Will the Philippines ever become Islamic?

Philippines at a glance

“Land of contrasts” - many regions on earth claim this attribute. In Southeast Asia, the 7,107 islands named after the Spanish King Philip II undoubtedly deserve it. The linguistic and ethnic diversity in the population, made up of descendants of Malays, Chinese, Arabs, Indians, Japanese and Europeans, is evidence of an eventful past.

View of Dimakya Island in Northern Palawan

There is above all the colonial era, the longest that Europeans have ever imposed on a "discovered" people. "We spent over 300 years in the Spanish convent mief, we lived fifty years under the yoke of Hollywood ..." the writer Francisco Sionil José sums up the foreign determination of his homeland. With the wooden cross that the circumnavigator Magellan had planted for Spain's crown in the beach of the islet Limasawa in 1521, the foundation stone for the bastion of Christianity in the Far East was also laid. Of the current population of around 85 million in the Philippines, 83% are Roman Catholic and 9% Protestant. Even if they did not find gold and spice treasures in abundance, the Spaniards retained their overseas property, initially pursuing religious-political and strategic interests. However, commerce should not be neglected. For centuries, the lucrative trade between Southeast Asia, Latin America and the motherland ran via Manila and other Filipino ports. The galleons transported all sorts of treasures from China across the Pacific. The Spaniards paid for the porcelain and textile goods, among other things, with the silver that Indian and African slaves dug from American mines.

The Islamic princes, who had united a large part of the archipelago under the Koran and the crescent moon since the 12th century, were indomitable opponents of the Europeans from the beginning. All over the country today imposing church buildings and fortresses testify to the battles of the conquistadors and sieges by Muslim pirates. And the current events, especially in the south of the Philippines, show in a sad and bloody way that ideological wrangling and the urge to expand have not subsided on both sides.

Islands between East and West - this geopolitical and cultural constellation lastingly consolidated the colonial era under "Uncle Sam". In 1898, at the end of the Spanish-American War, the USA had taken over the now economically ailing Philippines. The renewal was interrupted by technical progress, liberalization, educational measures according to the “American way” including the preference for English as the lingua franca, which continues to this day, by the reckless occupying power of the Japanese. It was not until 1946 that the country, devastated during the war years, achieved its political independence. Economic upturn, but also ongoing paternalism by the USA, increasing corruption and crime accompanied the takeover of power by the Marcos Klan. Ferdinand and Imelda, the dictator couple who oppressed their people for 21 years, had to give way in 1986 to the “People Power” movement. Corazon Aquino appeared as a figure of light and was the first president to get people with a lot of charisma but little assertiveness in the mood for democratic conditions. Her successors Fidel Ramos, Joseph Estrada and the incumbent President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo also failed to alleviate the main problems in the state and society: corruption, social injustice and the spiral of violence in the south of the country, where Muslim separatists are still demanding autonomy.

Rice terraces at Banawe, Northern Luzon

The image of the Philippines is also shaped by the geographical and climatic conditions. In terms of contrasts, versatility and drama, they are not inferior to historical developments. Beach idyll on palm-fringed islands, majestic mountains up to almost 3000 m high, colorful, shimmering coral gardens, lush fields, unique rice terraces, dense rainforests. But also devastation caused by typhoons, volcanoes, earthquakes, droughts and erosion damage that cause deforestation and slash and burn, mountains of rubbish and slums, clouds of exhaust gas over the big cities.

Nature is not stingy with superlatives. The Mindanao Trench runs in the southeast of the archipelago, with the Galathea Abyss (10540m), one of the deepest points in the world's oceans. Nowhere is the species richness of molluscs and molluscs as great as in Philippine waters. The Filipino eagle, the second largest bird of prey, hovers in the air over Mindanao. Among all insect species, the ghost locust with a length of 30 cm takes first place. The sinarapan, the tiniest food fish on earth, lives in some inland lakes. The hare-sized mouse deer on the island of Palawan is considered to be the smallest deer species, a dwarf among the half-apes is the tarsier (Tarsius), which lives on Bohol and Mindanao.

