Sometimes, older Pakistanis tell me that in Scandinavia people behave towards each other, and have social systems that are more Islamic than what has yet been possible to implement in most Muslim countries. Every time somebody tells me that, I am very flattered. If it is really true, and in some ways it probably is, I am very impressed by the self-critical and idealistic assessment. The value of each human being is high in Scandinavia, and the ways we relate to, and treat each other are guided by moral and ethical norms and customs, with foundation in the Bible teachings and humanistic values.

But when Pakistanis say they appreciate many of the Scandinavian ways, I also ask myself, why don’t I, too, offer similar generous appreciations to people in Pakistan and in other countries. To some extent I would probably not do it because I wouldn’t endorse the social order in many poor countries, with great inequalities, class differences, lack of democracy, and the rich’ heavy-handed treatment of the poor. But couldn’t I express my approval of how well poor people manage to organize their everyday lives? Is it not impressive how most people, most of the time, manage to be kind to each other, considerate and concerned, living peacefully together, often in extended families and closely-knit communities, indeed with limited resources and poor material living conditions and services?

In other words, most people are kinder and better human beings than I and other people from the rich countries are. In the West, we have become self-centered and calculating, looking after our own interests first, with less consideration for our neighbour. Being a Norwegian myself, I consider it the state’s duty to help somebody in need, even if I were the closest neighbour; and the most I would probably do would be to alert the social services, and maybe provide some other token help. In the past, we were more like Pakistanis.

Today, Scandinavians don’t refer their political decisions and behavior to what they think is right according to the majority religion, Christianity, or to minority religions, of which Islam is largest, yet with just some 3-4 percent of the countries’ populations. About three-quarters of the people in Scandinavia say they are believers, but few in an orthodox, old-fashioned way.

Earlier though, when democracy grew roots, mostly in the 19th century, and when the welfare states were built, mostly in the first half or three-quarters of the 20th century, reference was often made to religion, not to dogma and doctrine, but to the moral and ethical principles of Christianity, which are similar in Islam. Direct reference to religion has been on decline for a couple of hundred years, although there are Christian parties in Scandinavia. The State Church was only dissolved in the last couple of decades; in Norway, only last year, and in Finland and Iceland it is still maintained.

Dissolving the State Church would by most be seen as making the countries more open to other religions. Immigrants and others who belong to other Christian denominations or other religions altogether, would welcome it. Obviously, Muslims have appreciated that Islam has become equal to Christianity, at least on paper, although there was already religious freedom, but one religion had a more prominent place. On the other hand, conservative Christians see the new situation as a general move away from religion (read: Christianity). That argument could also be used in Muslim countries should the hypothetical and unlikely happen that other religions were made equal to Islam in those countries, or even if the two main branches of Islam, Sunnis and Shiites, would be made equal within states where one of the two is dominant, which is usually the case.

I believe that to loosen the relationship between the state and one religion, Christianity, has made the Scandinavian countries more democratic. I do not feel that it directly follows that the states become less religious, at least not immediately; besides, the funding still comes from the state, which collects ‘church tax’, also other religious societies received government funding based on the number of members.

Leaving aside the earlier and current administrative aspects, it is interesting and important to know that even in Scandinavia, where many observers think that religion is less important than in other countries, indeed in Muslim countries, many political and social issues are still debated with religious references, including important issues such as women’s rights to decide on abortion; the right to use artificial birth control; women’s and men’s right to divorce and to remarry; the right to marry by free choice, also a person of the same sex; and many other issues. Even environmental, labour union issues, and so on, are often discussed with reference to religion, seeking moral foundations and values for one’s stand. Many religious leaders also see the importance of new laws even if they go against traditional Biblical interpretations. There is a constant debate within the former State Church and other denominations about how to interpret religious dogma and change doctrines, not only within the academic disciplines of systematic theology and homiletics, that is, how to interpret the Biblical texts and preach them in the present day, but also in the broader contexts. Earlier, much of this debate was left to theologians, but today lay and learned all take part.

In this article I try to shed some light on religion in Scandinavia, albeit scantily and brief. I underline that religion that it is still important even in Scandinavia. At first glance, many observers see people in Scandinavia as very secular, almost without religion. I say that is a wrong assessment. I rather say the opposite, notably that religion is a moral foundation for modern laws, yes, even when they seemingly do not follow a strict interpretation of the Bible.

Thus, I say that religion plays a key role in Scandinavia, again, mainly to decide on issues that make the lands more democratic with expanded equal rights, underlining the value of each human being and the way we live together. I believe that Pakistan, too, must become more open to diversity within Islam and other religions. It is important that discrimination of people from other religions than Islam is not tolerated; it also weakens Islam when it happens. Just recently, we experienced the assassination of a Christian in Balochistan, saddening all believers of any religion. I believe that Scandinavians should be listened to as for the way religion is used to decide on secular issues – and as regards faith issues, I believe Islam has a lot to teach all of us.

Let us celebrate these positive values as we this weekend mark mid-summer in the northern hemisphere, a season especially important to people in Scandinavia and elsewhere in the far north.

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

atlehetland@yahoo.com