Back in 1994, answering the question “Are you a Catholic?” posed to him during one of his first interviews in the Mexican media, Insurgent Subcommander Marcos, military chief and spokesman of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), declared: “I will not answer this question. If I said that I am a Muslim, you would write that we are Islamists.
In that period, soon after the Zapatista had appeared in Chiapas with the spectacular and simultaneous surprise occupation of a dozen cities on the dawn of January 1, 1994, a group of Muslims proposed to them that they massively convert to Islam. The Zapatista, after consulting their bases, politely declined the offer, which came from a group of Spaniards converted to Islam, the Murabitun , founded by a Scotsman who converted to Islam during a trip to Morocco in the Sixties. From then on, nearly three hundred Indians, mainly Tzotzils, have converted to Islam in Chiapas. They built a small mosque on a field of maize on the suburbs of San Cristóbal de las Casas and opened a halal pizzeria in this city. For a good part of the converted ones it was not their first conversion, as before they had turned to Protestantism, something which raised conflicts in the villages, since the Catholic chiefs used to chase and force them to abandon their houses and go into exile to the big cities surrounding the Chiapas state.
The Indians and the Catholic Church
The rift between the Indians and the Catholic Church is not new. Even if the Catholic Mexican hierarchy has traditionally tolerated the Indian contributions to the religious rites - the most spectacular of them all is the black Virgin of Guadalupe - it has always distrusted Liberation Theology, initiated in the 60s by the Conclave of Medellín (Colombia), whose most illustrious representatives were the Colombian guerrilla priest Camilo Torres, the Brazilian priest Leonardo Boff, the bishop of the poor Dom Helder Camara - also a Brazilian - and the Nicaraguan Jesuit Ernesto Cardenal, who was a Sandinista government minister when Pope John Paul II subjected him to a public rebuke during his historical visit to Nicaragua.
In Mexico, the 1910 revolution was very much influenced by both Positivism and Freemasonry and the regime’s anticlericalism that followed that revolution provoked a revolt of Catholic “reactionary” peasants, directed by guerrilla priests, the Cristeros, which lasted several years during the 30s. When in 1914 the rural Indian and mixed race soldiers of the of Southern Liberation Army led by Emiliano Zapata entered Mexico dressed in white and with an image of the Virgin at the front, the capital’s inhabitants hesitated between a sarcastic smile and fear.
In Chiapas, the bishop Samuel Ruiz was paramount in the awakening of consciousness that led to the creation of the Zapatista National Liberation Army. Even if Samuel Ruiz was not a follower of Liberation Theology, he paid attention to the Indian majority populations of Chiapas. The catechists formed in the 60s and 70s played an important role in the education of people which is comparable to the one of madrasah  in Moslem countries as Turkey or Pakistan, i.e., those totally plunged in the schizophrenia of Kemalization .
A very Islamic way of functioning
Where does Islam fit in all that, some may ask; it is evident that Islam is not so strange to the syncretic Mexican culture. Arab-Andalusian roots are deep in the Spanish part of the “three cultures” which are the base of the Mexican substrate (the two others being Aztec and Maya). One of the neighbourhoods in the ancient sector of Mexico City used to house marranos - Muslims converted to Catholicism - who roasted meat and ate pig openly in the street in order to demonstrate that they were good Catholics, even if everyone knew that many of them, either from Muslim or Jewish origin, continued practising privately the rites of their original religion.
One other most fundamental features shared by both Mexican Indian and Muslim societies, regardless if they are Arabic, Berber or even Afghan, is the collective process of decision making.
The Zapatista National Liberation Army is organized according to the principle of direct democracy. The assemblies in base villages discuss until reaching consensus on all kinds of questions relative to the political and military struggle organization, and in more general terms to the collective life. Contrary to the systems of representative democracy, there are no polls after which minority surrenders to majority. The advantage of this system is evident: a consensus is reached by an agreement on all propositions and points of view. Once the decision has been taken it is approved by all members, who commit themselves to accomplish it.
