The Philippines’ top military official said he told Muslim leaders in Manila on Monday that some violent extremist elements were seeking to infiltrate Islamic schools to spread their ideology, but the schools themselves don’t radicalize.
Armed Forces chief Gen. Gilbert Gapay was meeting with 20 Muslim leaders after strong criticism of his statement earlier this month that some southern Philippine Islamic schools are among those institutions where recruitment into extremist organizations is taking place.
“I never said that madaris are spreading radicalization or sowing terrorism among its students because I believe that Islam is a religious that espouses peace,” Gapay said he told the leaders, referring to the Philippine term for madrassas, or Islamic schools.
“What I meant to say was, there are unscrupulous individuals wanting to infiltrate schools to do just that – spread hate and plant the seeds of terrorism.”
Gapay said he and the Muslim leaders discussed measures to protect Islamic schools from “terrorist exploitation.”
In a statement after the meeting, Grand Mufti Dr. Al-Sheick Abdeljabar Macarimbor, of the Filipino-Arab Alliance, said the talks with Gapay were a good beginning.
“We are happy that this meeting is a promising start to have a more lasting partnership with the AFP to further improve our Madaris and sustain this as a pillar and institution of peace,” Macarimbor said in a statement.
“Everything happens for a reason and that this may be Allah’s way for the government to further look into and act on the many challenges of the madaris throughout the country.”
On Oct. 13, Gapay said that as part of preventing violent extremism, the armed forces were working with education officials to “look into” various schools where recruitment was taking place.
“We are now strengthening and enhancing our program as far as prevention when encountering violent extremism. We are coordinating now with the Department of Education, looking into different schools, particularly in Sulu and other parts of Mindanao,” Gapay had said, referring to largely Muslim parts of the southern Philippines, at an online forum with foreign journalists.
“This is one of the institutions or areas where recruitment is occurring particularly (among) youths,” he had said.
Days later, the Philippines’ largest Muslim religious organization and other community leaders took the military chief to task for his comments and said madrassas are not used for recruitment.
“It’s wrong to say that madrassas are being used for terror groups’ recruitment. I am a product of madrassas and extremism was not taught to us,” Ebrahim Ismael, board member of the National Ulema Conference of the Philippines, an organization representing Islamic scholars, told BenarNews on Oct. 19.
“Maybe the militants operate their own Islamic school, but in general Islamic schools are not used for recruitment,” Ismael added.
The Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country that three years ago defeated Islamic State-linked militants who had occupied the southern city of Marawi.
On Monday, Gapay said the meeting was a “great opportunity for an extensive dialogue” to boost efforts at combating terrorism. He also said the dialogue with Muslim leaders was just an initial meeting, and that there would be continuing interactions with them.
“As mandated defenders of the peace and security of our land, we in the AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] remain staunch in intensifying our peace and security operations to slowly but surely reach our goal of uprooting the source of manpower, firepower, and finances of these local terrorist groups that have been disrupting the peaceful living of our citizens,” Gapay said he told the Muslim leaders.