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Why the Battle of Marawi is Important

From the outcome of the siege of the city we will understand which form Isis will take in Southeast Asia and beyond

Sebastiano D’Ambra | 07 September 2017
More than 200,000 residents have fled Marawi as fighting continues

The conflict in Marawi began on May 23rd. More than three months have passed and it is still difficult to understand how it will end. It did not happen all of a sudden: the signs of what would have happened had been there for a while. Unfortunately, the government had underestimated the situation on the one hand and, on the other hand, it had claimed that everything was under control.

In the Philippines, in recent years, the influence of international movements has grown, starting with the Indonesian Jamaa Islamiyya, whose presence has been the most outstanding. The projects funded by Saudi Arabia in the southern island of Mindanao, of which Marawi is the capital, and more recently those supported by the Shiites in Iran have increased. The Islamic State officially arrived there in 2014 (local groups pledged allegiance to the “caliph”, Ed). What is happening today on a larger scale in the Middle East is also starting to happen in this corner of the world.

Thus, the Marawi attack in May was not a surprise. When the military intervened, the armed men linked to Isis first destroyed and burned several buildings including a college and a hospital. The militiamen were already in the city and it seems that in some mosques and other building they had built underground galleries and weapons depots. The Cathedral of Marawi was destroyed and its sacred images were smashed, proving that the Islamic State acts here in the same spirit as in other parts of the world: its ideology instills hatred and creates separation between Christians and Muslims while also targeting moderate Muslims of the region. And at the end of this ugly story, Muslims in Marawi will rediscover that alongside an Islam of dialogue there is also a dangerous current of Islam.

The city of Marawi is still under siege and, according to UN data in the region, there are more than 200,000 displaced, 80 percent of whom are Muslims, 20 percent Christians. However, it is difficult to understand what the real numbers are because residents of this province prefer to find hospitality in the homes of extended families rather than stay in refugee camps.
A few-dozen armed men of the Islamic State, who use trapped civilians as human shields, remain in the nearly-destroyed city. The Philippine army spoke of about 500 jihadists killed, 100 dead soldiers, and about 50 victims among civilians. On the front line there are the armed men of the Maute group, a clan of the area which supported and facilitated the arrival and establishment of the Islamic State in the region, pledging allegiance to Isis in 2014, along with the well-known Filipino movement Abu Sayyaf.

The Maranaos - the tribes that populate the Midanao region - are a resourceful people, they are the merchants of the Philippines, and there are those who joke and compare them to the Chinese, since one can find them with their goods in every market of the archipelago. In recent years, they have been influenced by different forms of Islamic fundamentalism and by the arrival of Saudi wahhabism. Marawi is the Islamic city par excellence in the Philippines: 98 percent of the population is Muslim, and the armed groups currently operating in the area want to impose a “caliphate” here, and then expand elsewhere. The army revealed that they had found Malaysian and Indonesian (and also Saudi, Ed) fighters among the dead, but the government had underestimated for months what was happening here.

President Rodrigo Duterte extended the martial law. Local bishops were opposed: it would be a mistake to keep it everywhere, it would be enough to impose it in certain restricted areas. In some ways, the government would give a signal of hope. Otherwise, the population would understand that the situation remains difficult and this would also have a negative impact on the flourishing local business.

The government must somehow win this battle, otherwise the consequences will extend to an international scale: the message would be that Islamic State cannot be defeated. Regaining the city of Marawi would be crucial for the government’s image, though we must be aware that the roots of Isis are there and will continue to be there, even after the siege.

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