Muslim traditional systems work according to the same principle, the so-called choura, usually translated “by consultation,” but also meaning “consensual conciliation.” The practice of choura, which has known numerous vicissitudes, was habitual for a long time both in the jamaat of the Algerian Cabilia and in the Afghan Loya Jirga. The Majlis Ach Choura of the Algerian Islamic Front of Salvation (FIS) hoped to take inspiration on the consultative assembly of the Prophet’s companions at Medina. But this Algerian Majlis was far from being an example of direct democracy, as it was more an auto proclaimed parliament in which two big currents were predominant; additionally, it was strongly infiltrated by the regime’s intelligence services. As such, when both FIS principal trends - the Jezairists of Abdelkader Hachani and the Salafists of Abassi Madani - debated about the convenience of taking part on the December 1991, legislative elections, the debate turned into an internal clash without any type of consultation to the FIS base. The result was that the poor Fisists fell in the trap set by the military regime and its services and, after their landslide at the first electoral round, were sent to the Sahara and then murdered or, at best, exiled to all corners of the planet.
Another more recent example of this practice was witnessed by the French journalist Alexandre Jordanov after being taken prisoner by the Iraqi resistance in 2004, when he spent five days in the hands of eight different groups. From each of them he was subjected to the same treatment: installed in the middle of the soldiers’ assembly, he listened to them discuss all options: immediate execution, request of a rescue, political demands or liberation. In his case - to his greatest happiness - the latter option prevailed.
But in the current Muslim world - or supposedly Muslim - direct democracy as the one practised in Medina in the Prophet’s times, or the one practised today in Chiapas is practically non-existent, either because its traditional forms disappeared or because they have been artificially reborn just to be manipulated by tyrants or occupants, as it happens in Cabilia with the archs or in Afghanistan with the Loya Jirga. Nevertheless, in culture, daily life and traditions of the Muslim population there remain beautiful remnants, which should constitute the basis for any authentic movement of liberation.
Consider the Palestinian example: the lay PLO nationalistic leaders chose secret negotiations with the Zionist occupant for the Agreements of Oslo and the matter ended in tragedy. Palestinians were not given the opportunity to choose and so they pushed back these agreements that could have locked them in a cage, but the Palestinian leaders did not draw the rejection’s logical conclusions and that is why today they are caught in the imperial system’s trap, tangled in the sham of a democratic liberal State without any power . But Palestinians are men, women and children who live in solid family and clannish structures, and these have allowed this people to resist and survive more than fifty years of spoliation and oppression. Every Palestinian family is a mini-parliament in which all the political sensibilities meet, from jihadists to liberals, lay nationalists and communists. It is in the abovementioned tangible reality that the Palestinian liberation’s movement might have taken root to develop a direct authentic, original and effective democracy.
The allusions to the choura are rare in the Koran. There are only two and they do not specify the practical modalities of this consultation in view of conciliation.
From Morocco to Indonesia, all Muslims who dream of freedom, justice and democracy are searching nowadays for the “miraculous formula” to knock down both the tyrants and systems that oppress and suppress them. The search for answers to their questions on the glorious Umma’s past  is confronted not only by ignorance and all kinds of manipulations and children’s stories, but also by a natural limit: any society to which the six and a half billion human beings on Earth belong encounters the same problems. Every free and active Muslim can and has the obligation to study the experiences of the liberation movements of other cultural areas apart from the Muslim world. Only if they do that will they be able to find answers to help them out of the blind alley in which Muslims have been trapped at least since September 11, 2001, a blind alley that we might call “manipulated jihad.”
To me, the Mexican Zapatista offers the richest experience of education. This experience, which began in 1983 and is now 23 years old, is the most original response by a human community opposed to the devastating effects of capitalist globalization and takes place at the margins of the back alley of the Yankee Empire’s geographical centre.
To govern obeying
Let’s proceed first to a historical flash-back. The Zapatista adventure - in fact we should call it “neozapatista” - began in 1983 when six “white” urban militants, survivors of a group of urban guerrilla warfare of Marxist-Leninist background, took shelter in Chiapas, a marginal and underprivileged state of the Mexican South East. Chiapas is enormously rich in natural resources - it supplies a good chunk of the drinking water consumed by the twenty million inhabitants of the Mexican capital - but its population is poor: in the mid-eighties one of every two children used to die there before reaching the age of five.
