Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghan, Philippine Activists Find Common Ground

Experts from seemingly dissimilar countries exchange ideas about how societies can move on from conflict.
By IWPR Afghanistan
  • Afghan participants at a September 3 video conference with fellow-peacebuilders from the Philippines. (Photo: IWPR)
    Afghan participants at a September 3 video conference with fellow-peacebuilders from the Philippines. (Photo: IWPR)
  • Leading activists from the Philippines talk about their experience of working towards reconciliation in conflict-torn Muslim parts of the country. (Photo: IWPR)
    Leading activists from the Philippines talk about their experience of working towards reconciliation in conflict-torn Muslim parts of the country. (Photo: IWPR)
  • Afghan participants at a September 3 video conference with fellow-peacebuilders from the Philippines. (Photo: IWPR)
    Afghan participants at a September 3 video conference with fellow-peacebuilders from the Philippines. (Photo: IWPR)
  • Afghan participants at a September 3 video conference with fellow-peacebuilders from the Philippines. (Photo: IWPR)
    Afghan participants at a September 3 video conference with fellow-peacebuilders from the Philippines. (Photo: IWPR)

Human rights defenders and peacebuilders from Afghanistan and the Philippines met via video link last week to discuss how grassroots efforts were contributing to peace in the contexts of their respective societies.

A unique debate facilitated by IWPR on September 3 brought together activists from six Afghan civil society organisations and the heads of three Philippine peacebuilding groups. The event was also attended by a small audience of young people at IWPR’s Kabul office.

“This event was designed to allow Afghan civil-society and peace activists to learn best practices from their peers in the Philippines,” said IWPR country director Noorrahman Rahmani. “The approaches the peace activists have been using there are applicable in the Afghan context. For instance, the Philippines panelists stressed peace education, particularly among children, and working with religious scholars and leaders.”

The Philippines has suffered various kinds of instability over the years, but last week’s discussion focused on the long-running insurgency in the Muslim south of the country. Peace processes and the autonomy granted to the Mindanao region have restored a measure of calm, although government troops continue to battle Islamic insurgents in some areas, including splinter groups linked to al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah.

In Afghanistan, the Taleban and allied groups hold down territory in many parts of the country and pose a military threat to the armed forces and civilians alike. A stop-start peace process takes the shape of tentative contacts plus a government drive to win over some of the militants.

In their discussions, the Philippine and Afghan participants identified many issues that applied to both situations, in terms of moving on from conflict to building stability.

“For us, peace now means how to deliver services equally to all, how to fulfill our children's dreams, and how to ensure that people can obtain all their rights,” said Amina Rasul, head of the Philippine Council for Islam and Development.

Rasul stressed the importance of educating the public – young people in particular – of the need for peace, and of including religious leaders in these efforts.

“We use imams in cities and the villages,” Rasul explained. “Another effective method is that we select a role model from among the public. We conduct capacity building, and prepare the ground for this role-model to be able to influence others. We also recruit more elite parts of society to help.”

Sahar Lewal, a correspondent for RFE/RL in Afghanistan, asked what role civil society institutions had played in peacebuilding in the Philippines.

“We got more young people involved,” replied Bai Rohaniza Sumndad-Usman, founder of the Teach Peace, Build Peace Movement in the Philippines and head of the Young Moro Professionals’ Network. “We launched campaigns on the streets to prepare the ground.”

Rasul added that a “culture of peace” had to come from society itself.

“The core of peace is created in the minds of our children, right from the songs we sing for them. Children’s minds are moulded by the family,” she said.

Halim Hemat, from the Afghan Development Association, said this was important for Afghanistan, too.

“In order to create a culture of peace, it should be included in the school curriculum,” he said. “The importance of peace should be explained to the public. We need to work with key groups like mullahs and imams, tribal leaders, young people and women so that this can progress.”

