Posts Tagged With: violent extremism

Is ‘Terror’ Marawi’s Single Story?

By Mansoor L. Limba – July 3, 2017

(The following is a modified transcript of the 20-minute presentation of a working paper “The Marawi Crisis: A Derridean Reading” at the Forum “Terror in Marawi: Looking through Different Perspectives,” organized by the Social Sciences and Education Cluster at Ateneo de Davao University, June 30, 2017.)

My esteemed co-panelists – Sir Dennis [Coronel, MA] and Ma’am Diana [Taganas, CPA, MA] – Ma’am Carmen [Sabino, RP, RPm] and her team of young and energetic organizers, my fellow students, and other members of the academe who are present in this forum: Good afternoon and “salamun ‘alaykum” (may peace be upon you)!

At the outset, I would like to express my gratitude to the organizers for giving me this rare opportunity to share my thoughts and views on the current crisis in Marawi.

Let me begin by narrating my favorite introductory anecdote in this regard. In a peace-building symposium-workshop last year, there was a casual conversation between (1) a Muslim NGO worker and (2) a Mindanao-based non-Muslim journalist.

This conversation suddenly turned into a heated argumentation over the ‘correct’ description for such groups as the Abu Sayyaf and others. The Muslim NGO worker argued that they are ‘un-Islamic’ because “what they are doing are against the teachings of Islam!” The non-Muslim journalist countered by saying that they are ‘Islamic’ because “They use Islamic symbols, metaphors and justifications in their acts of violence!”

That heated argumentation, actually, calls to mind postmodernism’s recurring themes, one of which is Jacques Derrida’s ‘grammatology’ or semiotic analysis given in his writings. According to this prominent postmodernist, textual is the way in which the social world is constructed, and interpreting the world reflects “the textual interplay at work,” or the concepts and structures of language.

According to Derrida, there are two ways of exposing textual interplays, viz. (1) deconstruction and (2) double reading (Derrida, “Of Grammatology,” 1976). By ‘deconstruction, he refers to a means of showing how all theories and discourses rely on artificial stabilities produced by the use of seemingly objective and natural oppositions in language – for example, light/darkness, knowledge/ignorance, white/black, friend/enemy.

In a bid to demonstrate how these stabilizations operate, Derrida subjects the text to double reading: (1) a repetition of the dominant reading to show how it achieves its outward coherence and (2) the demonstration of the internal tensions within a text that result from the use of ostensibly natural stabilizations. In doing so, Derrida’s aim is not to come to a ‘correct’ or even ‘one’ reading of a text, but to show how there is always more than one reading of any text.

Statement of the Problem

Taking postmodernist Derrida’s ‘grammatology’ or semiotic analysis as the theoretical framework, this brief presentation, which hopefully will become a working paper, shall explore the textual interplay at work in this forum’s framing of words (i.e. ‘extremism,’ ‘religious extremism,’ and ‘terror’) about the Marawi Crisis. Using Derrida’s ‘deconstruction’ and ‘double reading’ tools, in this brief presentation I shall scrutinize these three terms, viz. (1) extremism, (2) religious extremism, and (3) terror in Marawi.

Case 1: ‘Extremism’

It is mentioned in the invitation letter that there shall be a forum on “Terror in Marawi: Looking through Different Perspectives.” It is also stated thus, “…the SSE Cluster is inviting you to be one of its key speakers to discuss religious extremism” (emphasis added). One implication that can be inferred here is that the ‘terror’ in Marawi is a product of ‘religious extremism’.

In Countering/Preventing Violent Extremism (CVE/PVE) trainings and workshops, the first session is usually allotted to conceptual clarification, and the first question being posed always is something like this: Is to be ‘radical’ or ‘extremist’ necessarily bad and, therefore, condemnable?

Basically, we define ‘radical’ to be the one that advocates fundamental and/or drastic change. When we say ‘extremist’ we usually refer to someone that holds a view or displays a behavior or action different from the ‘usual’. Consciously or unconsciously, whenever we say ‘extremist’ we are imagining in our mind a spectrum having two ends which are the ‘extreme’ parts while its middle is what we imagine to be the norm or ‘normal’ as adopted by the majority.

George Washington was definitely a radical during the American War of Independence, because instead of maintaining America under the British Empire, he was opting for American independence! Andres Bonifacio was a certified extremist, because instead of just reform under Spanish sovereignty, he was fighting for separation from Spain! Nelson Mandela was a convicted terrorist for the Apartheid regime in South Africa, and because of this heinous crime, he was imprisoned for almost three decades!