Chiapas was part of Guatemala since the Spanish conquest and only joined Mexico in the 19th Century. Its Indian population, of Mayan culture, consists principally of Tzotzils, Tzeltals, Tojolabals, Cholos and Chamulas. Only approximately three hundred Lacandons, affected with congenital diseases due to endogamy, remain from the original and almost mythical population who gave its name to the Lacandona jungle. These Chiapas Indians resisted the conquerors longer than in other places, as the last Indian wars took place there at the end of the 19th Century. The Chiapas captured the imagination of the 1968 generation and many hippies from the capital dreamed of settling there to avoid metropolitan madness and stress. Numerous leftist groups sent “missionaries” without succeeding in “converting” the population to their revolutionary ideas, but on the other hand they accustomed them to listening to extravagant speeches and to reading the most surrealistic leaflets, including Maoists, Trotskyites and others of the sort. In addition, many inhabitants of Chiapas emigrated to the capital or even to the US. Finally, numerous foreigners visited Chiapas and some of them settled there permanently. The Chiapaneca population is for the most part Indian, but it is now open to the world.
Marcos and his five companions acted very differently than the auto proclaimed vanguards that supposedly had to bring from outside the revolutionary truth to the masses: fusing with the local populations, they served and listened to them. They learned the Indian’s languages, customs and vision of the world. The great tutor of Marcos - who adopted this name of combat as an homage to a dead companion - was neither Marx nor Lenin, but the old man Antonio, who transmitted to him all his wisdom by telling him histories every evening. During ten years the Zapatista Army was built little by little. The villages’ assemblies chose suitable youngsters to join the army in accordance with their capabilities and availability. Young men or women chosen as soldiers had to obtain by themselves their own weapons, selling a cow or any other good. The majority of the Zapatista weapons were bought from policemen or military from the federal army.
Etymologically, Chiapas Indians are proletarian, as their only wealth is the arms of their children. At the same time, these peasants are integrated into the planetary economy, since their revenues depend on coffee’s world price. The brutal fall of the price of this good in 1992 forced the villages’ assemblies to unanimously decide to raise up in arms. Having rightfully considered that in order to fight a war they needed to have only one command and one chief, the clandestine indigenous EZLN Revolutionary Council, the sovereign assembly composed of fighting units’ commanders and captains - chosen by their bases - chose Marcos and enthroned him during a Mayan ceremony called the “snail,” in which he was given all seven symbolic emblems of power, the first one being a spike of maize. Marcos, however, was designated neither general nor colonel. He preferred the comical degree of “subcommander” to make clear that even if he was the military chief, he was planning to obey the community. That is the meaning of his motto: “To govern obeying.”
Everything for everybody, nothing for ourselves
This is the belief which distinguishes the Zapatista army from all other political and military groups from past and present times in Latin America, whether they be Castro-Guevarists, Trotskyites, Maoists or traditional Marxists. Unlike all these movements, the EZLN does not aspire to political power. As Marcos says, “We are soldiers in order that soldiers cease to exist.” The EZLN motto is “Everything for everybody, nothing for ourselves.” The EZLN’s armed struggle lasted exactly twelve days in January 1994, and its command has never broken the ceasefire it proclaimed at that time. Certainly, they continue to be mobilized and armed. When a few bombs exploded in big cities after its public appearance - among them in the Mexican capital - the EZLN declared solemnly in response to the voices that imputed to them the authorship: “Underground parking lots are not our enemies.”
From 1994 on the EZLN has resisted all provocations, thus avoiding descent into the spiral of manipulated violence. For the federal power - Zapatista call it “the evil government” - it has been impossible to push them towards the mortal blind alley of terrorism. Philosophically, they refuse the perspective of a totalitarian control of society, upon which to impose a unique revolutionary model on behalf of the “new man.” It could be affirmed that the Bolshevik motto which aspired to make humanity happy with an iron hand does not interest them.
