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Moros: Was America in their Hearts Too?

A short history on the Filipino Muslims of the southern Philippines with relation to their identity as Muslims, their identity as Filipino, and their desire to become American.

Their travel to the Philippines was a testament to the seafaring and adventurous characteristics that would become associated with Filipinos.

At the beginning of my Filipino-American History course we discussed the inhabitants of the Philippine islands in the time period surrounding the arrival of the Spanish. We discussed the level of cultural diversity found among the people of the islands and their small governing units. One of the major defining schisms of what would become the Filipino people was due to the major evangelical religious influences that came to the island; Islam and Christianity. As the class progressed we discussed the treatment that the Filipinos received from the Spanish, and then from American forces. We discussed the political bargaining and trickery towards the Christianized Filipinos and eventually the slaughter of many Filipinos on both sides of the religious line. We talked about the United States’s inability to quell rebellion ‘benevolently’ in the Muslim areas of the Philippines. And then we began discussing the colonial influence the United States had over the Philippines and the admiration of all things American by Filipinos. We went on to explore the migration of Filipinos, with America in their hearts, to the United States. I thought, “Could the Moros of the Philippines that had fought tooth and nail to keep out the Spanish and American invaders really have given in so fully as to want to become Americans themselves? Would they suffer the further injustices that Filipinos in America faced and remain resilient and loyal to America?” Was America in their hearts too?

To fully understand the reaction of Moros to the influence of Americans, one must first understand the identity of the people. Why were they called Moros? How did they become Moros? Some would say the better question is: How did they become Filipinos?

Islam Comes to the Philippines

Pre-Islamic influences arrived in the Philippines with the early settlers of the Jolo and Sulu regions. Many arrived from Java, Sumatra, and Malaysia (Rasul 2003). Their travel to the Philippines was a testament to the seafaring and adventurous characteristics that would become associated with Filipinos.

Eventually trade routes would bring influences from China and other surrounding Asian cultures to the maritime-centered communities of the Philippines. The Philippines is positioned so that any marine trade route through Southeast Asia would have to direct itself around the islands near one coast or another in order to reach the Pacific Ocean (United States. Bureau of Insular Affairs. 1902).

The early settlers of the Philippines brought with them, among other things, primitive religions, but in the early 14th Century that would begin to change. The history of Islam in the Philippines began around 1340 with the arrival of Tuan Masaika. He was a foreign Muslim that, upon settling in the Southern Philippines, married into a ruling family and began a dynasty (Rasul 2003).

The captain noted that the Muslim Filipinos were neat and cultured. He came across Sultan Israel and discovered that the Moros in Sulu at that time were fond of European music, especially the violin (Saleeby 1908).

The spread of Islam in the Philippines is attributed to a man called Karimul Maykdum. His arrival in 1380 marks the beginning of the evangelical practices of Islam in the Philippines. It is said that the natives of the island came to him, marking this as a period of mass conversion to Islam. He also built the first mosque in the Philippines. The evangelical spread of Islam in the Philippines would continue as Arab and Arab-descendent missionaries came to the islands. As a result of the varying influences that proximity to the trade route provided Filipinos, they had extensive knowledge of navigation, industry, commerce, government, and law before the Spaniards came into the picture (Rasul 2003).

In the eighteenth century, British Captain Thomas Forrest traveled through the Philippines in route to New Guinea (Saleeby 1908). Both Christian and Muslim influences had been permeating in the islands for centuries by this time. He recounted his impression of the Muslim Filipinos in Sulu, who were by this time, known as Moros. He rebuked them for the cruel treatment of their slaves, noting that a slave could be put to death for a small offense (Saleeby 1908), but he also made some observations that were quite contrary to the Spanish propaganda against the Moros. The captain noted that the Muslim Filipinos were neat and cultured. He came across Sultan Israel and discovered that the Moros in Sulu at that time were fond of European music, especially the violin (Saleeby 1908). This of course was never the picture of Muslim Filipinos painted by the Christian Spaniards that now dominated the majority of the Philippines.

Arrival of Christianity to the Philippines

The arrival of Christianity in the Philippines was synonymous with the imposition of Spanish dominion over the Philippines. The arrival of Magellan in the 16th century opened the flood gates through which other Spanish, traders and missionaries, would enter the Philippines (Bjora-Mamaril and Mamaril 2000).

