“Sir, Muslim ka?” has always been an uncomfortable question for me. Answering “Yes” makes it worse sometimes.
My first encounter with discrimination was in high school. I was a sophomore in a nonsectarian school that only had less than 10 Muslim students. One day, some of my classmates and I decided to play in our school’s mini playground. There were adorable preschoolers already playing in the swing. One kid approached and asked if he could finally have his time on the swing. To my surprise, another kid shouted at him: “Huwag kang makipaglaro sa kanya, Muslim siya (Don’t play with him, he is a Muslim)!”
I remember freezing for a moment after hearing those words. Where did she get that from? Who taught her that? At that age? I was in disbelief. The kid wasn’t even talking to me, yet I felt insulted. Then I realized I was also a Muslim, and that she was also talking to me. I felt I had to reprimand that kid, so I told her it was wrong and that she should not say that to anyone again. “Bakit? Muslim ka rin (Why? Are you also a Muslim)?” the kid shouted back at me. I honestly don’t remember what happened next, but that has been a reminder of what discrimination feels like for me.
I was reminded of it during my first time in Manila in 2010. I was part of the debate team that represented ARMM (now BARMM) in a competition organized by the Commission on Higher Education. During our competition day, we were asked to wear something to represent our region. Since one of us was already wearing a hijab, I suggested to the other guy in our team that we wear a traditional male head cap. We decided to wear it the entire day. After our event, we were brought to a nearby fast-food place for snacks. When it was our turn to order, the cashier looked at us with a surprised face as she took one step back from the counter. It felt like we made her feel uncomfortable with what we were wearing, and who we are. It reminded me of that encounter I had with that kid in high school.
Life has been a constant reminder of that moment since then.
I am reminded of it when a taxi or Grab driver asks me if I’m a Muslim (or if I’m from the Middle East), because my name sounds like one and when they learn that I am from Mindanao. I’ve been kicked out of a taxi twice for answering “Yes” to that question.
I am reminded of it when people casually tell me to “just remove the pork” when I complain about my food not being halal.
I was reminded of it when Pilar College in Zamboanga City prohibited female Muslim students from wearing their veil inside the campus, claiming that students have to respect the school’s “origins.”
I was reminded of it after the Marawi siege happened in 2017 when Islamophobia became a topic of discussion. Maranao families, after fleeing Marawi for safety, were being rejected from renting apartments in nearby cities. Authorities even proposed to issue Muslim IDs as one way of “securing” Filipinos from supposed threats.
I was reminded of it when, earlier this year, the Philippine National Police-Manila Police District released a memorandum requesting an updated list of Muslim students in high school, colleges, and universities in the NCR. While they said it would be used as “reference” for their peace-building program and other activities to counter violent extremism, it felt like they were profiling Muslims.
I was constantly reminded of it when I was working in the ARMM government. My experience working with the youth sector in conflict areas has made me realize that sometimes opportunities are limited for them not because there’s none or they lack the capability, but simply because of who they are. The society they live in makes them feel that Muslims have to do more and be more just to be recognized and appreciated. Some persevere and continue to believe, while others are left with the only choice they feel they have—joining rebel groups like the Abu Sayyaf and revolting against the government.
I was recently reminded of it when residents of a Muslim community in San Andres Bukid, Manila, reported that they were illegally searched and arrested by law enforcers on account of drug-related planted evidence. It happened during our country’s 122nd Independence Day.
Discrimination can be a complex word to define, but it is best understood when you experience it yourself. Discrimination against Muslims in our country, though, is not hard to come by. Unfortunately, as much as a lot has been said about it and as more Muslim leaders continue to talk about it, it seems like we haven’t talked about it enough for more people to rally against it.
When President Duterte certified the anti-terrorism bill as urgent, I was reminded of everything that made me uncomfortable about being a Muslim.
Policies, especially those that want to address issues like terrorism, shouldn’t be rushed to the point of compromising other important and basic factors such as human rights. Because, instead of protecting the public from the harm of terrorism, it will just seem like an attack on our freedom and our identity.
If you are a Muslim and you live in a society where terrorism is easily linked to your religion, the new law should concern you. Moreover, when you have a government which has continuously shown disregard of human rights and even judicial processes in its implementation of other policies, the law should concern everyone. Your words of dissent can be used against you. Your affiliations can be used against you. Your name alone can be used against you.
The discussion on the anti-terrorism law also mirrors how our country still sees Muslim discrimination—subtle, and just “isolated cases.” However, it is anything but subtle and isolated.
It is something you hear from a preschooler’s mouth. It can be how a random person will react to what you wear. It can be how a taxi driver will treat you. It is reflected in some academic institution’s policies. It is what’s written in the memorandum of a police district office. It is when your house is illegally searched and you’re illegally arrested. It is why some people feel like they need to work harder. It is why others choose to revolt.
Although the law reminds me of everything that made me uncomfortable about being a Muslim, it also reminds me of why we need to speak up more.
* * *
Nizam M. Pabil, 28, is a government employee from Mindanao.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.