Today, I shall reflect on some aspects about how we talk about faith, and also how we must not behave towards others even if we disagree with them religiously or otherwise. This is accentuated by last week’s sad case in Kristiansand, Norway, where a small extremist group, which calls itself SIAN (Stop Islamization of Norway), held a demonstration and attempted to burn the Holy Quran. The police took immediate action and picked up those who had intended to desecrate the texts of the world’s second largest religion, a symbol of peace. The police had given permission for the demonstration to be held, as they have to do, but they can give conditions; this time, they had ordered that no fire should be used, which the demonstrators broke. Incidents like this are always sad in themselves, and they may lead to counter demonstrations and violence.

The Muslim community in Norway, which has about 250,000 people, many registered in the over 200 mosques in the capital and throughout the country, marked their dislike for what SIAN did. Yet, they have not demanded that the law be changed so that such demonstrations cannot be held in future. I find their cautious reaction to be mature and in line with the thinking of Christians and others.

As I said in last week’s article, I find that people who behave the way the SIAN group did walk in the wilderness and that they need our help, advice and prayers. They have the right to keep their opinions, but they must find more appropriate ways of expressing them, without insulting and harming others, and inciting to hate and unrest. But I also hope that Muslims and others speak up clearly against such incidents, now and in future. I hope that members of other religions, indeed Christians who are dominant in Norway, show solidarity with other faith associations when their symbols and holy books are trampled on, literally or figuratively. I have recently seen in Norwegian media that Christian leaders say that they have gotten used to being criticised, sometimes ridiculed for their faith, but that they just have to accept it. I disagree with that; in civilized cultures, yes, in any cultures, we should be able to behave kindly to each other. Islam specifically emphasizes that we must have respect for others, not be proud and envious, and we must talk well about others.

We must find ways of expressing our views and discussing issues that are acceptable to all – whether the issues are sacred and holy, or whether they are secular, such as different political and other opinions, or just separate traditions and everyday issues. We should even try to encourage our opponents to detail what they mean so that we can learn from them. Is that too tall an order? Maybe, but we can strive at it. Besides, I expect the Norwegians to contribute to this dialogue process; they have risen from poverty to riches (thanks much to oil, fish and other natural resources). And now, in the last two generations, thanks to immigrants, we have developed ethnic and religious plurality; little by little, Norwegians learn to become more tolerant and open-minded; we realize that newcomers can teach the indigenous people new things – and the ‘old Norwegians’ also have things to share, about religion and more.

When I was a young man in Oslo, Norway, in the 1970s, I remember a friend saying about one of our university professors that she is a strong Christian, and he said it with words and in a voice of admiration. I was quite surprised because I didn’t think my friend was too much in favour of religion; people on the left were often sceptical to the role of religion in society. My friend had the right attitudes towards people of other faiths, ideologies and opinions, although he didn’t always express it. Maybe he challenged me, too, because I thought I was so open-minded!

Since we were on the left politically, we were often in opposition to the bourgeoisie, capitalists of all shades. Tolerant Christians, even if they were quite conservative, might be acceptable since they didn’t know better! Muslims had begun coming in the late 1960s, mainly to Oslo, but we didn’t discuss their religious views, not even with those good friends I studied with at university – whom I now meet in Islamabad, Sociologist Farooq Khan and Educationalist M. Daud Awan.

Today, most immigrants in Norway are actually Christians. Some of the newcomers are more active in the Church than the ‘lukewarm’ indigenous Norwegians, especially many Catholics from South-East Asia and South Europe. International congregations have become more visible, such as the American-Lutheran Church in Oslo. It may be less liberal about women pastors, same-sex relations, and allowing women to take abortion than the members of the Church of Norway, which in the last generations have opened up to all this. We must remember that the value of diversity means precisely to accept different views, even such we think are more old-fashioned. In addition, religious meetings should not be political meetings; we must be able to meet across such divides within the same religion and with those who belong to other religions.

In my childhood and youth, there was little diversity, and we took for granted that everybody thought the same. If somebody belonged to a religious association other than the Protestant-Lutheran State Church, we thought it was a bit odd even when those denominations were almost the same as the mainstream one. Unfortunately, we did not have many representatives of other religions in our midst. Also, those who did not believe, ‘freethinkers’, as they were called, kept a low profile, and they would attend religious events with their neighbours, relatives and friends, such as baptisms, confirmations, weddings and funerals. Morally and as for social justice, they were often at least as upright as Christians.

In Pakistan, Islam is certainly visible everywhere, and to some extent Christianity. In Norway, Christianity is also present although its visibility is more subtle and indirect. Of other religions, Islam is the most visible and also the largest religious association after the Church of Norway and the Catholic Church. It should be noted that over 3 million of the 5.3 million Norwegians still consider themselves as Christians; most would say they are liberal Christians or rather culturally Christian, but we cannot really know how deep people’s faith is – neither that of Christians nor of Muslims, neither in Norway nor in Pakistan. One thing is sure, though, most Muslims speak often about faith and Muslim men attend prayers in the mosque five times a day, and most women pray in the house or a room at the workplace. Norwegian Christians on the other hand do not speak much about religion at all and only a few percent go to church regularly, but this should not be taken as godlessness. I believe that very few are as thoughtless and ignorant as those who desecrate holy books and symbols. After all, most people are decent. And those who can’t behave respectfully in a diverse world must learn to do so.