Diversity, Pluralism, and the Politics of self-determination: Prospects for Southeast Asian Ethnic and Religious minorities

Diversity, Pluralism, and the Politics of self-determination: Prospects for Southeast Asian Ethnic and Religious minorities

Mucha Shim Quiling Arquiza[1]
Lumah Ma Dilaut Center for Living Traditions

Interrogating Cultural Diversity, Pluralism and Multiculturalism

In the current search for appropriate alternatives, post-modernist frameworks much lauded and celebrated by academics, development experts and of mostly ‘class-repugnant’ upper and middle-class elite activists have been banking in the much valorized and glorified ideologies of cultural diversity, pluralism and multiculturalism as the panaceas of the new millenium. Arguably, even these so-called ‘third ways’ out of authoritarian Marxism (i.e. Stalinism) and hegemonic capitalism (i.e. totalization and individualization of neo-capitalism) however must be held suspect and interrogated, as it could fall short of its promises. When operant in extremely functionalist-utilitarian economic mode of neoliberalism that is still replete with chauvinism and patronizing attitude towards indigenous culture and compounded by its debasing regard for marginalized peoples’ life as cheap commodities disposable and marketable; this stunted view of ‘pluralism’, ‘diversity’ and ‘multiculturalism’ could thrive only within the delusions of free market where only those cultures and identities who could sell the most could survive as the fittest.
As sociological concept, pluralism has been developed as counterpoint to both extremes of essentialism and hegemonism, and as an antidote to the dangerous tendencies of reductionism and absolutism. Theoretically, the idea of pluralism is to be a middle ground, and it should be desirable as its consequence is tolerance and acceptance of diversity, which are essential steps towards cultural harmony and unity. When put into practice however, it is as problematic [i.e. as other opt-abused modern political notions such as democracy and civil society are] as it could manifest ambiguous tendencies that may render pluralism untenable as principle for dialogue and inter-cultural understanding.
Real life situation is not always the ideal assumptions as neatly laid out by theories. Neither by constructs of sociology nor anthropology could we be assured that people and their habitus and culture are pliant, rational, and uncomplicated categorizable objects and phenomenon. To the contrary, real life is fraught with mysteries and double-meanings embroiled within the complexities of politics and is nothing but tensions of power relationships, where, according to the monist thoughts of Deleuze and Guattari [2] ‘life’ has no primary forms or identities but is a perpetual process of configuration and variation, where politics is an art of composition, an art that affirms the variation and creation of life “, hence, “politics precedes being”, that is, politics is immanent and primordial before selfhood and identities.
The first point of ambiguity in pluralism is rhetorical. Pluralism has a power-context. It is a privilege of the dominant center and of majority. It must be stressed that dominance is both psychical and physical dispositions where I differentiate psychical dominance as denoting socio-cultural centrality from physical [i.e. economic] dominance as numerical or economic power of majority. In both instances, dominance invests the ‘major’ group a status of political majority .
Oftentimes, dominance of number also begets cultural centrality, but this is not always dialectical, as there are numerically minor groups that maintain historically-inherited or assert recently-configured cultural dominance. This is the case where small groups could effectively exercise political dominance even over a bigger group because culturally [i.e.socio-psychically] they belong to or are more similar to the numerically dominant group, hence, also become the politically mainstream. A classic example is that of religious extremist groups who, although few and inferior in number, may be able to exercise dominance and assume greater political clout because they are conferred, at least socio-psychically, with a certain ‘legitimacy’ while sharing commonality with the status quo or prevailing majority culture and politics than other groups who may be bigger in population but are greatly dispersed and socio-psychically marginal. To render this illustration more bluntly, one could take the various cases of small pockets of religious extremists such as the Abu Sayaf Group, Hizbut Tahrir or the Jemaat Islamiyah in Muslim societies in Southeast Asia. Their psychical blanket of legitimacy is drawn from the fact that they are identified as ‘Muslim’ and belonging to a ‘majority’ (meaning, universally-classified Muslim) cultural group. This status-conferment is compounded and perpetuated by the mere exercise of indifference of majority non-political (and apolitical) Muslims that regrettably happens to be the mainstream majority whose passive attitude renders its majority voice ‘mute’, thereby ‘coop-ted’ or ‘colluded’ into the extremists’ loud and angry politics, providing the latter a certain kind of coddle or ‘protection’, hence conferring it ‘sociopsychical legitimacy’. And so even as there are occasional oppositions from Muslims against extremists’ intolerance and luke-warm denunciations of attacks and targetings of minorities [i.e. Christians and atheists], these oppositional voices become ‘minority’ voices seeming muted and silenced as off-stream, thus a shroud of impunity vests untouchability to extremists and perpetuates extremism.
