January 25, 2015. While this was a normal day for most of us, it was not for the members of the Special Action Force (SAF). They were in pursuit of two high ranking terrorists allegedly hiding in Mamasapano, Maguindanao. No SAF member, however, had an idea that forty-four of them would return to their families and loved ones dead.
The killing of the forty-four officers, the “Fallen 44,” surprises the whole country. Many people sympathise, speak, and react about the incident. Not only does it reach the newspapers and televisions, it is also a prominent topic on social media.
The people’s reactions regarding the killing do not only target the government, SAF, or the MILF but also the Muslim community as a whole. It cannot be denied that a considerable number of comments and reactions contain prejudices and stereotypes against Muslims—‘Islamophobia’ as they call it—bringing about varied responses from both sides.
People are describing Muslims as ‘aggressive’ and ‘violent.’ Others claim that the way they looked at Muslims changed because of what has happened. They generalize them as ‘terrorists’ and ‘killers.’ Others even question the doctrines of Islam—their traditions, their beliefs, their practices—making it appear as if the whole Mamasapano incident is totally about religion.
Some netizens are also expressing how they are losing their trust to Muslims when it comes to maintaining peace, as though every one of them—the entire Muslim community—is responsible for what has happened.
Derwessa Kadir, a second year BS-Education student who is also a Muslim, says that people should also acknowledge their side. She is disappointed with how the media recognizes only one side of the story, portraying them [Muslims] as the sole suspect of the incident without recognizing that they are also victims.
According to her, the media has greatly influenced the way people look at Muslims. She shares how people on social media continue to insult and ridicule them.
“Na-hurt gyud ko,” she states about a post on AdDU Confessions which reveals the confessors’ hatred and discriminations against Muslims.
What she has read from the said Facebook page, according to her, is among many one-sided and unfair posts she has encountered after the Mamasapano incident.
There are others, even non-Muslims, who react the same way. They are also disappointed and hurt by how Muslims are portrayed in the media and in the Internet. Facebook posts and tweets are created promoting the stoppage of Muslim-bashings and Islamophobia. But despite these efforts, Muslims are still getting prejudices from others.
Dennis Coronel, a Sociology professor at the Ateneo de Davao University, says during an interview that prejudices against Muslims came after the initial reaction: shock. When he opens up the subject to his Political Studies students, he says that varied reactions surface first before the prejudices.
He says they were disgusted, angry, and shocked, and the prejudices surfaced late. According to him, that is how it naturally works. Those strong emotions usually lead to prejudice.
He also explains why most people stereotype Muslims after the Mamasapano tragedy. According to him, history plays a role when it comes to how people look at Muslims.
When something tragic happens involving Muslims, history seems to influence people’s opinions. They immediately connect what has happened to what is happening, and tend to put the blame on the Muslims. For example, the September 11, 2001 attacks may have reduced social acceptance of Muslims. This unpleasant historical information might have affected the way people view Muslims as a whole, even in the present time.
Mr. Coronel shares that the media has also played a great role in shaping people’s views about the issue.
“One thing about the media is what we call ‘agenda-setting’,” he mentioned. “Media can set the discourse of the society. Don’t underestimate the headlines, the way the news is packaged, the way the people are presented with numbers.”
He says that the way media recognizes only the forty-four officers who have died has effects on people’s perception about the incident. “What about the others? The civilians, the BIFFs? Why focus on the forty-four?” he said. “Media has a very critical, crucial role in setting the agenda.”
He also explains how media can frame the story to fit a mood. “The framing itself determines the story,” he said. “It’s not what happens but it is how we tell about what happens.”
He says that what people talk about are the things they heard from media and not the things that really happened during the Mamasapano Incident.
There might be other several reasons why people have the tendencies to prejudice others. Conflict-based arguments by Shelby Steele, for example, stated that minorities themselves encourage race consciousness to win great power and privileges. Because of their historical disadvantage, minorities claim that they are victims entitled to special consideration based on their race, beliefs or religion. According to Shelby, this might have short term gain, but this may cause strong reaction from other religions and others who oppose “special treatment” on the basis of religion or race.
With these influences and factors, are there ways, then, to prevent these stereotypes? Coronel said that dialogue is, indeed, very helpful.
“We have to sit down and look at each other in the eyes. Tell me what you think of me and I tell you what I think about you,” he states.
However, he clarifies that dialogue is easier said than done.
“When there’s so much anger that has been played on, by media for example, it’s too difficult to dialogue with the enemy, when many of the angers between us are really played on, manufactured, and manipulated even. So, the best way to end prejudices is to really seek a higher ground, I would say. A higher ground means that we need to elevate our consciousness of the problem, and we need to be careful about what we say because what we say constructs the others’ opinion,” Coronel says.
People need to be very responsible for statements that they claim. He says that ending prejudices requires very intelligent reflections and concrete action coming from those who are informed.
“This is a time that calls for people to seek deeply into their own understanding of the historical context, and for them to really share their opinions, and concretely, critically come up with feasible ways of understanding [each other],” he concludes.
What happened during the Mamasapano tragedy, then, is not only about whom we should point our fingers to, whom we should condemn, or whom we should salute. It is also about understanding each other—why Muslims are prejudiced, why people stereotype, and how to prevent all these—more than repeatedly pointing out each other’s mistakes.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” This is not only limited to skin colors. This can also be true for religions, beliefs, and traditions. If we look at a person through the content of his character and not his beliefs—if he’s a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim or even an atheist—then these prejudices, prejudgments which makes the whole problem even more complicated, could surely be avoided.
Perhaps, the saying “Birds of the same feather flock together” is not at all true, for they may fly together, but they might also have different ways of flying.