The Spanish aspired to have complete control over the Philippines, because this would mean complete control over their new found trade route and the traffic therein. They sought to obtain control by ruling the Filipinos in a church-state fashion. There was only one hitch, the Muslim Filipinos in the South refused to be converted.

The Spanish had more than just religious conflicts with the Muslim Filipinos in the South [Moros]; they had arrived in the Philippines as a result of a standing conflict with Muslims in Europe. They had discovered the Philippines while in search of a new trade route for spices (Bjora-Mamaril and Mamaril 2000). The Spanish had also faced conflict with the large Muslim population to the south of them in North Africa. The Muslims of North Africa were referred to as moors, a trans-linguistic term for their dark skin. Moreno is Spanish for brown or dark-skinned. Because the Muslim Filipinos shared a religion with the moors and had similarly browned skin, they were referred to as Moros (Rasul 2003).

Moros were notorious for their role as Pirates at this time and they did not respect the Spanish as rulers, therefore they were not exempted from the treachery of sailing in Moro waters. War erupted between the Spanish and the Moros. The seemingly constant warring between Muslims Filipinos and the occupying Spanish put the economic growth of the Moros to almost a complete stop. So, in 1793, Spanish Governor of Sulu, Aguilar, established a truce with the Moros that lasted until 1803 when attacks by the vying English rekindled aggression between the Spanish and Moro groups. This period ended in 1805 with a treaty between the Spanish and the Moros of Sulu. The groups agreed that Spain would not _____ all foreign residents into Sulu and in return the Moros there would close their ports to Spain’s enemies. In 1836 the Spanish sought to protect themselves from piracy in Moro waters by establishing agreements for duties to be paid in return for occupation  (Saleeby 1908).

While the agreement seems harmless, it actually holds much more power than any agreement the Moros ever entered with the Spanish.

First period of ‘alien rule’

In 1851, the last major war between the Spanish and Moros broke out (Saleeby 1908). The Spanish were finally victorious in their domination of the Philippines by 1878 (Rasul 2003). Before this the Muslim Filipinos had been an independent sultanate for over 400 years. The Moro Sultanates were repackaged under the Spanish monarchy and they acknowledged the dominance of the Spanish over the area  (Saleeby 1908). Thus began the first period of alien rule in the Muslim provinces of the Philippines.

Preceding the arrival of the Spanish, Islam in the Philippines had begun creating an environment of ummah, or community, between the Philippines and other nearby Islamic lands. This fostered the idea of these lands as one Islamic nation. When the Spanish arrived and converted many Filipinos to Christianity, it created a schism. The Muslim Filipinos still considered themselves to be a community with the Muslims in neighboring nations like Borneo. The Spanish socialized Filipino Christians to stereotype Moros as lying, thieving savages, which created a spirit of separatism among Muslim Filipinos. They saw themselves as having completely different origins from Christian Filipinos, despite being of the same race  (Man 1990). Despite the inevitable unrest of the first foreign dominance in Moro provinces, on a visit to the area in 1848, Captain Henry Keppel suggests things are on the up and up. He suggests that there is prosperity in Moro lands and even meets a Sultan disposed to English (Saleeby 1908). Sultan Mohammed of Sulu had entered into a trade agreement with the United States just six years before in 1842 (Gowing 1977), a sign of things to come.

Bates treaty

After being defeated by the Spanish, the Moro provinces were considered just as much a part of the Philippines as any other part of the archipelago, and when American forces were given domain over the Philippines by the Treaty of Paris in 1898, they would have nothing less than what was due to them. In August of 1899, General John Bates entered talks with the sultanate of Sulu. In a photo commemorating the benchmark in the American conquest of the Philippines, the American soldiers have their heads held high and their chests out. The photo of the 12 men crowded in a small room discussing the agreement appears nothing less than tense (Zaide and Zaide 1990). While the agreement seems harmless, it actually holds much more power than any agreement the Moros ever entered with the Spanish. The United States delegates a salary for some members of the sultanate, allows free trade between the Moro provinces and the rest of the Philippines, promises to respect the practice of Islam in Moro provinces, gives the Moro government an avenue of voicing complaints against naval commanders, and promises the Jolo archipelago protection by the United States. In return the sultanate recognizes the sovereignty of the United States, forbids war against the United States, and gives slaves the right to purchase their freedom.