The islands lie like a dismembered bridge between Taiwan in the north and Indonesia in the south. It was created by volcanism, tectonic uplifts and subsidence, and melting ice age glaciers. The northern main island of Luzon forms the largest chunk. Culturally and scenically very varied, it is the economic backbone of the country. Here Manila dominates as a political and economic hub, a magnet for people from all parts of the country. Cursed and praised, the pit of sin and Moloch, with slums and venerable churches, seat of several universities and stronghold of a lively nightlife. Manila - gateway to the world - the capital with around 12 million inhabitants is a challenge.

In the west it reaches its natural limit on the South China Sea, where in 1571 the conqueror Legaspi had his defensive settlement built on the palisade fortress May Nilad of Raja Sulayman, which he destroyed. With the strategic advantage of a protected natural harbor, the Manileños often had to defend themselves against Muslims and European adversaries, but they also endured numerous typhoons, earthquakes and conflagrations and the heavy bombardments of World War II. Today Manila continues to grow into the fertile plains of central Luzon.

For most travelers, the mega city is hardly worth more than three days, as they are drawn to the tranquility and originality of the province. But Manila is not only exhausting, but because of its abundance of contrasts, it offers an instructive insight into the culture, history and present-day events of the island kingdom. Intramuros, the core city surrounded by partially restored ramparts with Fort Santiago, Manila Cathedral, San Agustin Convent Church, the oldest church in the city, invites you to take a tour through history. You can breathe bygone times in the lovingly tended buildings of the colonial quarter Barrio San Luis and in the Casa Manila Museum.
The Luneta Park, a place for concerts and Sunday promenade, stretches near the old town. It is framed by powerful neo-classical buildings, including the National Museum. A tall obelisk reminds us that the writer and doctor José Rizal, pioneer of liberation from the colonial yoke, was executed here in 1896 by Spanish soldiers.
The Makati business and banking district can be reached via the prestigious multi-lane street Roxas Boulevard, which is upgraded by the luxury hotels and the Cultural Center of the Philippines. In the midst of the skyscraper canyons and glittering shopping malls, the Ayala Museum presents its valuable collections on art, history and ethnography.

North of the Pasig River, the bustling Chinatown with its numerous shops and restaurants, the Buddhist Seng Guan Temple and the curious Chinese Cemetery draws attention to the vital role of this population group. A good overview of the cultural and topographical diversity of the Philippines is provided by the Nayong Pilipino Complex in the Pasig district, where landscapes and house shapes are reproduced in an open-air area near the international airport, partly in miniature imitations.
If you want to know how the jeepneys are made, it is best to squeeze into such a trendy vehicle and let yourself be driven to Las Piñas. There the vehicles of unshakable joie de vivre and landmarks of the country are built by hand. This southernmost suburb of Manila also offers a musical sensation: The San José Church has had the only bamboo organ in the world since 1824. A highlight of the geological species is very close in Batangas Province. The Taal, one of the smallest, most active volcanoes on earth, rises almost 400 m above sea level in the exciting change of landscape between water and land.

The world-famous rice terraces climb high up on the mountain slopes in the north of Luzon. After a dizzying journey via the spa town of Baguio, the small trading town of Bontoc is reached. The rice, which is a gift from the gods for the traditional mountain tribes, grows on laboriously laid out stepped fields. The Ifugao, who live further north, also call their terraces "Steps to Heaven", which, like their ancestors, have been building over gorges and rivers for over 2000 years despite earthquakes and hurricanes. They are exposed to the greatest threat nowadays: dam projects, rural exodus of the young generation and tourists who inadvertently climb the retaining walls made of stone and clay make people fear for the “eighth wonder of the world” and a UNESCO protected area.

Mayon means “the beautiful” in the local language Bikolano and is the name of the mighty and, with all its aesthetic cone shape, very dangerous volcano. It is undisputedly the geographical attraction in the south of Luzon, a region that captivates above all with its graceful agricultural landscape, coastline rich in bays and offshore islands such as Pagbilao and Catanduanes.

The parts of the country between Luzon and Mindanao take up about half of the Philippine archipelago. Mindoro is the name of one of the better-known islands, it forms a separate region with Romblon. Your northern port town of Puerto Galera, which used to offer safe protection for Spanish merchant ships, stands for beaches, diving and relaxation in practical proximity to Manila. The interior of the island is home to the various Mangyan ethnic groups, members of around 70 cultural groups in the country.

