The role of religion varies from society to society and over time. In most societies, one religion has been either the majority religion or the only allowed religion. It is only in the last one or two hundred years, or even much less that we have become more multi-religious. We can reflect on history, why it has been the way it has been. I shall not do too much of that, at least not directly in today’s article – now at the time of Ramadan in Pakistan and worldwide. But I shall note that religion has been and is often used as an essential element in making a state be a state, indeed a nation. Religion is the glue that ties people together and is seen as a moral foundation, although the latter may not entirely derive from religion, but is nevertheless strengthened by religion. Still, religion can also divide.

In our modern time, when migration continues to be massive, although we may forget that it was always important. At other times, people movements were sometimes probably even more than today. One worth quoting example in this regard is the influx of foreigners to the Americas, in the second half of the 19th century when hordes of Europeans emigrated to the New World in tens of millions, fast outnumbering the indigenous people, not only in North America but also in South America. The traditional belief systems of the native Americans, including such related to societal and moral issues, were just ignored by the newcomers. Also, some newcomers came to that part of the word due to religious freedom and prosecution in Europe. Today, Europeans advocate religious freedom, and the right of people not to have a religion at all; the latter was indeed emphasised by the Soviet Union and by China, which is still considered communist.

I am not going to make a historical account and judgement. However, the general background aspects I have mentioned may give some general thoughts to the complicated history of the role of religion in modern times, and that we must be careful when we judge and criticise how countries’ treat and use religion even today.

I am a Norwegian, where we have enjoyed religious freedom for long (earlier with certain limitations), yet, Christianity was Norway’s state religion until 15 May 2012, ending a 500-year history. Today, the church and state are separate, but several details will only be implemented over time, such as matters related to government funding through taxation, salaries of the clergy, maintenance of church buildings and residences, etc. The other Scandinavian countries have undergone similar processes. But also today, the Protestant-Lutheran branch of Christianity is indeed the main religion and will remain so in the foreseeable future, with some two-thirds to three-quarters being members of the church, mostly the old state church, but also different denominations of what we call the ‘free church’.

According to the recently revised Constitution of Norway, the head of state, the king or queen, shall be a member of the old state church, the Protestant-Lutheran branch of Christianity. It is said that the current king, King Harald V, personally wanted that paragraph to remain part of the constitution. It is likely, though, that when future amendments are to be made, in some decades, and with a new head of state, that paragraph may also be changed – in line with what people will consider being more democratic, symbolically and de facto.

Let me now turn to the second main aspect of my article today, notably the issue of how a country portrays its religious and moral foundation through public holidays and related events. Holidays are not at all just days off from work that we know, indeed in Pakistan, where the religious holidays, indeed the Eid holidays, and the holy month of Ramadan, are central to the soul of the nation and the people – plus the independence day and the national military days.

The USA was created as a modern country with a clear division between religion (church) and state. Hence, it is only Christmas Day and Thanksgiving (the last Thursday of November) that have religious content while the other days are secular, well, they are quite much centred on military and patriotic issues. I am not sure that is better, though.

In Europe, holidays are mostly religious, plus one, sometimes two, national days, marking military victory and independence. