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‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’

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Let me quickly lay down the historic context of the quote used as the headline. In England during this period, there was deep disagreement between the King of England and theArchbishop of Canterbury.  Played out in the days before the presently accepted norms of separation of State and Church in most Western countries, the disagreement was,as always, about who wielded more power –the King of England; the head of the state, or the Archbishop of Canterbury; the head of the Church of England. 

It is said that the King got so annoyed about the latest act of the Archbishop that he cried out loud ‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’ Leaving aside the question of whether the ungodly King meant for the godly Archbishop to be actually killed, history tells us that four knights who heard of the King’s deep-felt plea travelled from Normandy to Canterbury and killed the Archbishop. That’s the context of the quote. 

Words matter and matter more when uttered by those who wield power. ‘I have a dream’ are four words. Four simple words that are part of the normal vocabulary of many of us. But when strung together thus, and used within a specific context, and for a special purpose, they had the power to change the political landscape of the States and then the accepted norm of the whole world. Liberté, égalité, fraternité are three French words. But, in the right context, they are not just words. 

Words can used for good and for evil. In 1932,T.S. Eliot’s published, perhaps his best-knownwork, ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ dramatising the historic events of 1170.The play powerfully dramatised the killing of the Archbishop in Canterbury Cathedral. Today while Archbishops are not being regularly murdered in cathedrals, on 26October, 11 people were murdered and six wounded while they were praying in a Jewish synagogue. Commentators spoke about how the Far-Rightmovement of today, being energised by the heated rhetoric of many of today’s politicians, are largely responsible for the murder spree.

On 7 February, Saudi writer and regime critic, Jamal Khashoggi writing in the Washington Post said, ‘Writers like me, whose criticism is offered respectfully, seem to be considered more dangerous than the more strident Saudi opposition based in London.’ Khashoggi was murdered,with premeditation, and dismembered in the Turkish Consulate in Istanbul on 2October by Saudi Officials. That much has been acknowledged by the Saudi Attorney General. 

The Turkish Consulate is not a cathedral nor was Jamal Khashoggi an Archbishop. But the energy, the flame that kindled the murder-dismemberment of Khashoggi was the same. Those in power in Riyadh didn’t like Khashoggi and wanted his criticisms, even if offered in respect, to be silenced. 

A court of law, least of all in Saudi Arabia, may unhappily never determine whether the Saudi Crown Prince ordered for the journalist to be killed. But one thing is manifestly clear. Those fawning around the Crown Price at the Saudi Royal Court, were fully aware of the displeasure being caused by turbulent writer. And whether by direct instruction or by assumed command, the result was gruesome and awful.

Sri Lanka, which has suffered so much in a prolonged civil war, is in the midst of a political deadlock. It speaks much of the peace-loving nature of the average Sri Lankan that this confusion and instability has so far not resulted in large-scale violence and disruption on the streets

In late October, just days before the US mid-term elections of November, 13 mail bombs were sent to media outlets, actors, present day politicians and former officials across the US. The would-berecipients had only one thing common. They had all been publicly vilified by President Trump. No Trump never did, as far as we are aware, actually requested Cesar Sayoc of Aventura Florida to bomb and kill the targets. However, the posters on the van he was driving, the rallies where he nurtured his resolve and massaged his hatred, and the words and phrases used at these rallies are known. And they all, without equivocation, point to what stoked his madness.In today’s connected world, you do not even have to be in the ear-shot of the King when he calls for volunteers, ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’ The words of politicians and others in power are recorded for posterity and played in secret chat rooms of the dark web. They are always available, at will, for the racist, the chauvinist, the extremist and the fanatic, to wallow and to fester in. They nourish themselves from such hatred and morph into something abhorrent and repulsive. Quite alien to the civilised world some of us think that we live in. 

The world is going through a shift in attitude led by populist leaders who stoke the petty fears and paltry insecurities of some of their citizens to create anger and hatred as the foundation on which to build their political base. From Trump in the US, Duterte in the Philippines, and Netanyahu in Israel, the modus operandi is to assume a mantle of Nationalism and invoke the coming of the bogeymen. That’s right, ‘very, very bad people are coming. They’ll take your jobs, rape your daughters, murder your family and kill your family pet. You will soon be a minority in the land of your forefathers. So, follow me without cause or question. That’s the only way for you to protect what’s yours.’

Within this larger global context,there is turmoil in our part of the world, the kind of turbulence that is the sweet-spot for such hatemongers. This is where they best grow and thrive. Even while we, in the Maldives may seem to betravelling through relatively sheltered waters, we are again facing choppy seas as the coalition seems on the verge of breakup. There is a shift of the wind in the air and a change in the tide that’s being felt.

Our closest neighbour Sri Lanka, which has suffered so much in a prolonged civil war, is in the midst of a political deadlock. It speaks much of the peace-loving nature of the average Sri Lankan that this confusion and instability has so far not resulted in large-scale violence and disruption on the streets.  However, these are the kind of moment that populist leaders yearn for and excel in. These are ideal moments for ‘political charlatans’ to pitch brother against brother, neighbour against neighbour and kith against kin. 

But, and it is one in shouty capital, BUT, the mode and modality of Trump and his ilk are being met forcefully by strong institutions and decent people. The Right Wing Extremist group ‘Unite the Right’ who gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 were met with an equal or greater number of people who stood firmly opposed to the hate-mongering. Even though Heather Heyer was killed and 19 others injured in Charlottesville, they couldn’t silent the voice of decency. Civilised people stood up for what’s decent and honourable. When ‘Unite the Right’ tried to hold an anniversary rally in August of 2018, thousands of counter protestors turned out and faced down the 2 dozen or so extremists who dared to show up. 

Words have power for good and for evil. If we drain oxygen off the barking of the hate-mongers, the pure angelic voice of decency can be heard and harkened to. The strident, high-pitched wail of the populists who stoke the fires of hate and antagonism does not also have to be loudest. There’s also decency abroad. The voice of decorum and civility can drown that of bitterness and antagonism. We can, together, prevent the common water hole from being poisoned. While hatred and bigotry need to be met forcefully and with resolve, we must be careful that ours is a decent and civilised quest. We must take care not to lose our form and format in order to battle with the beast. ‘We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline’, said Dr. King in 1963. Else we too risk being painted with the very brush and tarred with the same feather.

Athif Shakoor is a writer and columnist both in his native language Dhivehi and in English. He does a regular column on mostly 

economic related issues in the Maldives. His articles have been previously published on the Daily FT where he is a guest columnist and is the Maldivian Economic and Business Correspondent. 


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