Muslim office rebooted

“Regrettably, the office proved very much wanting in carrying out its mandate.

Peace in “morolandia” remains as elusive as the Holy Grail. Huge manpower and fiscal resources were invested by government in the pacification campaign with hardly any effect.

In fact, a smorgasbord of programs and strategies was laid down and implemented by administration after administration, but the so-called “moro problem” persists.

One such strategy was the creation of a government agency that would protect and promote the interests of a large, marginalized minority — the Office of the Muslim Affairs, now rebooted by legislative fiat as the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF).

Regrettably, the office proved very much wanting in carrying out its mandate as a tool of governance to address decades-old complaints of historical injustice and discrimination.

Its performance was not only lackluster but, worse, it had been entangled in a web of corruption controversies.

The problem was not much in feeble government support as it was leadership. Recall that it became the butt of jokes, to the embarrassment and consternation of the Muslims, when it was discovered by the Commission on Audit that the Muslim office was a conduit for a congressman’s pork barrel for a bogus piggery project. Recently, charges were also filed against its officials for the passport scam involving the use of Philippine passports by non-Filipinos going on a haj pilgrimage to Holy Mecca, a flagship program of the NCMF.

There was leadership vacuum in the office for about two years and Malacañang vetted more than 100 applicants for the position of Commissioner and concurrently Secretary.

After hemming and hawing, the President chose somebody whose bona fides dovetailed his advocacies. Sultan Saidamen Pangarungan, former governor and undersecretary, was plucked out of successful lawyering and business to do the yeoman’s job. He carries to the office rich experience and good track record and dedication against corruption.

There was an air of optimism that met him on day one in his office. As a public figure, people know his past record and they are near-unanimous in saying he is a match to the challenges of the office. He could offer a fresh approach to the management and administrative ills of corruption as well as the employees’ flagging morale long hounding the office.

“Observers say Pangarungan could be a shot of adrenalin in the arm of a moribund NCFM which has long been in doldrums.

Observers say Pangarungan could be a shot of adrenalin in the arm of a moribund NCFM which has long been in doldrums. He can transform the agency into a robust, dynamic and potent weapon of government in dealing with the raging problem of terrorism, extremism and the spread of wahabbi-salafi islam. Its infuence on the imams and ulamas, who preach homily during Friday mosque congregation, could be tapped to counter the evangelization of fake Islam by advocates of the Islamic State.

But first, Secretary Pangarungan must deal with the immediate problem staring him in the face: The deep-rooted corruption in the haj pilgrimage system that has plagued the agency for decades.

It’s the start of the haj season and Pangarungan must dismantle the web of conspiracy between NCMF officials and the service providers for the prilgrimage that has robbed millions of hard-earned money from devotees fulfilling a quoranic injunction.

Hardly had he warmed his seat as Secretary when he had to leave pronto for Saudi Arabia to inspect the housing accommodations of pilgrims in the Holy cities of Mecca and Madinah.

In the past, pilgrims had complained of being shortchanged. For the high fees they pay for housing and amenities, they end up crammed in dilapadated buildings kilometers away from the Houses of worships, Masjid el Haram and Masjid el Nabawe, where they perform compulsory haj rituals.

At a meeting with service providers, Pangarungan hurled a stern warning that he will not hesitate to haul any of them to court for any “patong (add-on)” on fees and violation of the terms of their housing contract with NCMF.

Advocates of good governance have expressed optimism over the new leadership at the NCMF. They recall the success of then DILG Undersecretary Pangarungan in waging a battle against ghost barangays in the provinces of Lanao del Sur and Norte which had netted about 200 barangays abolished as a measure of his zero-tolerance over corruption.

Obviously, Secretary Pangarungan is out to prove that his being chosen by the President over other partymates was not a mistake.

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