From 2003 on, the Zapatista have created autonomous town halls in sixty Chiapas villages. These self-management organs of civil society are named “snails of good government” and their members are either elders or also young civilians of both sexes (who are the same age as the neozapatista revolution). “The soldiers,” the Zapatista say, “must not govern society.” Snails work by thematic commissions and organize the daily life of all inhabitants. They are not chosen, but designated by the villages’ assemblies and their members can be removed from their positions and replaced at any moment, by virtue of a principle that previously has only been applied once along the history of modern revolutionary movements, at the Paris’ Commune during the spring of 1870.
If it was necessary to look for a Zapatista movement’s ancestor in the history of Marxism, it would be mandatory to refer to the Italian Antonio Gramsci. At the end of the First World War this cultivated Sardinian intellectual created the movement “Ordine Nuovo” (New Order) in Turin, the industrial and labour capital of the kingdom of Italy. He was the first chief of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), founded in 1921. In the report he presented before the Communist International in Moscow about the striking movement of the Turinese workers in 1920, which occupied factories and created factory councils, Gramsci politely tried to make clear to the Russian and German International bureaucrats - who were disconcerted and did not understand the message - that in Italy, unlike in other countries, the party did not give orders to the masses, but instead the masses gave orders to the party. Gramsci also forged the decisive concept of “organic intellectual.” Contrary to Lenin, who took inspiration in Plekhanov for the intellectual as an outsider to the working class and for whom the “conscience” came from above, Gramsci developed the notion of a collective intellectual, totally integrated into the popular classes, with whom she/he shared both knowledge and traditions. But Gramsci did not have time to put in practice his ideas. Imprisoned under Mussolini’s regime, he died in a fascist prison. The district attorney who demanded his sentence declared at the trial: “It is necessary to prevent this man’s thought for twenty years.”
Returning to Mexico, it is worth remembering that Mussolini, an ex-soldier of the First World War and also a former Socialist, owed his name - Benito - to Benito Juárez, the Indian leader of the popular war in which the Mexicans got rid of Maximilian, a flimsy “emperor” catapulted to the Mexican throne by Napoleon III. Even if Benito Juárez defeated militarily the Frenchmen’s expeditionary body sent to occupy Mexico, he was isolated from power - it really did not interest him - by Porfirio Díaz, whose “scientific” dictatorship lasted from 1876 to 1910 (he died in Paris). Benito Juárez’s destiny brings to mind Giuseppe Garibaldi’s, the “liberator of two worlds” (before fighting for the liberation of Italy he fought for the republic of Rio Grade do Sul, in Brazil, as well as in the defence of Montevideo against the troops of the Argentine dictator Rosas), and then was ousted from political life after having achieved the Italian unit under the batons of both the kingdom of Savoy and the Prime Minister Cavour; this was also the destiny of Che Guevara, who tragically died while trying to repeat the guerrilla warfare tactics that had succeeded in Cuba, a country he left bored of his bureaucratic life in his capacity as Economic Minister. Likewise, we might evoke Emiliano Zapata’s destiny, murdered in 1919, years after refusing to take power in Mexico, a power that indisputably should have been afforded to the other great popular leader of the Revolution, Pancho Villa, nicknamed the Centaur of the North and, by his enemies, "Sonora’s Attila.
Marcos, the well-guided
Marcos is the paradigm of this “organic intellectual” that Gramsci could not personify. By using the modern and post-modern mass media, this man who has spent 22 of his almost 50 years of life in the jungle, knew how to give back to the Maya people - the “real men” - their voice, their vision of the world, their aspirations, and did it with a literary, humorous and hammering language, becoming the link between the isolated Indians and the global civil society. Obviously, it is not by chance that so many Italian militants against neoliberal globalization constantly travel to Chiapas. Is it so strange that they feel attracted by the Gramscian character who appears among the Maya, the humorous pipe smoker, the cultivated and armed writer whose face remains secret behind a balaclava?