The eruption of the Philippine ‘insurrection’ obviously voided this contract. And due to continuing upheaval in Moro provinces, they were exempt from President Roosevelt’s Act of Amnesty in 1902 (Zaide and Zaide 1990). In 1904, Sultan Kiram II of Sulu appeals to the Governor-general of the Philippines. He testifies that he is doing what he can to quash hostilities against the United States in his province and, recognizing that the Bates Agreement has been breached, pleads to retain some of the articles therein in return for relinquishing nearly all of his political power. A hearing ensues in Manila (Gowing 1977). Many of the articles of the Bates Agreement are upheld, but the sultanate is reduced to a titular spiritual position (Gowing 1977, 352-353).

The new agreement is written up and signed in Zamboanga in 1915 at the end of hostilities (Gowing 1977, 352-353). In the same year, the United States creates a Division of Education in Sulu and Mindanao (Rasul 2003). Public schools were very popular in the Moro provinces, even among princesses in the sultanate. The Muslims were being inculcated with American ideals just as the Christian Filipinos were, but some of the learning materials occasionally conflicted with the culture of the Muslim Filipinos (i.e. “This little piggy went to market…”) (Rasul 2003).

Because of the legacy of Spanish propaganda against Muslim Filipinos, Moros have become a racialized other
in the Philippines...

Not wanting to lose the value of the Moro provinces, for both port and land use, the United States pushed to integrate the Philippines. In 1913 the United States began enacting laws that encouraged intra-national migration into Moro provinces. The avalanche of land titling and surveying that began caused many Muslim families to be evicted from their homes unfairly (Commission 1999). With the exception of the elite, who were able to obtain land titles, most Moros lost their ancestral homeland during the legalized land grabbing (Man 1990).

The Muslims in the southern Philippines had faith in the United States to maintain the secular nature of its integration plan, but because of the delegation of authority to Christian Filipinos the Muslim Filipinos were outnumbered. Filipino Muslims account for only 5% of the population of the Philippines (Dolan 1993). With the migration of Filipinos from other provinces into Moro provinces, the Moros were sent into economic periphery. The economic development in Moro lands was being controlled externally and did not result in a better standard of living for the Moros, except for the few elite that had title to their ancestral lands (Man 1990).

In my interview with Princess Emraida Kiram (Ed. note: See separate interview in this Issue), she assured me that this policy of the Filipino government of disregarding the needs of the Muslim segment of society still continues today. Further, the class separation creates division within the Muslim community, which continues the cycle of allowing the government to ignore the needs of the community (Kiram 2010).

Because of the legacy of Spanish propaganda against Muslim Filipinos, Moros have become a racialized other in the Philippines (Rasul 2003). P. Emraida even feels that some of the instability in the Philippines is blamed wrongfully on Muslims, labeling them as ‘Muslim separatists’ and ‘Muslim terrorist groups’. She asserts that, “… not all Muslims are members or sympathizers of any of the alleged terrorist groups permeating the south.  So where is the threat, except in the minds of the politicians who create and sow the seeds of discontent, as their basis for government assistance, ….”?

While many Muslim Filipinos have the means to be integrated into mainstream society in the Philippines, there is still some separatist sentiment in the south. Much of this rebellion rose from the socio-economic deterioration in some Moro communities. From this rebellion emerged groups like Bangsa (one nation) Moro Islamic Liberation Organization (BMILO), Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Muslim/Mindanao Independence Movement (MIM), and Moro Revolutionary Organization (MORO) (Man 1990).

Are Moros separatists about emigration?

Having established the identity of the Muslim Filipino in relation to his own community, his nation, and America, we are now free to tackle the concept of America in the Heart of Moros. Were the Moros as drawn to the United States as the Christian Filipinos were? Absolutely! They were likely more drawn than the Christianized Filipinos. By the official end of United States/ Moro hostilities, when Muslim Filipinos could go abroad to the United States, their lands and families had been ravaged. They had survived the offensive war tactics of the United States (Kiram 2010), and many had been stripped of their ancestral lands and the means by which they provided for themselves.

When I inquired about the likeliness of a Muslim Filipino leaving their homeland, P. Emraida had this to say, “I think it is rather more universal.  I believe that Muslims are just as ambitious in achieving self sufficiency, education and advancement as the next person.  With Filipinos all over the diaspora and sharing stories, of success, especially material successes, the Muslims in the ARMM are just as anxious to travel and share in this new wealth.  With job opportunities in the Arab world available to other Muslims… I am glad to know that opportunities for Muslim women are now more available, and that Muslim parents, are open to their female children traveling and working abroad.”

