Today, I shall reflect on issues related to exchange between religions and denominations, using Muharram and the relationship between Shia and Sunni Muslims as the main focus – noting, that today is the fourth day of the first month, Muharram of the New Year in the lunar calendar used by all Muslims.

I believe that most changes in the religious fields, as in the various social and political fields, mostly come from within, only with some, limited influence from outside. Yet, I believe in comparative studies and in listening and learning from others. I think that others can learn from me, too, from my opinions and experience, and from those of other people in my home country, Norway. That is why I am so keen on telling ‘stories from home’. I shall also do that today, and I hope they have relevance for people in Pakistan, and for you, dear reader.

I find it timely to remind us all of the importance of religious tolerance and openness, and that religious diversity enriches all. We should respect Shiites and Sunnis alike; we cannot say that one is better or more right than the other main branch of Islam; besides, theologically, they are almost identical, with some differences in traditions and expressions.

This is the time of Muharram. It is the first month in the Muslim calendar; it is the New Year, as I mentioned above. It is the second holiest month in the Muslim year, after Ramadan. Many Sunni Muslims fast during Muharram, especially on the tenth day, Ashura, and also the ninth day. Shiites do not fast then.

Ashura is marked in remembrance and mourning of Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), who was martyred in the Battle of Karbala; many relatives were also killed or humiliated. During Muharram, and to some extent the following two months, one should refrain from joyous events, indeed during Ashura. In many groups, it is common to wear black clothes.

There is a sizeable number of Shia Muslims in Pakistan and India. In Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain, the majority is Shiite, and there are large groups in many other countries. The Ismaili community in Pakistan’s Northern Areas, in East Africa, and in some other countries, led by Prince Aga Khan, is a Shiite sect, often considered more ‘modern’ than some other groups.

The most public tradition during Muharram – and more exotic to non-Muslims – is that of men walking in processions, baring their chests, beating themselves with branches to inflict pain and show grief, sine-zani. As outsiders, we should also not exaggerate traditions that others cherish, saying they are strange or unacceptable, when we only see and understand small parts of them. In all religions, men have publicly been more visible than women; yet, it was the martyred Hussein ibn Ali’s sister and other women who started the tradition of mourning. It is also said that Shia Muslims pay particular attention to charity. Then we all have something to learn from them, irrespective of what faith we belong to.

In 1950 (the year I was born), 97 percent of all Norwegians were members of the State Church of Norway, belonging to the Evangelical-Lutheran sub-branch of Protestant branch. There were very few Jews in Norway, some Catholics, and some who belonged to independent Christian faith associations. Only 13 persons were registered as not belonging to any religious organization (in a country which today has 5 million inhabitants). There was religious freedom all right, but all who did not belong to the state Church were looked upon as a bit suspicious or strange. Norway was a homogenous and ‘one-eyed’ country, not necessarily intolerant but just not used to diversity in religious, cultural, ethnic and social fields.

Today, all this has changed; only three-quarters belong to the Church of Norway, which is no longer a state Church, yet, with close ties to the state. In the capital of Norway, some fifteen percent are Muslims, and there are dozens of other faith associations, all receiving government support, and all respected. Well, religion plays a less prominent role in society today than in the 1950s and 60s, and Muslims are yet to define their ‘Norwegian Islam’. But that work has started, with books being release, public meetings being held, and debate among Muslims themselves, the majority Christian faithful, and those who are only ‘culturally Christian’ but not active in the faith.

The latter is indeed an important group, too, because it shows that much of what we think is religion, is actually rather culture, custom and tradition. Much of what Shiites and Sunnis consider religious in their ways of worship is actually based on customs developed over time. The same goes for other religions in Pakistan and elsewhere. We should be aware of it, so that we can show greater openness to how others worship, and also learn their reasons for it.

Norway has become stronger for beginning to become multi-religious, which is at least the case in the major cities. This has happened in just a couple of generations; I am quite impressed of my countrymen and women, and the newcomers for how peacefully it has all happened.

I believe that diversity and tolerance are important. Yet, I also believe that a country gets stronger when many values and traditions are common to most people. It is probably good to be mainstream in most ways, and individualistic and separate in some ways. In all countries, we can add new lessons from other countries and communities, but we must always cherish our own identity, too.

I hope that all Pakistanis – Sunnis, Shiites, Christians of various denominations, Hindus and others – use the diversity in the country to make it stronger – and that people are proud of who they are as sub-groups and as citizens of one land. I hope that Sunnis are proud of Shiites, and vice versa; and I hope that Christians are proud of themselves as Pakistanis, and the same goes for people belonging to other religions. I hope, too, that indigenous Norwegians can be proud of the new Norwegians, even if, or perhaps especially because, the newcomers are different. If we can, we should help others to be as good as they can be in their own religion and in other ways in their life. Yes, we must learn new things, but never run so fast that we lose contact with our own religion, culture and identity.