On the other hand, minor populations of religionists, atheists, ethnically marginal groups, who are numerically inferior and culturally peripheral, are also socio-psychically minorities on account of their political marginality. They are presumably the one who is the object of toleration and acceptance, yet can never invoke the same pluralism and be privileged to exercise tolerance of majority and mainstream, simply because, that does not make sense where in the first place the power of choice is not their’s ‘to be tolerant’, when they themselves are the direct object of toleration. In grammatical logic, they are the ‘receiver’ of action and can not be the ‘doer’. Hence, minority-majority status conferment and its perpetuation is a socio-political categorization that renders pluralism as mere rhetoric. A dialogue between ‘un-equals’ that effectively immobilizes and cancels-out active mutual exchanges between conversants, also renders the other party (read as: minority), passive and disempowered.
The second manifestation of its ambiguity is in the practical governmental function of pluralism. Respect for diversity and pluralism have been conceptualized and attempted to be useful concept for governing [i.e. managing and controlling] people by a State or governmental and civil society institutions who envision inclusion, participation and integration as desirable end of society. Notable, however, is the notion of ‘inclusion, participation and integration’ as power-loaded and as defined according to position and role in a power-relationship. A patron-client relationship is implied, where power-relations hinges on the benevolence of one party, as the ‘beholder’ of power, and of begging, on the part of ‘recipient’ of favor.
Moreover pluralism as an ideology for integration and mainstreaming can be manipulated as technology of control and normalization akin to Foucauldian political technology of biopolitics[3]. In the framework of State program of managing and controlling population and citizens, integration and mainstreaming is based on the assumption of the value and desirability of belonging [i.e. as population and as citizenship] as a natural process of normalization. In a peaceful and orderly society, social organization is desirable. Belonging to a particular social category is deemed the standard to be ‘normal’. To belong to a group and be normal, population or citizens are required, first, of visibility or recognizability under the banner of a clear identity. Corollary to this requisite is the ability of having attributes; and thirdly, that these attributes can be clearly categorized. Accordingly, being un-nameable is to be unclassified and unstable category, thus, un-integrate-able and non-mainstream-able. What can not be integrated and mainstreamed is by the same token deviant, anomalous, and abnormal. Multiplicity and fluidity of identity, for example is one such abnormality[4]. Paradoxically, in every project that purports to respect diversity and plurality, what is in fact sought at is supposed individuality in a totalitarian sense of normality from the perspective of majority and order from the interest of where power to define ‘order’ emanates. Despite all sincere intentions, advocates of pluralism thereby, wittingly or unwittingly, forces the ‘multiple’ and ‘multitude’ [5] to gather itself into one; and, for the unnamable to name itself. Here is where pluralism becomes a tool of coercion and may be abused concept by the majority, whom as I mentioned earlier has the privilege of deploying its utility to advance the interest of politics of majority.
The place and role of religion: ‘normal’ and ‘mainstream’ as sacred order?
But what about the ‘uncategorized’ minor ‘religions’? Where do they fit into the frame? Minor systems of beliefs and spirituality, first of all, should be able to pass the hurdle of conceptual definition, that is, they first must name themselves and be classifiable as ‘religion’. Secondly and thirdly, they must be able to enumerate their attributes according to laid-out system of categorization that institutionalized religions have clearly cut-out and well-defined as the dogma, rituals and institutional structures. So to qualify and be ‘privileged’ object of this pluralism, what the ideology of pluralism and the proposed standard of diversity actually wants to promote is for the various indigenous ethnic and culturally-defined and similar systems of beliefs and spiritualities who have been existing since time immemorial, even pre-dating mainstream and organized religions, as autonomous multitude of unnamable traditions, to be reduced, essentialized and themselves identified as ‘religions-of-sort’ and at the same time to be generalized/universalized enough as to be capable of being taxonomized according to the defined parameters of institutionalized religions such as Islam, Christianity, etcetera.
