We are all Muslims”, a young and smart student said when he gave a talk at a seminar about Allama Iqbal in Islamabad a few days ago. He probably wanted to make sure that everyone realized Iqbal’s importance in defining the philosophical and religious foundation of the ‘country for the Muslims’, and he wanted to ascertain himself as a good Muslim as he praised the poet, thinker and politician. That was all good and well, except for the intolerance his statement included, unwittingly, I think. Because, we are not all Muslims, not even in Pakistan, where at least five million belong to other religious faiths, and others may be searching to find back to their childhood’s faith. Statistics show that globally, some 22 percent belong to the Indian religions, more than 22 percent are Muslims, and some 28 percent are Christians.

Religion means to ‘bind together’, try to develop a fuller understanding of life and death, and all things in this world and the life hereafter. Religion is sacred and contains holy texts and traditions, and we must all respect our own and others’ faith. Religion is not meant to divide and compartmentalize people and issues. Sadly, all religions have come to ‘fight for souls’ and try to be closer to God than ‘the others’. That is wrong. The recent Shia and Sunni violence that fared up in Rawalpindi is a sad example of this.

We falter and do the opposite of what God’s commandments teach us – in all religions – especially when religions become large and powerful. In this respect, the history of the world’s major religions has little to celebrate. If we could use love, not hatred, inclusiveness rather than exclusion, the religions would have more followers and be more positive forces.

We are just about to mark this year’s World Human Rights Day on 10 December. Today on 5 December, the UN organizations in Geneva observe the day, and on 10 December, the UN Headquarters in New York will hold festive meetings. In Oslo, the Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies will be held.

In my article today, I will try to focus on some aspects of the human rights, with emphasis on minorities who seek greater respect and dignity – not only religious minorities, but all individuals and groups that for some reason or the other do not fit into mainstream society, mostly for reasons not of their own choosing: physically and mentally handicapped and challenged persons; sexual minorities; persons suffering from stigma due to diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, TB, and others; elderly suffering from dementia and chronic diseases; political, ideological and other dissidents; immigrants and refugees; ethnic and cultural minorities; and many other groups. It strikes us that perhaps all of us at one stage in life, or permanently, belong to a minority group – and at least 15-20 percent of humankind does, at any given time! 

Intolerance and discrimination are based on some kind of instinct where individuals and groups of human beings try to protect and define themselves through self-praise; it is the strong stepping on the weak. Such behavior (and we all have a bit of it) is to a large extent based on ignorance and a desire to be better than ‘the others’.

When Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, this week said that some people are not smart enough to do well in this world, then he either said so because of his own ignorance or wish, to show that he himself was so much better. Perhaps his statement was based on his own insecurity, an inferiority complex? And then we feel sorry for him. Often, success is based of shrewdness and crudeness, and the willingness to step on others on our way to some sort of worldly success, not withstanding, though, that we also have a duty to do as well as we can with the gifts God gave us, the skills and competences we have. 

A parent of a severely handicapped child, - I think it was cerebral palsy, - said recently that she was glad for having been given such a child, in spite of all the extra burden and worries the child had also given her. For the child, it would certainly have been better not to have been born with handicap.

We don’t know why God gives us children with inherited, congenital and inherited handicaps. And we must also believe that God had a meaning with it all, that all creations have a purpose and reason. Not even a sparrow falls to the ground unless God wishes, the scripture says. However, we can often not understand the evil and suffering in the world, injustices and inequalities. I often do not understand it at all. At best, I can offer sympathy and empathy.

An American journalist and writer, Andrew Solomon, has written a book entitled ‘Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity’, published in USA in 2012 and in UK this year under the title, ‘A Dozen Kinds of Love’. The author himself holds a doctorate in psychology and, in addition, he belongs to a sexual minority. The latter may have given him special eyes to see with, and the fact that he was born wealthy may also have given him freedom to pursue his studies and writings without consideration for popularity, fame and fortune. In his current bestselling book of no less than 900 pages, he describes and considers existential commonalities between different types of handicaps.

One of the most important purposes of the book is to make people with handicaps visible; showing their strengths and weaknesses, their burdens and assets. There is something common in handicap and being outsiders. In the end, in life and death, and in most ways, human beings are in the same boat.

Life may seem different, and it may indeed be different, for men and women living in Greenland or Angola, in Pakistan or Ecuador, in a rich home in Boston or a slum in Calcutta. Yet, in spite of all this, there is so much that binds us all together. Perhaps, too, people with handicap may be able to teach us all new insights and wisdoms.

We should remind ourselves that we are all created in God’s image; we live in his/her garden as custodians to look after ourselves and everyone else. We should not cut, weed or hide any flowers, even if we don’t quite like them. We should let all the flowers in God’s garden bloom and shine the best they can.

Dear reader, I wish you a happy Human Rights Day 2013!

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from research, diplomacy and development aid.

Email: atlehetland@yahoo.com