Column: Working within the system

Published on August 14, 2007

Note. This version corrects two inadvertent but crucial editing mistakes: It restores the limits on the quotes I used.

It is painful to see lies and half-truths work their insidious way into the public discourse. When even an eminent columnist unsuspectingly accepts Senate President Manny Villar’s less-than-accurate version of events, about how he came to form the so-called “Manny coalition,” the pain becomes more acute.

In describing the new reality of floating majorities, the columnist took a look at the dynamics in the Senate and, perhaps distilling the content of many news stories published last week, wrote very much in passing: “An attempt by his fellow opposition senators to replace him prompted him to form his own majority.”

This, Villar’s version, is plain cock-and-bull.

There was, in fact, no opposition attempt to replace him as Senate president — unless, of course, Villar saw the effort to draft Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr. as a candidate, as tantamount to replacement.

The truth is, most of the senators in the opposition did not even hear from Villar. They found out that he had already reached a concordat with the administration senators the same way most of us did: through other sources. As one of them plaintively asked: “Why didn’t he talk to us?”

* * *

Hauwa Ibrahim is a striking woman — tall, self-possessed, with observant, even wary eyes. When she visited the Inquirer last month, however, she learned to loosen up in the course of a long group interview. At the end, when we were saying our goodbyes, a smiling Hauwa hugged our editor in chief and then, in one fluid motion, lifted her off her feet.

Hauwa is the Nigerian lawyer famous for defending Amina Lawal, one of the first legal victims to enjoy Internet celebrity. Amina had been sentenced to death by stoning, under Sharia law, for the crime of adultery; Hauwa headed the legal team that convinced the appellate court to set her free.

Nigeria may be a litigant’s nightmare, but it is a lawyer’s dream. Four legal systems exist side by side: common law (a legacy of the British), traditional law, customary law, and Sharia.

* * *

What struck me most about Hauwa (her name means Eve) was her use of the very Sharia system that, under the influence of Islamic fundamentalists, had imperiled Amina’s life in the first place.

But, as she said over and over again, in that same system lies their strength. “Our strength is the ability to work with the Islamic fundamentalists, with Islamic extremists,” she said at one point. Recalling an incident from last year, when young Muslim men objected to her receiving an award from the city of Paris, she narrated how she reassured them, and turned them into enthusiastic guests at the awarding ceremony: “I made it clear I’m not anti-Islam, anti-Sharia.”

She readily acknowledged that non-Muslim eyes may see the Sharia system differently. “There are two arguments whether you can reform the Sharia law,” she said. But she made no apologies for her use of the system to bring legal relief to the clients she calls “the powerless and the voiceless.”

“There is a moral issue here,” she said, rather characteristically.

* * *

I asked her: Have you ever been accused of being not radical enough?

She laughed, and then told us the story of how she won Amina’s release. Vilified by fundamentalists for championing the case, Hauwa sought an audience with key religious leaders. When it finally pushed through, she found herself alone with them. One of them motioned to her to take one of the seats. She remembers replying: “How can I, your daughter, sit on your chair, when you, my fathers, sit on the chairs? I said I’m a foolish lawyer, I said I was a silly lawyer. I came to them because I needed their wisdom.”

The wonderful thing is, she wasn’t being merely, lawyerly, slick. Time and again, she described the fundamentalists with great fondness. “They are the most caring persons I’ve met.” Or: “They are members of society, they are our fathers, they are our brothers.”

Sincerity, not contempt; consensus, not confrontation; above all, an overriding belief in the moral dimension of the law — as far as I can see, these are the touchstones that help Hauwa work within the system.

* * *

Hauwa’s example came to mind again, when I joined the Inquirer roundtable with Pampanga Gov. Ed Panlilio. At one point in the discussion, he recalled, approvingly, Karina David’s advice to him. “Work with the system,” the chair of the Civil Service Commission said.

* * *

To be sure, and at the right time, we must also learn how to work against the system. An Ignatius Day address by Jesuit Provincial Danny Huang got me thinking about the Jesuits’ next (but ever-ancient) challenge.

“Two weeks ago, in Vietnam, [Father] General told us that the Holy Father is worried about what he called the ‘embourgeoisement’ of religious life: a French word that means that, while we religious (including us Jesuits) do good work, we look too comfortable, too secure, too domesticated, too safely middle class … The edge, the craziness, the disturbing and inspiring witness of being possessed by a love and a passion that make you out of synch with this world and its ways … much of this is gone.”

* * *

PERSONAL NOTE. If you will allow me: My father, Mario R. Nery, turns 75 this Friday. Of the many achievements a proud son can point to (growing the Magnolia business tenfold in seven years, leading the rewriting of the charter of the international Red Cross movement, and so on and so forth), it is a “pastoral” honor that most appeals to me, a prodigal child of Vatican II. He has been elected president of his local parish council thrice: three different parishes, three different cities.


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