Kashmir, Mindanao,
Aceh, and Home

By Tristan Mabry | Flying in from Delhi, my first view of the Kashmir valley was magnificent: a fertile basin ringed by impossibly high Himalayan peaks. But landing in the largest city, Srinagar, was something of a shock. As part of my doctoral-dissertation field research investigating Muslim minority independence movements [“Gazetteer,” November/December and January/February], I had already worked in northern Iraq and southern Pakistan, yet for the first time on the road, I felt real unease.

Srinagar, once a cool mountain retreat for British colonials escaping India’s oppressive summer heat, is not without its charms. The city is crisp in November. The air is sharpened on winter’s edge and the ground is littered with crimson leaves falling from tall maples called chinar. Yet the atmosphere is clouded by a heavy military presence, including checkpoints manned by anxious young soldiers who are invariably a long way from home. Years of what is perceived locally as a military occupation by Indian forces have exhausted the patience of the people and diluted the dreams of separatists who had once hoped for an independent Kashmir.

I had come to interview the dreamers. The trouble, however, is that one Kashmiri’s dream is another’s nightmare. The visions range from keeping the status quo to leaving India as an independent country, or even quitting India and joining Pakistan. There are literally dozens of political parties and militant organizations, from both sides of the India-Pakistan border, feuding over this otherwise lovely little piece of alpine real estate. But deciding which dream is the right dream depends on the answer to one simple question: who is a Kashmiri?

Most lay observers would volunteer that a Kashmiri is a Muslim from Kashmir. As I learned during my research, there are a small number of separatists who would agree, including Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the chairman of Kashmir’s Islamist Jama’at-i-Islami party. During a lengthy encounter at his party’s headquarters, he explained that in his interpretation of Islam, there is no separation between church and state, and that this is why his party wanted Kashmiris to quit India and merge with fellow Muslims in Pakistan. I said this was amusing since I had just left Pakistan’s Sindh province where many separatists told me they wanted out of Pakistan. He didn’t think this was very funny but still embraced me warmly, kissing my forehead, and wished me good health.

Geelani’s vision of seceding from India and joining Pakistan is no longer popular (if it ever really was). Frustration with feuding regimes in Delhi and Islamabad often raises cries that translate roughly as “a plague on both your houses.” One plan for outright independence is offered by the young leader of the moderate All Parties Hurriyat Conference. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq is articulate, animated, and a proponent of a solution modeled on the United States: an independent and federal Kashmir that respects regional differences. A Kashmiri, according to Farooq, is someone from Kashmir, irrespective of religion. This is helpful, since Kashmir is home to Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists.

My interest, however, is in language as a key component of political identity. Anyone born in the Kashmir valleys, including Muslims and Hindus, speaks Kashmiri, a difficult tongue unintelligible to Hindi speakers. Yet virtually no Kashmiris can read or write the language. The official language of Kashmir is an ideological import, Urdu, but students are now much more interested in learning English. I thought support for Kashmiri might be a rallying point for nationalists trying to whip up support for their people and their language. Not so: the tongue is shared by a diverse many yet valued by only a few. If the people don’t necessarily define themselves by religion or language, there is a strong though ambiguous attachment to the land. There remains a messy political reality: a Kashmiri is someone who says, “I am a Kashmiri.”

Leaving Kashmir, I traded mountains and maple trees for beaches and palms in the steamy south of the Philippines: Mindanao. This large island, along with its appendage, the Sulu Archipelago, is home to the Moros, a Muslim collective of 12 separate ethnolinguistic groups that share not much more than religion and a region. The term Moro, ironically, was coined first by imperialist colonizers as a racial epithet. Spanish conquistadores equated these Muslim islanders with enemy Moors, or Moros, of Iberia. Today, Moros like to point out that their struggle for independence predates the Republic of the Philippines by about three centuries.

So who, exactly, is a Moro? In 1974, one group claimed a former slur as a badge of honor (think the gay rights group Queer Nation) and launched the Moro National Liberation Front. The MNLF signed a peace deal with Manila in 1996, but a breakaway group rejected the accord and formed a new organization: the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

Members of both groups argue the Bangsamoro (Moro people) have been ill-treated by racist regimes in Manila determined to colonize the south with Catholics. So why did the party split? One explanation is that the MNLF and the MILF are dominated by regionally distinct ethnolinguistic groups, the Tausug and the Maguindanaon, respectively. The leadership of both groups told me ethnic antagonism is one source of political rivalry. Still, foreign-policy analysts often point to the Islamic in the MILF’s name and argue the split is between secular and religious parties.

At his house in Cotabato City, I asked the official spokesman of the MILF, Eid Kabalu, whether this was true. “Oh man, I wish we had picked something else,” he laughed. Kabalu said the breakaway faction had to come up with some way to differentiate themselves from the National front and so settled on the Islamic front, but claims there was never any interest in establishing an Islamic state. The trouble, he added, was that there’s not much else the Moros share in common, aside from religion.

Another splinter of the original MNLF, however, does claim to be fighting in the region for religious reasons. The notorious Abu Sayyaf was formed in 1991, and both Washington and Manila claim it has links with Al Qaeda. The view on the ground, however, is different. Most people agree Abu Sayyaf is dangerous as a criminal organization motivated by profit, but scoff at suggestions they are simply zealous followers of the Prophet. Pursued by Philippine forces, Abu Sayyaf is now largely restricted to the island of Basilan, a short ferry ride from the remarkable city of Zamboanga.