By the way, how about the young Jewish man who had the audacity to turn upside down the money changers’ table in the Temple of Solomon? (Matthew 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-18; Luke 19:45-47; John 2:13-16) He would also address his fellow Jews as “You serpents, generation of vipers!” and “a wicked and adulterous generation!” (Matthew 23:33; 16:4) He must be an extremist during his time!

As you see, knowing the context of such terms as ‘radical’ and ‘extremist’ is very important.

Case 2: ‘Religious Extremism’

Let us equally pose this fundamental question: Is ‘religious extremism’ necessarily bad, and thus, blameworthy?

How about the case of one who voluntarily makes the ‘vow of celibacy and poverty’ to become a nun or priest? Accordingly, he or she makes this decision as a religious ‘calling’. How about the case of a teetotaler who totally abstains from alcohol, on account of religious conviction? How about the case of a non-smoker in a country or city of smokers, who refrains from smoking due to a religious reason?

Is their ‘religious extremism’ necessarily bad?

It’s not, of course, because there is a missing element here, namely, violent imposition or compulsion. If a would-be nun voluntarily makes a vow of celibacy and poverty, it’s just okay. It will not be okay if she begins to impose celibacy upon all women by force. If a person does not drink alcohol, it’s just okay. He will become questionable when he starts forcing the hook, line and sinker of his teetotalism down the throat of the people around him. If the would-be nun and the teetotaler do so, they may be accused of violent extremism in the name of, or under the guise of, religion.

Case 3: ‘Terror’ in Marawi

Let us now consider the third and last case – ‘terror’ in Marawi.

The title of this forum is “Terror in Marawi: Looking through Different Perspectives.” As I read this title for the first time, my take – correctly or not – was that it is like saying, “Let’s talk about toothpaste from different perspectives, but let’s just talk about Colgate!” That is to say, “Let’s come to talk about Marawi Crisis from diverse views and opinions, but let’s just talk about its ‘terror’ dimension!”

The fact is that the Marawi Crisis is a multi-dimensional issue, and ‘terror’ is just one of the many dimensions of the Crisis.

Aside from its ‘terror’ dimension, how about (1) the historical context, in particular the Philippine government’s failure to fully implement the peace agreements it has signed for decades? How about (2) the Philippine military intelligence’s success or failure? (As can be recalled, during the first day of the Marawi siege, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told us that there was no failure of military intelligence because there were already such reports of the siege, but what was lacking was ‘appreciation’ of those reports. Perhaps the Secretary fails to realize that the public knows that intelligence report without proper appreciation of it is no ‘intelligence’ at all. It’s just a wanton stockpiling of tons and tons of raw materials and information data!)

How about (3) the role of LGU’s peace and order councils in preventing the siege, in particular that of the BPATs (Barangay Peace Action Teams) in all barangays of the occupied business district of the city? How about (4) the issue of alleged unholy marriage between local narco-politics and terrorism?

How about (5) the actual terror of the ‘war on terror’? (I am referring to the reports of military’s mishandling in checkpoints and lootings of properties in areas of the city they control.) How about (6) the issue of Philippine military modernization (specifically the challenge of modern urban warfare, and more serious than that, the challenge of asymmetrical warfare in the information age)? How about (7) the question of excessive use of force in the form of aerial bombardments against enemy targets? (What prevents the onset of snipers versus snipers scenario, by the way?)

How about (8) the problems related to the evacuees and internally displaced people (IDPs)? How about (9) the issue of rehabilitation, resettlement and internal migration?

And how about (10) the melodramatic accounts of survivors, sometimes risking their own lives for the sake of others with a different religious affiliation?

Undeniably, these are all Marawi stories, as well.


By scrutinizing the three terms (extremism, religious extremism, and ‘terror’ in Marawi), we can say that textual is indeed the way the social world is constructed. It is the same reason why we call part of the South China Sea as “West Philippine Sea” and the Benham Rise as the “Philippine Rise.”

As a ‘middle ground’, instead of ‘religious extremism’ an alternative term is ‘violent extremism (in the name of, or under the guise of, religion). And an alternative title that can be considered for this forum is: “The Marawi Crisis: Looking through Different Perspectives.”


In conclusion, the universe is not a monopoly of binary equations. The world – the Marawi Crisis included – is not always a case of “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Zero-sum is not always the game in town. In the Derridean jargon, there is always a multiple reading of a text.

