A guest at a party I attended a few days ago said that we live in very difficult times. He had lost his job soon after the Corona pandemic struck. Luckily, his wife had kept her job. An elderly man at the table, who had come from Afghanistan as a refugee in the early 1980s, said that he had seen difficult times before, and then he became both literary and wise, quoting the American writer, Charles Dickens, whose book from 1859, “A Tale of Two Cities”, began with the sentence, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. He had his smart phone at hand and read out the rest of Dickens’ sentence: “It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

The word ‘incredulity’, which Dickens used, is not so commonly used anymore, but it means that we are not able or willing to see something, often something that is quite obvious but we may disagree with it. Now more than a hundred and fifty years hence, it forms part of what we call ‘fake news’. Alas, in spite of all the education and information we have in our time, including modern technology for communication, we still many times make up reality. Besides, we are poor at de-learning and changing misunderstandings and outdated opinions; we seem not to have become more tolerant and open-minded towards people who believe and think differently. Well, many may be tolerant, but others have become more intolerant and extreme, closing their minds to arguments.

This is sad and dangerous, especially when countries and communities become more multicultural and multi-religious. We must learn to live with opinions we disagree with, and we must also learn to look at the future with optimism, and work step by step for change. Today, in spite of many problems with Corona, inequalities, poverty, we must find ways of building back better and share the huge resources of the world. After all, the current century has the potential of becoming ‘the best of times’, if we are good custodians of God’s creations. We must think new and bold, and we must more than ever learn to live and let live together.

In recent weeks, we have seen tragic events in France, where criminals have used violent means to express their reactions to what they felt were insults to faith and culture. Last week, there was an attack in the Notre Dame Basilica in the city of Nice. A week earlier, Samuel Paty (47), a middle school history teacher, was brutally killed because he had shown what was seen as anti-Islamic drawings from the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ satirical magazine, which had led to violent attacks on the magazine in 2015. Some thought Paty should not have used the visual material and perhaps not even disused the sensitive religious issues in class and tied them to freedom of speech. It should be stressed that in France freedom of speech is seen as particularly important, and it can be traced back all the way to the French Revolution in 1789 when ordinary people rose up against the oppressors. The religious conflicts are relatively new in France, but not the cultural and class conflicts.

In the criminal cases I have mentioned, the perpetrators were newly arrived immigrants, and they are thought to have been extremist Islamists, not just Muslims. It may be productive to investigate such tragedies as ordinary crimes with less focus on religion. France is a major former colonial power, and many immigrants come from African and other countries, and many find life in France difficult. France is the country in Europe with the highest percentage Muslims, about five percent, or close to four million, in a country approaching seventy million. It should be noted that just over fifty percent of the French consider themselves as Christian, in a former stronghold of the Catholic branch of Christianity, and as many as forty percent consider that they are secular without any religious belief.

Personally, I feel that many French go too far in wanting to express and debate their own opinions about difficult topics, often in very direct language. People often come out as self-righteous, be they indigenous French or of foreign backgrounds. Sometimes, the French may be seen by others that they are arrogant, that their language isn’t quite as unique and elegant as they think, and that their overall culture isn’t really superior to everyone else’s. There is some truth to this type of criticism, and I believe that the French, or opinion leaders and groups in France, need to learn to be more humble and think deeper about how people perceive them. But to change style and content, too, is difficult for the French—as it is to all of us, including Norwegians, such as myself, or Pakistanis, as most of my readers would be.

We can debate, quarrel and disagree about many issues; yet, there is a limit to what we can discuss, too, and indeed how we talk about issues that are sacred to people. We must not be disrespectful irrespective of how deeply we disagree. Polite debate is an old deed. I believe that we in our time—in the best of times, the worst of times—have gone too far in debating without rules. Sometimes we may feel that the rules are not the same for all, more favouring the rich and powerful, and in our time, people in the West and North more than in the East and South.

It should be underlined that the killer of Samuel Paty certainly went too far, taking the law in his own hands, the law of God and that of the state and human beings. He should have voiced his grievances through the right channels. The tragic incident had its immediate origin in the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ satirical magazine’s caricatures and satirical drawings and stories. They were provocative, in bad taste, and even directly anti-Islamic. Also, Christians, Jews, Hindus, and other believers, would find such expressions offensive and bad, feeling solidarity and empathy with fellow faithful in sister religions. Culturally, too, most people would say that the magazine went too far, but that it is still wrong to use violence against it.

We must learn to live peacefully together, and we must find ways of debating without using violence. True, there must be limits to how we say and do things, indeed not provoking and insulting people and showing disrespect and violate what is sacred to fellow human beings. That means that we must learn new ways of talking with each other. Schools are key institutions for this, and also other organizations, political parties, the media, and so on. Since we experience frequent tragedies like those in France, it is urgent that we address the issues. We must all learn to tolerate opposing ideas; we must learn to debate and live peacefully together. And then Charles Dickens could have said that our time is a time of wisdom.