Sadullah Fetrat, deputy director of the Mosbat-Badlun (Positive Change) NGO, said the Afghan state could not be entrusted with the entire peacebuilding project.

“The government does not have the political will to ensure peace or eliminate corruption. This is why the public has become disillusioned with this government, and it’s why young people join the insurgency.”

Rasul underlined the role that strong political leadership had played in bringing about reconciliation in the Philippines.

“The sides involved in the wars learned to trust each other. The government of the Philippines had the political will to achieve peace. Eventually, a sincere political resolve helped us get there,” she said.

The Philippine participants also talked about the struggle to overcome societal prejudice against the Muslim minority in their mainly Roman Catholic country.

Abdul Rahman Shahab, the director of the Afghanistan Centre for Training and Development, asked what approaches had worked in tackling this problem.

Rasul said that for two decades, she and her colleagues had worked to boost interfaith outreach and raise public awareness, as well as creating an Islamic educational module around peacebuilding.

“We gave lectures at universities to raise awareness amongst young people about political Islam, the hadith [sayings and deeds of the Prophet] and the Koran. We tell them that we also respect Mary and Jesus and so have this in common. This way, we have been able to some extent to get rid of ill-feeling towards Muslims,” she said.

Sumndad-Usman said social media had emerged as a useful tool.

“In order to build trust and to explain the real message and spirit of Islam to non-Muslim communities, we used social media. We provided valuable information about hijab [Islamic dress] and its advantages to such an extent that some institutions which were against hijab stopped opposing it,” she said.

Rasul agreed that Muslims faced prejudice in the Philippines, and said political representation rather than confrontation was the solution.

“We do not want confrontation, because both sides lose in this war. We seek other ways to achieve our aims,” she said. “We were deprived of our rights for several decades, which must be corrected. If the government of the Philippines creates a government, we must be part of it. They must not regard us as second-class or foreign citizens.”

Rahim Khurram is deputy director of the Liaison Office, an Afghan organisation active in peacebuilding, justice and livelihood issues in Afghanistan. He said there was plenty of food for thought despite the apparent dissimilarities between the two countries.

“Although there are many differences between Afghanistan and the Philippines, Afghans really need to learn from what they have done to ensure peace,” he said. “This has been a very interesting programme. They presented good ideas that are highly effective. I learned a lot from it.”

The debate was part of IWPR’s Afghan Reconciliation: Promoting Peace and Building Trust by Engaging Civil Society programme, designed to support peace efforts by building grassroots constituencies through open discussion and bridge-building, and by giving young people a strong sense of ownership of their own future.

IWPR in the Philippines selected panelists for this pioneering forum from the country’s leading peacebuilding groups. Their contribution adds to the IWPR’s continuing work on peacebuilding and education. Since 2007, we have worked with journalists, civil society groups, local government and scholars through projects that link peace to public transparency, accountability, citizen participation, rule of law, and human rights.

These activities have included training and debates designed to give people in predominantly Muslim provinces more of a voice in holding their leaders to account.

IWPR’s Philippines country director, Rorie Fajardo, said the video conference was “a unique space for peace advocates in Afghanistan to learn from their counterparts in the Philippines”.

“Both face a continuing struggle to achieve lasting peace and reconciliation in their own countries, so the online sharing and mentoring could not be more significant or timely,” she said. “The active participation of Muslim women in the Philippines in working for peace – as illustrated by the all-female panel at the video conference – may also offer inspiration to Afghanistan in giving women more of a role and voice in working for peace for their country.”

More IWPR's Global Voices

Afghanistan: Hothousing Farah's Economy
Hopes that new infrastructure could replace opium farming in the southern province.
Afghan Pomegranate Trade Bears Fruit
Landmark Exhibition Celebrates Afghan Heritage
Trinidad and Tobago: A Nation in the Closet
The country is one of seven Caribbean countries that criminalises same sex relationships.
Cuba at a Crossroads
Cold Welcome for Venezuelans in Trinidad