My article today makes direct reference to the New Year’s speech by a head of state, King Harald V of Norway, who took up essential issues that are important to all of us, everywhere. He is the symbolic head of state of Norway, a constitutional king, as it is called, while the actual power rests with the elected Prime Minister and Parliament. Erne Solberg, the PM, also held her speech on the year’s first day, but I shall not refer to that speech in this article; yet, that too was a good and important speech. The King and PM are highly respected because of their positions but also as individuals, even among those who disagree politically with the areas of the PM’s party and government, and those who think that an inherited monarchy is outdated in our time.

Let me first say something about symbols; they are important because they help us in communication and identification of important issues; they make us think and feel both with mind and heart. They make it easier for us to see important historical, contemporary, and even in the future aspects in our land and world. Symbols make us realise that it is only partly true that action speaks louder than words.

Political and other leaders know this. Religious leaders know that faith can move mountains, and they know that much in every religion is symbolism; often, the symbolism and the broader message are more important than the accuracy of the actual events.

If I as a Christian show sorrow and take actions, even just ‘symbolic action’, when fellow human beings suffer, irrespective of their religion, colour, class and other differences, I will help bridge the gaps between religions and other differences we human beings have created between people. Today, when most of those who suffer from wars and conflicts are Muslims, it is important that Christians talk about that. When some three-quarters of all refugees are Muslims, and they are Muslim countries hosts most displaced people, it is important that we all talk about that, indeed that Christians talk about it and try to do what we can to show compassion and solidarity.

Many thinkers, extraordinary and ordinary human beings have said this, and the holiest of them we name prophets and special messengers of God. Jesus, Issa, was one such unique messenger. Maybe the reason he was said to be the ‘son of God’, was that he had an aura Godly goodness about him, the topics he highlighted, the way he spoke and behaved, indeed how he related to individual human beings, especially the downtrodden who needed comfort and support. As it is recorded in the Bible’s New Testament, Jesus’ message symbolised the sacred and universal. Islam, too, builds of that foundation.

When the Norwegian King in his New Year’s speech this year simply focused on kindness, being kind to others and no over-demanding to ourselves in a competitive world, it was a very simple message. If somebody lower on the ladder had said what he said, we might have said it was simplistic and shrugged it off and said we need deeper philosophical thoughts. However, the king of a country, a president, a religious leader, and others we have respect for, are allowed to phrase truth in simple language. They symbolise the state, the religion, the philosophy, the ideology or just collective wisdom and common sense – and they have a duty to talk about so that we all can understand it.

Often when I write my columns, I seek advice from wiser people than myself! This time, I asked some good women to help me. One of them, Ingrid Eide – a former Norwegian minister of education cum university teacher of sociology, an anti-nuclear weapons advocate and peace activist – stressed the importance of searching deeper for how to avoid conflicts and violence in our world, drawing special attention to Syria and the Middle-East. I couldn’t agree more.

The other friend and former colleague, Ingebjorg Stofring – a former development aid worker and retired ambassador to Bangladesh and Zimbabwe – stressed the basic aspects behind peace and the way we human beings live with each other, listing a number of the words and concepts that we must understand to be able to build and maintain peace. She also referred to a new book, Aasne Seierstad’s ‘To Sostre’ (Two Sisters), which is the story about two Norwegian immigrants from Somalia, who had found safety in Norway as small children with their parents. But as teenagers they became radicalised, as we say, and went to take part in the war in Syria.

The Norwegian writer and journalist, Aasne Seierstad, first became a household name when she wrote ‘The Bookseller of Kabul’ in 2002. All her books have been bestsellers – and have been controversial. The latest is a particularly serious and soul searching book at the right time. She is exploring what it is that makes high scoring, well integrated, ordinary and kind school girls to seek war and conflict instead of peaceful, pleasant youth activities, education and careers at home. The book shows that the two girls, and their families, live in the midst of us all; their stories could have been from anywhere in the world. Or could they? What was it that happened?

And then, back to King Harald, the symbols and reality in his speech, when he is underlining that it is important to become kinder and better human beings; we should be better at looking after ourselves and others, he says. The source, the King says, is for everyone to feel important and liked; he believes that everyone wants to be there for others, be needed and useful, and that others want to be there for us – not only when we need it, but every day, all the time. It is everyone’s duty to make all feel part of the community and land they live in, that they belong to it and have as much right to it as any other citizen.

May we in the new year of 2017 reflect on the King’s words, and not just let them be symbols of a well-meaning head of state. Let us also note that he based his words on many lessons from the past and present in philosophy, religion, ethics, politics and other traditions – and I mentioned some this in my article. It becomes evident that we human beings can – and must – make the world better, if we indeed want to.


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