Built as a strategic fortification in 1635 on the coast of Mindanao, the city was once ruled formally by the viceroy of Nueva España—that is, Mexico—and is a living vestige of Spain’s imperial adventures in Southeast Asia. Traveling from east to west across the Pacific, colonizers started their journey in what is now Acapulco. Along with conquistadores, the Spanish also brought priests, and though Mindanao the region is Muslim, Zamboanga the city is clearly Catholic. The ships also brought sailors who spoke Mexican Spanish. The language of modern Zamboangueños, called Chavacano, is a mix of Malay grammar and Spanish words that flows with the rhythm and inflections of East L.A. For someone raised in Southern California, as I was, the effect is bewildering.

Mindanao was the last place Islam landed in Southeast Asia as it progressed from island to island in the 14th century. The first place it landed was Aceh. The verdant tip of Sumatra at the western edge of Indonesia, this region is home to some four million people and, since 1976, the site of a bloody conflict between the Free Aceh Movement and the government of Indonesia.

Before the tsunami of December 26, 2004, very few Americans had ever heard of Aceh. It is now world famous because of its association with an event that still defies understanding. I had expected to be stunned by the scale of destruction, but somehow words like disaster and cataclysm are just too weak. A better word is humbling. The effect of the tsunami is, in every sense, geological. Making good use of my Pennsylvania Gazette press pass, I secured a seat on a U.N. helicopter flying south along the coast to the city of Calang. From the air, the sight of mile upon mile upon mile of wreckage makes plain that what happened was the business of the earth. In this case, human affairs are truly inconsequential.

The irony for the Acehnese is that a problem of great political consequence may have been solved because of the terrible waves. Months earlier in Stockholm, I interviewed the leadership of the Free Aceh Movement (in Acehnese the acronym is GAM) not long after the signing of a peace deal in Helsinki. Founded in 1976, GAM argued that the Indonesian government was dominated by the ethnic Javanese who make up about 45 percent of the country’s population. From their perspective, the Javanese simply replaced the Dutch as yet another colonial power trying to control what was not theirs. Before the tsunami, Aceh was restricted and foreigners, including journalists, were personae non gratae as the military controlled all movement. Now the military are gone and NGOs are on the ground in force. For Jakarta, the price of aid for Indonesia was autonomy for Aceh. The price for GAM was disarmament.

And disarm they did, with the help of the EU and its monitoring mission, along with a good supply of bench grinders. In the space of a few hours, I watched a public ceremony where pistols, rifles, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers were cut in half with diamond-blade saws. For Aceh, at least, the war is over. This is especially good news for the resident aid workers, including gregarious Penn alumnus Ernest Leonardo GCP’78 GRP’78. After 23 years at the City Planning Commission of Philadelphia, looking for ever-greater challenges, Leonardo had worked on rebuilding post-war damage in the Kurdish Region of Iraq before heading to Aceh last year, where he now directs cutting-edge spatial planning projects for villages destroyed by the tsunami.

After traveling for many months in Muslim societies, it is possible to make a few generalizations about the people and parties who are fighting for autonomy or outright independence. First, they share a dream of governing their homelands. Second, they justify their claims based on the principle of national self-determination. Third, they claim status as a nation because they are a unique people with an historical claim to a particular piece of land.

And what of language? It typically functions as a primary marker of a unique identity. This is certainly the case with the Acehnese.

However, it is not always a rallying point that gets people up in arms and ready to join their freedom fighters. In Kashmir, for example, separatists offer no promise that Kashmiri will be taught in the public schools of some future independent state. Why? Certainly the only language that guarantees social mobility in Kashmir is English. (Student interest in Kashmir’s official language, Urdu, is now a distant second.) But it is also important to note that the understanding of who is or is not a Kashmiri does not necessarily include language.

The situation in Mindanao is somewhat similar in that no speakers of Moro vernaculars can actually read or write their mother tongue(s). Still, the ethnic separation of two different language communities—the Tausug and the Magindanaon—is an important factor dividing the Moros into rival political parties: the MNLF and the MILF, respectively.

One question many people asked after my return to the U.S. was what kind of reception I received as an American visiting a Muslim community. My personal welcome was always very warm. Attitudes toward Americans in the abstract were also generally positive. But there is one American who is reviled in many Muslim communities—President Bush—since his “war on terror” is perceived as a “war on Muslims” and his Christian zeal recalls the Crusades.

Almost without exception, the leadership of separatist parties and organizations in each conflict studied had never been approached or interviewed by an American academic. This is especially troubling since there is no shortage of American scholars who opine freely about people they have never met and places they have never been.

Of course, some officials are very hard to reach. It is not easy to get an interview with Pakistan’s President Musharraf, for example. But interviewing the leadership of Sindhi nationalist parties in Pakistan requires not much more than a few well-placed phone calls and, of course, some international travel.

As I finish writing my doctoral dissertation in political science at Penn, I can only hope for many more opportunities to work in the field. In fact, I look forward to a lifetime of research on the road. I just hope I won’t always travel alone.

Tristan Mabry is a former economics reporter for The Wall Street Journal and producer for CNN who is currently a Ph.D. candidate in political science and a doctoral fellow at the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict. This is the last in a series of reports for the Gazette on his travels to meet with the leaders of Muslim independence groups as part of his dissertation research.


©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 03/03/06


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Photographs by Tristan Mabry

Though Kashmiris don’t necessarily define
themselves by religion or language, there is
a strong attachment to the land.

Mindanao, in the Philippines, was the last
place Islam landed in Southeast Asia.

In Aceh, the tsunami ended a decades-long civil war.