As Muharram, the first month of the Muslim calendar began Muslims marked Ashura on the ninth and tenth day of the month earlier this week. The grandson of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was martyred in the Battle at Karbala, and the event is commemorated by all Muslims, indeed by Shiite Muslims. I believe it is important that all Muslims observe and respect events that have shaped Islam. Yet, there are different traditions and different emphasis is placed on specific events and dogma. That is why there are several branches and sects within Islam as in other religions. We must always respect what is sacred to others, within the same and other religions.

Before the holidays this year, I asked some Pakistani Muslims if they where Shiite. Surprisingly and sadly, some answered: “No, I am not; I am Muslim”. I tried to say that Shiites are also Muslims, but some didn’t want to hear that, and especially not if I added that in Pakistani, mainly in the Northern Areas, there are important sub-groups such as the Aga Khani Ismaili community. Obviously, those who responded with arrogance and intolerance must have been Sunni Muslim, and in thoughtlessness considering themselves the only true believers. This is so easy to do by a majority; but if we had been in Iran or Iraq, the majority would have been Shiite Muslims, and then it would have been the Sunni Muslims who would have been in minority. I believe it is important that faithful within a religion respect all branches and sects, but one may of course stick to the group one by conviction belongs to, noting to that often it is rather by tradition and convention since most of us belong to the religion, branch and sect that we were born into.

Let me tell a story from my home country Norway. I may have told it before in an earlier article, but it sheds some light on this my first topic today. The second topic is related, too, and it is about the words we choose in debate and conversation – to be understood, not misunderstood, to gain sympathy and respect, not the opposite, and indeed to enlighten so that others feel they can also enlighten me when I am wrong. The latter can also happen. First, my story from Norway about Aunt Alfhild in the country’s second city Bergen, where she lived in the conservative and well-to-do upper middle class.

It was in the early 1970s and that time, there was a heated debate about whether Norway should join the European Union, EU, or European Economic Communities, EEC, as it was called that time. The referendums in 1972 and in 1994 decided that Norway should not join EU. Aunt Alfhild did not want Norway to join because then the Catholics would flood the country, she said. That time, almost all Norwegians were members of the state church, belonging to the Evangelical-Lutheran sub-branch of the large Protestant branch. My aunt did not want many Catholics from central and southern Europe to come to Norway. I remember that we in the family laughed at Aunt Alfhild’s opinion. Catholics in Norway and elsewhere Europe are often more active in the congregation than the half-secular, sometime only ‘culturally Christian’ Protestant Norwegians. Members of other faiths and traditions have often enriched the homogeneous religious cultures. Since Norway has an agreement with EU for free movement of people, many Europeans have come to Norway, but not at all in such massive numbers as Aunt Alfhild feared. In addition, Norway has received major immigration from Asia and Africa, often active in various Christian associations. Besides, a good number of Muslims have come to the country. I don’t know what Aunt Alfhild thought about Muslims, but can only have an inkling. But then her husband, Uncle Henrik, was more intellectual and curious, so he might have realised that the increase of faithful in other religions might actually have strengthened all religious life.

And now, I would like to draw attention to another story, notably the local and regional elections that were held in Norway a few days ago, on 9 September, in the country’s 370 municipalities. The big established parties, Labour and Conservative, are still big but gained less support than in the previous election; the Greens and the Socialists/Reds gained support, and also the Centre Party, advocating decentralisation rather than centralization. Luckily, there is no right wing and extremist wind blowing in the country. New though, was the emergence of an ‘anti-toll station protest party’ in the major cities. Thanks to this party, along with the Greens and the anti-centralization party, the participation in the elections went up this year; about sixty-five percent of the eligible voters went to vote. In national elections, which generally are considered more important, about eighty percent usually vote. The next national elections are held in two years, and the next local and regional elections in four years.

My reason to mention the elections in Norway was not only to report on the trends and results, but, in line with the topic of my article today, it was rather to report on the quite decent way the election campaigns were implemented, especially towards the end of the campaign. The last debate on one of the two government TV channels was like a ‘Sunday school’, which turned out to be more informative and pleasant. Viewers as well as party leaders in the debate appreciated the kinder and more polite format. In Sweden, too, political debates are held in polite forms. Besides, one can be sued if one accuses opponents of opinions they don’t hold, or one goes after the ‘person rather than the ball’ in debates. In Denmark, the third Scandinavian country, the temperature in debates is higher, but still at a fairly decent level – yes, entirely different from some American debates and TV shows.

In Pakistan, too, I feel that we should weigh our words more carefully in debates. Opposition politicians should be careful in the way they argue, and those in power should be particularly careful in wording when they answer. It is important that one substantiates and documents claims. Debates should not only be about winning arguments and scoring points; they should also be about informing the audience. True, debates must also be fun otherwise the audience, the voters, may rather switch to entertainment shows on their smart phones and other gadgets!

Finally, since I have said that we must weigh our words in political debates and other communication, I should also apologize to those who may have felt I was too rough in language and otherwise in my article today. I may also have been ignorant about issues, and unwittingly saying things I should not have said. In other words, we should express opinions but also tread softly and be open for counter-arguments. We should even be willing to swallow the bitter pill and admit that when we are wrong – which might sometimes happen. On top of it, we should encourage others to express opinions that are important to them even when we disagree with them.