Deirdre Mullan: Words matter when rhetoric used to stir up hate and fear

Algerian martyrs, including seven monks whose story was made famous in the film Of Gods and Men, will be beatified this week. It is a reminder of the need to guard against hate speech, wherever it is found, says Sister Deirdre Mullan

A scene from Of Gods and Men, which tells the story of seven Trappist monks who died in Algeria's civil war. They will be beatified on Saturday
A scene from Of Gods and Men, which tells the story of seven Trappist monks who died in Algeria's civil war. They will be beatified on Saturday

IT seems that in public discourse we are increasingly seeing examples of the sort of 'hate speech' that seeks to attack decent human core values, including the idea that people of every race or religion are endowed with the same inalienable rights.

And, as we have tragically seen far too many times, these hate-filled words can also lead to deadly violence.

One of the ways these inalienable rights are being challenged is through targeting the concept of 'the other', by stirring up suspicion of those who are somehow 'different', perhaps because of their race or religion.

The American author and journalist Thomas Friedman wrote: "Words today are not enough, investigative journalism is not enough, television special reports are not enough, documentaries are not enough, endless columns and editorial are not enough..." - as long as we have representatives and politicians who fail to do their work and lead the people.

The situation in our world with the rise of popularism, nationalistic governments and hate-rhetoric coming from many at the top, is a sure sign that each of us must do what we can, wherever we are, to stop this slide into anarchy and any-ism which denigrates the other.

History tells us again and again that terrible things happen when good people are silent and do nothing.

I have been privileged to participate in a workshop based on the example and lives of the Trappist monks of Tibhirine, Algeria.

We in Northern Ireland know that words matter... and those leaders who use rhetoric about 'the other' to justify their ideology or '-ism' should remember that terrible things can happen

These seven Frenchmen will be among 19 martyrs of Algeria beatified this Saturday in a ceremony in the Cathédrale du Sacré-Coeur d'Oran in the country.

The monks had lived amongst their Muslim brothers and sisters for years, serving the poor and vulnerable left behind when the French colonists pulled out of Algeria, leaving behind a poorly structured country open to the rise of extremists.

After many long years of service in the Atlas Mountains, with faithfulness to the monastic routine of work and prayer and deepening dialogue with Muslims, Christian de Chergé and his Cistercian community were abducted and held by extremists during Algeria's civil war of the mid-1990s.

In mosques throughout Algeria, prayers were offered for the safe return of the monks who had worked as teachers, doctors, carpenters and farm hands in their area.

Seven candles were lit at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris and Muslim leaders in Paris issued a fatwa condemning the abduction of the monks and a reminder that in the Koran God says: "Whoever kills a man who himself has never killed, nor committed violence upon the earth, will be considered as one who has killed all men; and whoever saves a life will be considered as saving all life."

When negotiations broke down, a communication was received which said that all seven monks had been beheaded.

The seven candles were extinguished, but their testimony lives on.

After the monks' deaths were confirmed, the families opened letters they had received from their sons in the event of their death.

Prior Christian's mother released the testimony of her son to the world.

"I am aware of the scorn that will be heaped on Algerians indiscriminately," he wrote.

"I am only too aware of the caricatures of Islam, which a certain Islamism encourages.

"It is too easy to salve one's conscience by identifying this religion with extremists.

"For me, Algeria and Islam are something different: they are a body and a soul.

"Often I have found in Islam that true strand of the Gospel, learnt first at my mother's knee, my very first Church.

"In this my final thank you, which sums up my life to this moment, I include you, my mother and father, my brothers and sisters and their families.

"I also thank the friend of my final moment, who is not aware of what he is doing.

"Yes, I also say this 'thank you' and this 'adieu' to you in whom I see the face of God.

"And may we both see each other, happy good thieves, in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both, Amen."

We in Northern Ireland know that words matter and that, for example, what happened in Newtownards at Halloween, when a group dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes were pictured outside an Islamic centre, cannot be condoned.

As with horrors like October's massacre at a synagogue in Pittsburgh or the killing of the monks in Algeria's Atlas Mountains, the episode in Co Down should be a reminder to those leaders who use rhetoric about 'the other' to justify their ideology or '-ism' that terrible things can happen; words matter.

  • Sister Deirdre Mullan is a Sister of Mercy from Derry and the coordinator of Mercy Reaches Mercy, which works with others to provide education for girls worldwide. She is based in New York.
Sister Deirdre Mullan
Sister Deirdre Mullan