Age-old principles which are still modern

Holy books give advice about how people should live in many ways, how we should behave towards each other and what feelings we harbour and show.

In Jeremiah 9:23-24, we read: “Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength, or the rich boast of their riches, but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight, declares the Lord.”

The Quran, too, even more clearly than the Bible, underlines the importance of modesty, humility and dignity, not only for women but even more so for men. Pride or arrogance is disliked the most because it is a thick veil which hides one’s shortcomings from his own view, and thus prevents him from removing them and attaining perfection.

But this is not meant to be a theological article. I intend, however, to seek advice and build on the wisdom of the Abrahamic religions. At all times, we have to implement the wisdom in the books, whether we are religious or not, because I believe it is above time and place, and it belongs to all religions; there are common values that all of us should bow to—because they lift us up and regulate how we live.

In our day and time, we often say that we have to argue for ourselves so that others will not step on us and keep us down. That concerns gender issues and racial discrimination, and many other things. Those who have had the power before have often exercised their power and status with arrogance and feeling of superiority, even when they knew they had no right to do so. The recent Black Lives Matter movement, following the sad police brutality in the USA when George Floyd was killed on 25 May 2020, has grown roots not only in the USA but the world over. It shows that many organisations and institutions must re-evaluate their values and develop such that are neutral and universal, the way the fundamental values in the holy books are.

I have in earlier articles drawn attention to the important work of the eminent scholar of theology and moral issues, Karen Armstrong, who among numerous other books, has written, ‘A Letter to Pakistan’, published in 2012, after she had spoken about it at the Karachi Literature Festival in 2011. She formulated the principles of what has become known as the ‘Charter of Compassion’, where she stresses the fundamental Golden Rule of doing unto others what we want others to do unto us, essential in everyday life and in creating global understanding and a peaceful world. In such a process, there can be no arrogance and feeling of superiority, only of humility, struggling for dignity and justice for all.

In democratic politics, arrogance and the feeling of superiority cannot be accommodated. Politicians must be convincing and self-assertive, alright, but also open for discussion and debate, and even realising that sometimes they may be wrong. It is more productive and easier to win over opponents if one is pragmatic, factual, and build on scientific and other knowledge. Democratic politicians who are modest and humble may actually be more successful in the long run, domestically and internationally, indeed in countries where religion plays a more direct role, such as Pakistan. Pakistanis know that Islam doesn’t want anyone to be arrogant and feel superior.

Yet, it is also a fact that in the political style that is ‘in’ nowadays, with populism, such as in Trump’s America and in other countries, arrogance and even feeling of superiority, are common among many politicians. That is sad, indeed in the USA, which is a western country where religion otherwise still plays a more direct role in public life.

In Norway, we recently have a heated debate about the employment of the new chief of the huge Norwegian Oil Fund, NBIM, which is the world’s largest government fund, administered by the country’s central bank. The basic principles of NBIM were revisited and ethical issues related to Nicolai Tangen, the chosen candidate’s private economy and companies, as he is a very wealthy man, were on the agenda in controle committee and the parliament’s standing committee on finance, chaired by the Norwegian MP Mudassar Kapur. Norway has as an official policy that NBIM’s investments shall be ethical, and there is a long list of what that means, including that tax paradises must not be used. However, Tangen has himself invested his money in tax paradises for tax reasons. There were questions about how the chief could then fulfil the government’s work to reduce the role of tax paradises in the world.

Finally today, let me state that the basic principles in the Abrahamic religions that I discussed in the beginning of my article, still are valid in local and international politics today, yes, including in NBIM. They are fundamental to us irrespective of specific religion or faith. That I find interesting and important to realise.

Atle Hetland
The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from university, diplomacy and development aid. Email:

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