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Woeful words

04 July 2014

"IF HITLER invaded hell," Winston Churchill said, "I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons." And we are back in that territory now, as governments dance to events in the Middle East.

Take Saudi Arabia, for instance: friend or foe? Well, both, actually. It is the West's closest ally in the Middle East - yet also its most formidable enemy, supporting the murderous ISIS army, which even al-Qaeda thinks is too violent. Meanwhile, the former "axis of evil" demon Iran is now bezzie mates with the United States because, although they still oppose each other in Syria, they agree with each other over Iraq.

World alliances, it seems, are modelled on nothing nobler than the politics of the school playground, where friends come and go depending on context. "I'm not your friend any more, because Jemima says you're uncool;" or "If you're friends with Mikey, you're friends with me - even if you do sometimes walk home with cranky Susan."

Tony Blair remains the master of bizarre alliance, as, in the words of the journalist Ian Birrell, he continues "his self-harming journey to wealth and global vilification". Mr Blair's love for democracy is matched only by his love for rich autocratic dictators who hate democracy, such as Hosni Mubarak, and the House of Saud; not a word issues from his lips against them.

It is easy to see why Meister Eckhart was such a fan of silence, where he found God most accurately defined - defined by non-definition. I listened to a Muslim woman lamenting the use of religious words: "Only religion makes people fight. These are political battles, but people use religious words because these are best at making people fight." As she notes, words create the context for violence. So, to that extent, the case for silence is compelling.

We won't make a god of silence, of course; for it comes in many varieties, and not all are beautiful. No two silences are the same, any more than any two clouds are the same. If we are in a hurry, it could be the restless silence of impatience; or our absence of words may be the silence of self-justification, ennobling us and denouncing others. Or, perhaps, silence just makes us uncomfortable, bringing back childhood memories of silences at home, when feelings of anger were repressed, but hung heavy in the wordless air: not a good silence to grow up in. Who would want to go back there?

But, unlike separatist words which put walls up, good silence - free of splicing language - takes walls down. As Habakkuk 2.20 commands: "The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him." In other words, could everyone just shut up for a moment? Thank you.

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