Manila - Muslims in the Philippines remain a marginalised lot. They are shut out of jobs, denied loans and barred from buying property in posh villages because of their faith. Such discrimination has fuelled resentment among the country's 8.3 million Muslims - making them the perfect prey for extremist groups out to enhance their membership, according to a study partly funded by the United Nations.
"Pluralism has never been a reality as far as Muslims are concerned. They have always felt marginalised, and discrimination by the majority has only aggravated that," said Islamic studies professor Julkipli Wadi.
Apart from making up a huge underclass in the Philippines, Muslims are also treated with suspicion - they are the first to be considered as suspects when there is a crime or illegal activity in mainly Christian communities where they live or work.
It is like "being reduced to the very lowest caste", said the Philippine Human Development Report. A recent nationwide poll showed that between 33 and 39 per cent of the 84 million Filipinos have a "latent anti-Muslim bias".
"The more widely held stereotypes are that of Muslims being more prone to run amok and being terrorists or extremists," the report said.
The study also warns that unless steps are taken to overcome such prejudices, the Muslim separatist rebellion in southern Mindanao may never end.
Government neglect and the decades-long insurgency have kept most of Mindanao - where 94 per cent of Muslims live - an impoverished region. Muslim-populated areas have a literacy rate of only 60 per cent, the lowest in the country. Filipino Muslims also have a life expectancy of around 50 years, about 20 years shorter than that in Christian areas.
"Because they are poor, illiterate and jobless, they are vulnerable to recruitment by extremist groups," said sociologist and Mindanao congressman Mario Aguja.
* Philippine Muslims 'remain marginalised' (The Straits Times, Nov 15)