In the final analysis so-called pluralism subverts its very own intention as an alternative paradigm to reductionism and absolutism. Being such, one of its most hardly-hit victims of religious intolerance and extremisms has been those so-called subaltern communities and peoples living in the margins, i.e. ethnic and religious minorities, who defy identification, categorization, and standardization and institutionalization. One such stark examples are the widely dispersed and highly mobile group of sea nomads and varied-ly hybridized multi-cultural communities of Sama Dilaut navigating the turbulent political seas of Southeast Asia.
Sama Dilaut diaspora: marginalization and abnormalization through trade, war, and god
The Sama Dilaut, known generically in Southeast Asia as Bajau or Bajo, have been traditionally plying the Sulu-Sulawesi-Bornean waters. Where the Orang Bajo of Sulawesi and Borneo are noted to have been fully integrated into Islamic communities and, mostly having managed to move upstairs socially,some communities now lead affluent lives, meanwhile, those in the Philippine seas remain to be the most marginalized and the least profited from agricultural and industrial economy because of their wide dispersal and nomadic existence. By their traditional dwelling in Sulu seas, the Sama Dilaut have been ethnographically classified as belonging to the thirteen [13] mostly Islamized ethnolinguistic groupings collectively referred to as the Bangsamoro people.
The Sama Dilaut’s variant of Islam may be tentatively described as syncretic, often considered by prejudiced members among mainstream Muslims today as ‘pagan’ and ‘unislamic’ owing to a highly hybridized admixture of indigenous monistic and pantheistic belief and ritual systems and extant forms of Indo-Malayu mysticism. A less ‘religious’-ly passionate viewer, however, would probably be more appreciative of the Sama Dilaut as an epitome of multi-religious followership, in their practice a curious type of ‘multiple religions’ for the same pragmatic reason as other religious minorities elsewhere in Southeast Asia have re-coursed to as cultural adaptive mechanism exigent to economic and social survival.
Subgroups of Sama Dilaut are oriented to specific sea-centered locus, although not so much diversified in ethnic and material culture, geographic specificity render some variations to their cultural and religious practices. In recent times of conflict, an increasing number of Sama Dilaut have been forced to abandon their traditional nomadic lifestyle to adventure into dry land where, living in lahat hangkut (i.e. resettlement or hamlet villages) they are converted to the mag-sandes (i.e. ‘Sundays’) by protestant evangelical sects or born-again Christians groups that have been actively proselytizing among Mindanao-Sulu indigenous populations. To convert, they are offered handsome incentives such as free housing, cash capital to start-up a livelihood, schooling for the children.
During intermittent and protracted civil wars, indigenous populations are periodically hamletted into lahat hangkut where, forcibly evacuated and relocated en-masse, ethnically-formed kampongs (traditional villages and clan-based communities) are displaced and ties severely disintegrated. As conflict situations aggravate, socially fragile and nomadic societies like the Sama Dilaut are furthered into the fringes at the same time also sedentarized into newish villages where they are not only dismembered from familiar kin-groups but are also forced into sharing fences with traditionally feuding clans or ‘tribal enemies’ and other dreaded ethnic groupings.
It could also be that the population of warring ethnic groupings, who are often more dominant and aggressive are indiscriminately relocated into traditional settlements of nomadic Sama Dilaut, there, makeshift structures give way to more permanent ones, and subsistence fishing is replaced by more rigorous market-based livelihood and the demands of more permanent and seasonal agriculture dictates and moulds a new lifestyle shaping-up a new culture that rules as standard, usually in the form of mainstreaming of purist Muslim practices. External symbols of being devout Muslim in dress and day-to-day rituals also become the signature for the modern and elite who have the opportunities to attend school, go on pilgrimage to Arabia or to engage in leisurely tourism. Since religion and sociopolitical affinity become major bases for communal cohesiveness, consequently, religious intolerance and socio-cultural chauvinism arise, resulting to more and more Sama Dilaut choosing to leave their flotilla-houses and fleeing to lahat bisaya (i.e. Christian land) and there get converted to other faiths.
