement to stamp out the sale of such videos.

Manila must move now to engage the community and inoculate its larger society from the threat of terrorism.

Quiapo can become the beneficiary of a pilot community engagement programme. Radicalisation and terrorism should be framed as national security concerns, as they undermine social cohesion.

One important message to drive home is that all Filipinos must join forces and be vigilant against the extremist narrative. Extremist materials and propaganda should not be allowed to find their way into the public space. And if they do, the authorities should quickly crack down on those producing, distributing and consuming the propaganda.

Indonesians’ response to the Jakarta attacks in January illustrates not only resiliency, but also a heightened level of awareness against divisive elements. Villagers rejected the bodies of both militants for burial in their respective hometown. Jakartans were seen holding placards Kami Berduka #IndonesiaTidakTakut (We are sad #IndonesiaIsNotAfraid)”.

In pursuit of a similar objective, local governments should establish more cordial relations with Sunni and Shia organisations that are not only sincere and respectful, but also fair to both denominations.

Any future effort must downplay the anti-Shia rhetoric advocated by IS, as cordial intra-faith relationships sustain mutual coexistence and keep extremism at bay.


Muhammad Saiful Alam Shah Sudiman is an associate research fellow with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, a constituent unit of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

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