True confession: I am 33 and I haven’t had Muslim friends. Neither have I stepped inside a mosque.
Being a predominantly Catholic country, there isn’t plenty of opportunity in the Philippines to interact with Muslims, be it in neighborhoods, schools, or offices. In 2015, Philippine statistics put Catholics at roughly 81 percent of the total population. The remaining 19 percent consists of mixed religions scattered across the country’s 7,500+ islands.
In our country, Muslims tend to congregate in certain communities where people of like faith reside. Sometimes I think this maybe because we, the majority, have long ostracized them because of their religion. (Which is strange, since we were a Muslim country before the Spaniards conquered us.)
Many of us generalize Muslims as cunning and ill-purposed people simply because their religious affiliation is one which terrorists proclaim as theirs too. At least in the Philippines, Muslims are overpowered by the majority.
But what happens if Muslims become the majority?
I learned all about this when I was sent to cover the recent ASEAN summit in Indonesia, whose flights entailed layovers in Malaysia. Both are Islamic countries, with Muslims comprising over 88 percent and 61 percent of the population, respectively.
Aboard buses, planes, and trains with an 11-man media crew, we were reminded of Islam in every nook and cranny: signs written in strange Arabic, rows of women and little girls wearing hijab, mosques, halal restaurants, mushalla (prayer room).
We spent four days in Jakarta and Bandung, yet we only saw one Catholic Church, St. Peter’s Cathedral. It does not take too long for one to realize that in these countries, Catholics and Christians are the minority. Muslims rule.
Our tour bus has become our second home for the duration of our stay — a crucible, too, for many eye-opening conversations with nationals from Brunei, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia. I learned the nuances and truths of various cultures. Oh learned I really did.
I learned that among all ASEAN races, Bruneians tend to feel at ease the most with Filipinos. I was told this may be because our citizens, through their work as house help, caregivers, professionals, and nurses, helped raise and strengthen Bruneian families.
I learned that Thais are very reserved and tend to be just among themselves.
I learned that, like Catholics, Muslims can be traditional or non-traditional. There are female and male Muslims who binge-drink and love to dance in bars. Not all of them too wear hijab and traditional Muslim clothing. Some wear cropped tops and become runway models. Some believe in following what your heart says, even if it goes against dogma.
I learned that, like in the Philippines, Indonesian laws are useless. They exist, but nobody cares. Citizens as young as 14 can bribe law officials. Yet, for all their disregard of the law, Indonesians are warm and polite toward strangers.
I learned that, despite what we hear about Vietnam and scammers, there are those who are true gems. While we were standing on Monas’ bare, shadeless grounds, Lâm – a sweet Vietnamese girl in our group whom I have never talked to before – suddenly covered my head with her pashmina to spare me from the Jakartan heat. We stood under the sun without saying a word except thank you and welcome, yet we understood each other.
I learned that we, Asians, tend to laugh at the same things.
I learned we have the same issues.
Syam, a reporter from the Malaysian news agency, and I talked about family. She has four children, all spaced two years apart. Three girls, one boy. Her husband wants another child – a boy, preferably – but she doesn’t. “It’s very hard. The government pays for my children’s school, but it’s not just that. I’m already 37. I have one boy, but it feels like I have 10,” she said.
“Exactly! That is true,” I nodded enthusiastically. As mothers, our feelings and perspectives toward another childbirth – nay, about parenthood – are strangely alike. Two women, two different countries, two opposing religions by birth, same views.
Having spent my days and nights with people of various nationalities, I realized that despite our differences, we are more similar to each other than we perceive ourselves to be. We might call divinity differently and we may be polar opposites in terms of clothing or gastronomy. But at the core and core of things, we are one people. We are the same.
Same. Sama or sama-sama, as they call it in Bahasa. In the Tagalog and Malay vernacular, sama-sama means “together”. How serendipitous that is. Same, together.
They say that Islam is a religion of peace and love. In my five days in Muslim countries, I felt nothing but kindness and unparalleled hospitality from Muslims. I have never been mistreated for being different – yes, even when I was alone on the streets. They are terribly polite. If you ask, they will give beyond what you asked, often with a smile.
We have wronged. Muslims have been wronged.
We, Filipinos, have been unkind toward our own countrymen. We embrace Caucasians and put them high up on a pedestal. Yet for all the love that we give foreigners, we give so little to our Muslim brethen. We raise our children with the belief that they must be wary of Muslims because they are an ill-mannered group. We are told that Muslims are terrorists. In airports, we profile and unfairly scrutinize people who resemble them. We consider it our right to interrogate them and belittle their beliefs. Their worth.
When I think of this, my heart breaks. I now have Muslim friends, and I know the spoil made by a few is not a spoil made by an entire group.
Have we asked them how they are? How they feel that they are always being calculated by the world’s examining eyes?
Have we dug deep to know who them outside of what we read and hear?
If you are a Muslim, under today’s circumstances, wouldn’t you feel helpless?
This has got to stop.
Sama-sama. Same in our togetherness, together in our sameness. Let us open ourselves up to what this truly means, for only when we accept we are all the same can we truly do many great things together.