Nationalism and Struggle for Self-determination: Perpetual deferment of self-determination for ‘minorities within minorities’
Many political observers agree that Sama Dilaut may not have any stake in the present contentious Bangsamoro idenitity politics[6] that has been much focused on homogenizing claims for one-Bangsa and, lately, of advancing aspirations of purist Muslim identities and struggle for nation[state]hood that has seems more and more morphing into an exclusivist politics of claiming and securing power-hold for the politically dominant and economically elite Bangsamoro Muslims. This has successfully obscured and unwittingly trivialized more urgent and crucial issues facing both minoritized and mainstreamed ethnic communities – the challenges or threats of socio-political homogenization and economic liberalization as the new world order propelled by proponents of free-trade and open market.
Yet, time and again, realities among indigenous, minority religious and marginal groups have been negating exclusively nationalistic imperatives as, in many instances of failed peace settlements and in the haste to conquer power and to turn the table against alleged oppressors and colonizers, growing political extremisms and cultural and religious intolerance among mainstream and purist Muslims have become ugly fall-outs of an armed resistance derailed away from principled activism, and a wayward ideology cannibalizing on its own faithful.
Patronizing development projects
Meanwhile, government development projects with patronizing intentions such as Ahon Badjao (fish-out the Bajau) and LIPI (i.e. ‘lifting indigenous people from indignity’) -where, ironically, Lipi, literally translates as ‘race’, perhaps a Freudian slip, subliming its racist intent – not only reinforce denigrated images of indigenous and traditional communities but also construct new self-images tailored to fit a globally-acceptable commercialized values of modern and good life. Images of a liberal individual is an “accomplished and self-made” social entrepreneur who is freed from the immobilizing roots of culture and tradition, endowed with a completely secularized conscience, cleared of social accountabilities and immuned from retributive justice of fate and devoid of faith in the sacred and the divine. The millennium individual is a “universal soldier” unencumbered by any contract of communal loyalty.
Ironically, as Sather (in Bottignolo 1995: vi-vii) rightly pointed out ages ago, religion has always appeared to be important and powerful element in the construction of a new image, as he observed: “part of their [Sama Dilaut] denigration has traditionally been framed in religious terms. Hence, neighboring groups have typically viewed them as a people ‘without religion’(halam ugama)”. [7]
Arquiza, M. Knowledge and Power in Bangsamoro Identity Politics: Intersectionality of ethnicity, religion, gender and kinship as determinants of identity (A KonsultMindanaw policy brief). Davao City, Philippines: CBCP, 2009
Bottignolo, Bruno. Celebrations With the Sun: An Overview of Religious Phenomena Among the Badjaos. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila Univesity Press, 1995.
Deleuze and Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. University of Minnesota Press. 1987
Lemke, Thomas. The Birth of Biopolitics: Michel Foucault’s lecture at the College de France on neo-liberal governmentality’ in Economy and Society Vol.30 Number 2. May 2001: 190-207.
WCAR 2001 Declaration of Asia-Pacific NGO Forum
[1] Born in Laminusa island, Sulu, Philippines, the presenter is an ethnic Sama and is founding directress of the Lumah Ma Dilaut School for Living Traditions. A UN lobbyist, she has attended and spoken at the UN Working Group meetings on Minority issues (now UN Forum on Minorities) in Geneva, Switzerland championing the issues of nomadic and pastoralist communities, indigenous/ethnic and religious minorities in diaspora; and interrogating the appropriateness of mainstream development paradigms and human rights discourses and frameworks. She is a community organizer and cultural worker advocating for culturally-appropriate and liberating values-based education. She holds a Master’s degree in Communications, from the Ateneo de Manila University, Philippines, and currently working on a PhD in interreligious studies at Gajah Madah University, Indonesia.
[2] Deleuze and Guattari . A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia
University of Minnesota Press. 1987
[3] Thomas Lemke. 2001. The Birth of Biopolitics…
[4] I find the discussions of Michel Foucault’s critic of conventional psychotherapy of schizophrenia and Delueze and Guattari’s assertion of multiple personality/identities as social un-disorder as very interesting discourses on this
[5] Deleuze and Guattari. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus:Capitalism and Schizophrenia.
[6] Arquiza, M. Knowledge and Power in Bangsamoro Identity Politics: Intersectionality of ethnicity, religion, gender and kinship as determinants of identity (A KonsultMindanaw policy brief). Davao City, Philippines: CBCP, 2009.
[7] Bottignolo, Bruno. Celebrations With the Sun: An Overview of Religious Phenomena Among the Badjaos. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila Univesity Press, 1995.


About Mucha Q. Arquiza
Supports the preservation and promotion of indigenous knowledge systems

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