To take ‘terror’ as Marawi’s single story is no doubt a dangerous game to play.

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A Prison Called PVE


Mansoor L. Limba on March 20, 2017

MAKATI CITY (20 March) – In August last year, I flew to Davao City – not primarily to witness and join the week-long celebration of Kadayawan Festival – but to attend two events related to history as an academic field of discipline.

Last week I flew there again – not primarily to join the Dabawenyos in their four-day Araw ng Dabaw (Davao City Founding Day) holidays – but to sit as a panel to a dissertation defense on halal practices in Region 11, to witness the launching of a book on human rights, and finally, to attend, as a representative of the academic sector, a three-day workshop on PVE.

PVE. Yes, it’s Preventing Violent Extremism.

While the topic was already more than enough to send shivers down one’s spine, the insignia “PVE. Reimagine. Redefine. Rethink.” of the UNDP-funded workshop dubbed “Redefining Radicalization: Streamlining PVE/CVE Efforts of Institutions” was even quite intriguing, to say the least.

It naturally elicits such questions as “What is the dominant ‘imagination’ about PVE? What is the conventional definition of violent extremism? What is the common thinking about radicalization? What is the problem with such an imagination, definition and thinking so much so that it demands re-imagination, redefinition and rethinking?”

Dissecting dichotomies   

As early as the first workshop on the definitions and conceptual assumptions of radicalization and violent extremism, three words could easily be identified as implicit culprits, viz. radicalization, violence, and extremism. Are they supposed to be culprits all the time? Guided by this question, the first open forum would border on intellectual jousting coupled with occasional jokes on Moro piracy vis-à-vis foreign intrusion.

If understood to mean “the process of instituting a fundamental and comprehensive change,” is radicalization always bad? Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein were certified radicals who have brought scientific revolutions.

Is violence or the use of physical force always condemnable? Wars of national liberation – prior to, during and after the two world wars – were all violent in nature. George Washington was undoubtedly violent. So was Andres Bonifacio.

Is extremism always blameworthy? In the business world in which mediocrity – or to be average – is a heinous crime punishable by death, extreme ideas and innovative minds are natural recipes for survival and eventual success.

Even in the second workshop that attempted to identify the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ instances of radicalization, there was no sufficient time to appreciate the many grays in between these opposing poles (positive and negative). A knife in motion can either be ‘moral’ or ‘immoral’ while a knife in inertia is ‘amoral’. In other words, a knife used to commit a crime is ‘bad’ while a knife used in the kitchen to prepare foods for hungry stomachs is ‘good’ whereas a sleeping knife is neither good nor bad, in absolute sense.

In short, whenever there are artificial constructs, which are arranged hierarchically such that in the case of opposites in language one term is always privileged over the other, the anomaly of such dichotomies must be dissected.

How about PVE via ‘TVE’?

Meanwhile, from the first session down to the presentations of the three foreign experts on the second day, what can be observed was that the issue of PVE has been mostly treated and discussed through social science lenses – economic, sociological, psychological, anthropological.

On the other hand, what is given less attention is the fact that the main identity and meta-signifier of many violent extremist groups is religious in nature with very strong theological underpinnings.

In the case of ISIS, its main identity is rooted in the notion of ‘Islamic State’ and the revival of the caliphate (khilafah) which is an important theme in Islamic political thought and political jurisprudence.

There is no denying that social injustices, poverty, and psychological factors are significant drivers of violent extremism, but the fact is that these elements are dealt with by these groups within the framework of Islamic metaphors and symbols.

Is it enough to issue a religious edict against terrorism ( in Arabic language ( without translating it into any of the languages understandable to the local youth – such as English and Filipino?

Is it enough to argue that there is nothing Islamic in those groups (, by citing a few Qur’anic verses here and there?

If you do so, they could instantly throw you with tens of Qur’anic verses, a double or triple number of narrations from the corpus of hadith (Prophetic traditions), and everything including the kitchen sink from the works of such Muslim figures as Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn al-Jawzi, and Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab.

As such, in order for any PVE program to be considered comprehensive, there is a logical need to understand the ‘theology of violent extremism’ (TVE) – the same language these groups astutely use to convey their message and gain recruits.

On hindsight, unless these two points, among others, are addressed, PVE will remain a conceptual prison that necessitates Derridean ‘deconstruction’ and ‘double reading’ – and thereafter, re-imagination, redefinition and rethinking.


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