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A Peace Worth Keeping
The Muslim scholar who won't be swayed

They were in a Cotabato City hotel when the fire broke out, talking about how to make the new peace deal work. Outside their sixth-floor window, a plastic rope was dangling. Sharif Zain Jali grabbed it, but unbeknown to him another desperate man was also trying to shimmy to safety. Three seconds later, the rope broke.

Three years hence, Sharif is in Manila having the troublesome hip he dislocated in that fall examined. At 58, the religious adviser to Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao governor Nur Misuari lurches between hope and despair when it comes to the issue of peace for his homeland. Now the ARMM's cabinet secretary, he played an important role in devising the 1996 treaty between the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Philippine government that gave birth to the ARMM, and to a form of peace. And he refuses to let it go. "It will take maybe another generation [to implement the agreement]," Sharif says. "But my group does not want to see any more widows and orphans."

Sharif's clan arrived in the southern islands of Sulu eight generations ago. His ancestor, Sharif Alawi Balfakih, taught Islamic jurisprudence in the Grand Mosque in Mecca and has been identified by historians as a southern Philippines missionary who converted most of the population to Islam. Sharif's great-grandfather, Innih Zain, was a religious adviser to the juramentados — those willing to martyr themselves in the fight against Spanish, American and native Christians. His grandfather refused to send his father and five other children to school, because all were run by Christians. He wouldn't even walk on roads built by Christians. Sharif says "hundreds" of his clan were killed in the 1970s and '80s. His sister died giving birth in the mountains during the height of the MNLF struggle. His brother was shot by a civilian militia, probably over a land dispute. After the 1996 peace deal, his nephew — who had just helped negotiate for Misuari the release of an Italian priest kidnapped by extremist group Abu Sayyaf — was also shot, suspected of being an Abu Sayyaf member. He had nine children. Sharif believes his nephew's killers were members of the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Task Force. "They raided my relatives," he says. "They got 70,000 pesos, jewelry and motors [from boats]." Yet Sharif forgives his persecutors. "We do not want to retaliate," he says. "It's up to Allah to put his justice on those people."

When his father sent him to a local madrasah (Islamic school), Sharif's Egyptian teachers offered their most studious pupil a scholarship to Cairo's famed Al-Azhar University, studying Islamic jurisprudence. Now, Sharif wears the robes of an ustaz (Islamic scholar). He has taught Arabic and an understanding of the Koran in many countries, including the U.S. His many students have included Japanese, Koreans and Americans. A moderate who adheres strictly to the Koran, Sharif advises Misuari only on religious aspects of political and state matters, not on personal spirituality. When Misuari was accused of being a Maoist by fellow Muslims and the military during a 1987 visit to Sulu by President Corazon Aquino, Sharif advised him: "You have to go to the mosque to pray."

In Cairo, where Sharif met his Egyptian (and only) wife through a common acquaintance, he spent his free time inciting fellow Filipinos to fight the Marcos dictatorship. Because he knew the labyrinthine streets of Cairo, he also acted as chauffeur to Misuari and Hashim Salamat, who now leads the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Sharif respects the MILF drive for a separate state, but believes that MNLF-sponsored autonomy is still workable. "Misuari is trying to unite with the MILF because this is the clamor of the people," he says. It is also the word of the Koran and the wish of the Organization of Islamic Conference. "But I can feel the Philippine government has a hidden agenda and does not encourage us to unite."

Because of the "injustices, threats, intimidation" visited upon his people, Sharif observes that, internationally, the idea of a separate state as a solution for Mindanao is gaining ground. It pains him to see young Filipino Muslims being attracted to Abu Sayyaf, a loose collection of extremists who have resorted to murder and kidnappings to highlight their fight for independence. But Sharif doesn't mince words about President Joseph Ejercito Estrada's vow to crush the separatist movement. "I am a fan of Estrada movies. He can be my actor but, sincerely, he cannot be my president. He's not conversant with the problem in Mindanao."

When he returned to the Philippines, Sharif bought a wooden house in Zamboanga City, which he shares with his wife and two sons. "It's now dilapidated," he says ruefully. He was once offered an ambassadorship by a government official, but declined out of delicadeza (propriety). And, unlike some, Sharif has not profited financially from the peace agreement. He gets a modest salary as an ARMM cabinet secretary, but is preparing for the day when he might have to give that up. A small-business venture will suffice. Perhaps selling fresh fish.

It was as an ARMM representative that Sharif was billeted in the Imperial Hotel in Cotabato City in 1997. The owner provided discounts for MNLF officials, and a large group had been discussing the new peace agreement into the night. The cause of the fire that engulfed the hotel — killing 24 people, including three of the six men who had bunked with Sharif — was never established. Sharif, who spent three months in hospital, believes the fire was intentional and that the MNLF men were the target.

It did not weaken his resolve, although there are times when bitterness wells to the surface. "There's no difference now between the time of Marcos and Joseph Estrada," he says. "Martial law, democracy, just the same monster. We're still being fooled." His eldest son, a fresh graduate in mechanical engineering, has been unable to find a job. He tells his father: "If I have a future, show it to me now."

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