Around a quarter of the total population lives on the Visayas. Their cheerful nature is the best prerequisite for the numerous turbulent and colorful fiestas such as the Ati Atihan festival on Panay, the Mascara festival in Bacolod on Negros or the exuberant hustle and bustle of the Sinulug of the Cebuanos. The Visayas always have scenic advantages. Fantastic beaches, diving and sailing areas, but also adventurous paths through the interior of the islands, where niches of dense rainforest have survived in places. The Chocolate Hills on Bohol, the Sohoton National Park on Samar, the ascent of the Kanlaon volcano, which rises as the 2465 m high "roof of the Visayas" over the sugar cane fields on the island of Negros, holiday centers such as the islet Boracay in the north of Panay and the numerous beach facilities on Cebu have been attracting international tourism for many years. Cebu City, the third largest city in the country with almost 800,000 inhabitants, was founded as the first Spanish settlement in 1565 and is proud to have the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño, the oldest church in the Philippines. Not to be forgotten are the architectural sights on the other Visayas islands in the form of colonial residences, watchtowers, fortifications and venerable places of worship, whose massive, protective building style was known as "earthquake baroque". Today, the Church of Santo Tomás de Villanueva in Miagao on Panay, together with the San Agustin Convent in Manila and two other churches in northern Luzon, are under the protection of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The large island of Mindanao spreads out in the south like a counterweight to Luzon. Several mountain ranges stretch from north to south, crowned by Mount Apo, the highest peak in the Philippines at 2965 m. Mighty rivers gave the island its name Maguindanao ("flooded land"). Rich in hydropower, agricultural and tourist potential, the development on Mindanao is still hampered by the ongoing domestic political uncertainty. That is why visitors can only travel to the culturally diverse island from a few centers.

It is completely peaceful on the island of Camiguin off the north coast. In addition to seven volcanoes, including three active, numerous waterfalls and healing springs, a cemetery sunk in the sea and clean beaches, you can especially enjoy the proverbial friendliness of the residents. The Maharlika Highway leads to the city of Butuan via Surigao in northeast Mindanao. Important pre-Hispanic boat finds were made here. Further south on the Davao Gulf, Davao City extends to 2,440 square kilometers, one of the largest cities in the world in terms of area. The metropolis of the South Island now has a population of almost one million. It is, near the Celebes Sea, a true hub between the Philippines, Indonesia and the rest of the world. In particular, the fruits of the huge banana and pineapple plantations in Mindanao are shipped all over the world from here. Visitors will find beautiful beaches on the offshore islands of Samal and Talikud.

Islam found its way into the Philippines via the Sulu Archipelago in southwest Mindanao. Most Filipino Muslims now live on islands such as Jolo, Tawi Tawi and around the university town of Marawi on Lake Lanao in the north. As the interface between Orient and Occident, Zamboanga is shaped by Islam and Christianity. For some years now, the violent conflicts have regrettably increased again, so that the residents of the "City of Flowers", which is picturesquely situated on the Sulu Sea, are once again shaken in their hope for lasting peace.

With a jeepney on the way to Palawan

Palawan, the largest province in the Philippines, stretches 650 km from around 1770 islands between Mindoro and Borneo. The main island of the same name, a landworm over 400 km long, separates the South China Sea from the Sulu Sea. "Cradle of the first Filipinos" and for a long time a bridgehead for numerous migrations and a trading base in the region, Palawan is still a destination for pioneers and new settlers, and at the same time an Eldorado for nature lovers. Rare plants and animals, but also shy semi-nomad groups like the Batak, are at home in the dense rainforest. Of the 1000 animal species known nationwide, over 230 species occur exclusively on Palawan, including pangolin, bear-cat, monitor lizard and hornbill. Hidden, pristine beaches line the coast, some of the world's best diving sites such as those in the northern archipelago near El Nido, the Calamianas and the Tubbataha Reef to the east present a fascinating underwater world. In St.Paul Subterranean National Park, a geological highlight awaits adventurous travelers.

The mayor of the provincial capital, Puerto Princesa, has lived up to its name for years: in an exemplary, albeit strict manner, he implements environmental awareness that is intended to benefit the entire region. Here, and especially with the hospitable inhabitants of the fishing villages, the Philippines show their unadulterated, amiable side.

Albrecht G. Schaefer

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