But what do the Zapatista want? It is clear that their revolution pretends neither “to change man” nor to build “the new man” so dear to Bolsheviks and to all communists, whose dream was transformed in nightmare from Moscow to Pyong Yang, from Beijing to Tirana, Belgrade and Bucharest. And though they declare their solidarity with the Cuban people who suffer an Usamerican embargo for more than forty years now, they keep their distance from Fidel, whom Marcos has ironically and affectionately nicknamed... Schwarzenegger!
The Zapatista revolution might be qualified a “conservative revolution” if this term did not carry a negative connotation, at least in Europe, where it designated the nationalistic German right-wingers between the two World Wars. The Zapatista want to emancipate the people from misery and oppression--one of the first demands made by Zapatista women was “washing machines in all villages.” Both alcohol and prostitution are prohibited in the temporarily liberated zones in order to preserve their habitat from the appetites raised by Chiapas’ wealth. The Lacandona jungle contains important deposits of oil and uranium. In addition the revolution aims to allow the Indians to exercise their ancient rights to the land practising their languages and their cultures. This revolution is just a further step on the long period - so dear to Fernand Braudel - of one thousand six hundred years of Mayan history, which includes the five hundred years of resistance against the Spanish conquistadors. A rural leader of Chiapas, who was visiting Paris, showed me the photocopies of the defence notes on a trial in which his community has been involved for forty years in order to recover their lands which had been pillaged. They were photocopies of documents signed by the king of Spain in 1763, proof positive that the lands in question belonged to the Indians, to the forbears of the currently politically active peasants.
The Zapatista are against capitalist globalization that crushes all those opposed to the transformation of both world and men into commodities subordinated to market laws, and also opposed to the instauration of a unique model of production, consumption, thinking and culture. They are at the same time true ecologists, since they fight to preserve biological and natural diversity, and also true anti-globalizers, since they fight to right the world’s wrongs by preserving its cultural diversity.
What if Marcos, both speaker and “organic intellectual” of the “real men”, were the Mehdi?  Or, at least, the sub-Mehdi? Let’s remember to conclude that the Mehdi, contrary to what badly informed Muslims believe, is not the guide, but the well-guided, a man whose skills as a chief are based upon his aptitude to listen both to Heaven and Earth, to God and men, a man who does not take his desires as reality, a man without any thirst of power.
In short, Marcos is the opposite of Osama bin Laden. From Bin Laden emanates a sinister ghostliness, while Marcos is vivacious and real. Whereas Bin Laden, a sort of telegenic reconstitution of the Old Man of the Mountain - the mythical chief of Hashinins - is a manipulated figure, Marcos can’t be co-opted by the imperial system, because he has his feet well planted on Chiapas’ mud and draws his force from the population who controls him. And it is thanks to this anchorage in a precise territory that the Zapatista have escaped both from the trap of terrorism - into which too many Islamic groups fell from Algeria to Uzbekistan - and from the other trap of electioneering. Not only will the Zapatista not present a candidate to the presidential election which will be held on July, 2006, but neither will they support any of the candidates. Their main concern continues to be the construction and consolidation of a social, economic and cultural base that would make them autonomous and independent from the domineering system and would allow them to progressively extend, beyond Chiapas, the “temporarily liberated zone.”
In conclusion, my only advice to Muslims anxious to learn the Zapatista experience is that they come to their next “intergalactic” meeting that will take place in December 2005 or January 2006. They will be able to verify my affirmations by themselves.
Notes by the translator
. The Murabitun Movement was founded in the 1970s by Shaykh Abd al-Qadir as-Sufi al-Murabit, a Scotsman also known by his former name Ian Dallas.
. Madrasah, word of Arabic origin meaning “school”.
. Kemalization, neologism derived from Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish State, that designates Islam laicism.
. This essay is previous to Hamas’ spectacular electoral victory on January 25 2006, which has put in jeopardy all politics on the Middle East.
 Umma, Koran term that designates the community of believers in its religious unity.
. Mehdi or Mahdi, a Koran’s character, kind of Islamic Messiah, guide and messenger of Allah, who will come to the world “to make prevail the real religion over all religions.” Koran alludes to the Mehdi two times, in the Sûra As (61), aleya 9, and Sûra Al (48), aleya 28.