Bigger than Iqbal

For being the signatory of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, and for obliging Congress’ invitation to appear before its hearings, Mohagher Iqbal has become the face of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. But, rather than focus on the justness and legitimacy of the cause he represents, our legislators have turned to questioning the validity of the name he uses in the official documents that he signs.

“Mohagher Iqbal,” they say, is not his real name. He can be held legally liable for using an alias to sign official documents. Perplexed at this sudden interest in his name, Iqbal admits it is indeed his nom de guerre, the name by which he is known in his revolutionary organization. But his critics would not be appeased by this admission. They demand to know which name he used when he drew his salary as a member of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission.

It is the way of small minds.

The principal ideologue and spokesman of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in Mexico went by the name “Subcomandante Marcos.” In public, he wore a black ski mask, which concealed everything about his face except his brilliant eyes, his fair skin, and the perennial pipe he smoked that protruded through the iconic mask. He never admitted his real name; to him it was unimportant.

The Mexican authorities spent a lot of time guessing his true identity, believing that in doing so, they might demystify the legend he had become. His real name, they said, was Rafael Sebastian Guillen Vicente, born to Spanish immigrant parents on June 19, 1957, in Tampico, Mexico. He went to school, they said, at a Jesuit-run institute in Tampico, after which he attended the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (Unam), the country’s premier university. He taught philosophy, they found out, and wrote a dissertation on the Marxist structuralist Louis Althusser and the poststructuralist Michel Foucault. Then he disappeared in 1983, organizing the Maya indigenous peoples and peasants in the Lacandon forest, surfacing in 1992 as the masked Marcos.

None of these attempts at pinning him down to his supposed privileged bourgeois background succeeded in delegitimizing him as the voice of the Zapatista movement. The state had sought to portray him as a middle-class armchair revolutionary who gambled with the lives of the indigenous peoples. Instead, the myth around him grew even more, to the point where activists all over the world began to regard him as the postmodern reincarnation of Che Guevara, an icon of resistance to global capitalism and its excesses.

This is all so ironic because it appears that the Zapatistas had deliberately created the figure of Subcomandante Marcos to serve a distinct purpose. “[The outsiders] can only see those who are as small as they are. Let’s make someone as small as they are, so that they can see him, and through him, they can see us.”

When “they” finally saw the movement he represented, the authorities tried to diminish its importance by trivializing the identity of its masked symbol. But Marcos remained the elusive figure he had always been. He avoided the limelight, and, in dialogues with the state, he resolutely restrained himself from speaking for the indigenous peoples. Yet, his physical absence from these negotiations only heightened his presence. To show that his name was nothing more than a “colorful ruse,” Subcomandante Marcos announced in May last year that the name had ceased to exist. It had become a distraction. But, in its place has risen the image of “Subcomandante Galeano,” an indigenous teacher of his own people, who was murdered by paramilitary forces early that year.

In February 1996, I had the rare opportunity to be invited to witness the signing of the first peace accord between the Zapatistas and the Mexican government. I was a visiting lecturer at the Unam and was a guest of its former rector, Don Pablo Gonzalez Casanova, who sat as one of the mediators in the negotiations. Like all the other foreign guests, I was hoping to catch a glimpse of Subcomandante Marcos at the signing ceremony. (A more complete account of this event may be found in a Public Lives column I wrote in 1996, titled “Moros and Zapatistas,” Inquirer, 04/07/96.)

The mysterious subcomandante never showed up—or so we were told. But, he was everywhere in the hundreds of masked guerillas of the EZLN who, in the early morning of that day, descended from the mountains upon the tiny village of San Andres Larrainzar, just outside the historic town of San Cristobal de las Casas. Their designated leaders, headed by a “Comandante Tacho,” signed the documents with their masks on, using no other names but the ones they have used in their revolution.

No one seemed to have any problem with that. Everyone rose from the smallness of their ingrained prejudices so they could tackle the grave concerns that confronted them: the cultural rights of the indigenous peoples, democracy, social justice and development, women, the reconstruction of the social fabric, and the withdrawal of the military from the communities. At that moment, it wasn’t the real name of Subcomandante Marcos or the real identities of the Zapatista guerillas that mattered, but the truth they represented.

We all have many names because we inhabit many worlds. It is a lesson we can take from the masked philosopher of the Zapatistas, who, in a January 2003 letter to the separatist Basque movement in Spain, wrote: “We teach [the children of the EZLN] that there are as many words as there are colors, and that there are so many thoughts because within them is the world where words are born…. And we teach them to speak with the truth, that is to say, to speak with their hearts.”

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