It is clear to see that the Moros have not rejected the idea that leaving home to find new opportunities may be beneficial to the Philippines. Still, America doesn’t appear to be what is in their hearts.

Overseas Contract Workers (OCWs) from Sulu sent back over 45 million pesos in remittances for the year 2006 (Institute of Migration and Development Issues 2008). OCWs from Maguindanao sent back more than 1.2 billion pesos in remittances in the same year (Institute of Migration and Development Issues 2008). It is clear to see that the Moros have not rejected the idea that leaving home to find new opportunities may be beneficial to the Philippines. Still, America doesn’t appear to be what is in their hearts.  Over 990,000 people from the Philippines obtained legal permanent residence status in the United States between 1990 and 2007 (United States. Department of Homeland Security 2010). Only a total of 236 people from the Sulu and Maguindanao regions emigrated and became permanent residents abroad between the years of 1988 and 2007.

So, was it America that was in their hearts?

The Muslim Filipinos experienced the hardships forced upon Filipinos in a magnified way. They were reproached for their religion, their culture and their trade success up to the point that all that they could hold onto was their culture and their religion. Moros suffered all of the brutalities that Christian Filipinos did and then some, but by and large made amends as a people and went on to see the economic benefits that the western world has to offer. They grew to appreciate some American ideals, but more so in how they expect to be treated by the government of the Philippines, not how they should govern themselves. The western influence permeates even the Moro communities of the Philippines. A few generations ago Sultan Kiram II, signed the sultanate’s recognition of American sovereignty, and today a princess in his lineage is a citizen of the United States (Kiram 2010). American influence is greatly accepted, but even so the call of ummah among Muslims is stronger. P. Emraida had this to say about her feelings on living in the United States versus the Philippines:

I love the freedom of movement, the freedom of speech and expression and the things America gives people like me and what it does to the world.  I love the Philippines and will continue to love it, and be concerned for its welfare.  I will continue to advocate and support efforts towards its betterment.  I love the Muslims and admire their struggle. I admire my Muslim friends and relatives. It pains me to be so far away, but I will always be with them in spirit and hope that one day, I can give of myself and that we can find fulfillment in peace.


Bjora-Mamaril, R., and Simeon D. Mamaril. The Philippines Under Spain. 2000.

Dolan, Ronald E. Philippines : a country study. Washington DC: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1993.

Gowing, Peter G. Mandate in Moroland : the American government of Muslim Filipinos, 1899-1920. Quezon City: Philippine Center for Advanced Studies, University of the Philippines System, 1977.

Institute of Migration and Development Issues. Overseas Migration Indicators per province: Maguindanao. Mandaluyong City: Institute of Migration and Development Issues, 2008.

Institute of Migration and Development Issues. Overseas Migration Indicators per Province: Sulu.

Institute of Migration and Development Issues, Mandaluyong City: Institute of Migration and Development Issues, 2008.

Kiram, Princess Emraida, interview by Monique Brooks. (October 19, 2010).

Man, Kadir Che. Muslim separatism : the Moros of southern Philippines and the Malays of southern Thailand . Singpore; New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

National Centennial Commission. 100 Events that Shaped the Philippines. Mandaluyong City: Adarna Book Services, 1999.

Rasul, Jainal D Sr. Struggle for identity : a short history of the Filipino Muslims. Edited by Amir T Rasul. Quezal City: CARE Minorities, 2003.

Saleeby, Najeeb M. The History of Sulu. Manila: Bureau of Printing; Bureau of Science Division of Ethnology Publications, 1908.

Schirmer, Daniel B, and Stephen R Shalom. The Philippines Reader. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1987.

United States. Bureau of Insular Affairs. A pronouncing gazetteer and geographical dictionary of the Philippine Islands, United States of America with maps, charts and illustrations. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1902.

United States. Department of Homeland Security. Yearbook of Immigration Statistics: 2009. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics, 2010.

Zaide, Gregory F, and Sonia M Zaide. Documentary source of Philippine history. Manila: National Book Store, 1990.

Research for this paper was conducted using the U.S. Library of Congress and was facilitated by the staff of the Asian reading room.

© Monique S. Brooks

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