If Rizal had been a Moro

The story of a nation’s birth is the same everywhere. In a landscape of fragmented and subjugated communities, someone glimpses the image of a people bound by a common experience of oppression and a shared aspiration to be free. In Benedict Anderson’s memorable words, every nation has its beginnings as “an imagined community.”

We Filipinos were lucky to have a genius like Jose Rizal who could do that imagining for us and write about what he saw in a most eloquent way. In so doing, he made it possible for generations of young people to grasp the concept of a Filipino nation, giving them a reason to dedicate their lives to its full realization. No better example is there of Rizal’s brilliant articulation of this modern concept than his essay, “The Philippines a century hence.”

Below is my abridgement of the first pages of this powerful text, as translated into English. If Rizal had been a Moro, he might have written a narrative like this, simply substituting Bangsamoro for Filipino, and the Philippines for Spain.

“To predict the future of a nation, it is necessary to look at her past. The Filipino past may be summarized as follows: Soon after its incorporation into the Spanish crown, the Philippines had to support with the blood and strength of her sons the ambitions and wars of the Spanish nation. Its people were made to change their government, laws, usages, customs, religion and beliefs. The islands were depopulated, impoverished, and retarded, and the people left with no confidence in their past, with no faith in their present, and no hope for the future. Their traditional rulers, who used fear to dominate their subjects and accustomed them to bondage, fell like leaves from a dried tree. They had no love for their people and no notion of liberty. They quickly switched masters, hoping to gain something from the new order.

“Thus began a new era for the Philippines. Its inhabitants lost their old traditions and memories of their past. They gave up their writing, their songs, their poems, their laws, and began to learn by rote other doctrines they did not understand, another morality, art forms that were different from those inspired by their climate and their manner of thinking. Thus they declined, lowered in their own eyes, ashamed of what was their own. They began to admire and praise whatever was foreign. Their spirit was broken….

“Having reached this stage of degradation, the people of these islands were ready for the coup de grace aimed at totally crushing their willpower and their dormant minds, and transforming them into beasts of burden, humans without brains and hearts. They were openly insulted, stripped of any virtue or human quality. Some writers and priests went so far as to say that these people were bereft of any capacity not only for virtue but also for vice.

“This blow, far from being mortal, became a source of salvation, a strong medicine to enable dying men to recover. The insults and sufferings woke up their lethargic spirit. If they once had the patience to suffer and die at the feet of a foreign flag, they soon lost it when they were paid with insults and inanities.

“The Filipino slowly examined himself and realized his misfortune, surprising his despotic masters, who treated every complaint as an offense and punished every misdeed with death. Though this awakening initially occurred only in a few hearts, its flame rapidly spread.

“Undoubtedly, there have been generous and noble spirits who, while they belong to the ruling race, have stood for justice and humanity—just as there have been cowardly men among the subject people who have participated in the debasement of their native land. But they are the exceptions.

“This is a sketch of her past. Let’s understand her present. And now, what will her future be? Will the Philippines remain a Spanish colony, and in this case, what kind of colony? Will she become a Spanish province with or without autonomy? And, in order to attain this status, what kind of sacrifices must she make? Will she eventually separate from the mother country, Spain, to live independently, to fall into the hands of other nations, or to ally herself with other neighboring powers?

“It’s impossible to answer these questions, for the answer depends on the time one has in mind. If there’s no permanence in nature, how much less there must be in the life of peoples, endowed as they are with mobility. To answer these questions, it would be necessary to fix a limited space of time and, using this as reference point, attempt to foresee future happenings.”

Rizal goes on to examine different scenarios and their varying conditions of possibility. At some points, he writes, the impulse for freedom may be strong, but the people are not ready. There might be too much dissension at the top, and general apathy below. If Spain refuses to grant substantial reforms, and the country further retrogresses, it will force Filipinos to “gamble away the miseries of an insecure life … for the hope of obtaining something uncertain.”

But three centuries of colonial rule altered the terrain. “Today there is a factor which did not exist before. The national spirit has awakened, and a common misfortune and a common abasement have united all the inhabitants of the Islands. It counts on a large enlightened class … today constitut[ing] the brains of the country, [and] within a few years … its entire nervous system…”

Rizal became an inspiring figure to Indonesians and Malaysians as well. It would not be surprising if his prophetic words still reverberate in Southern Mindanao, where the struggle for emancipation of an imagined Moro nation continues to be waged.

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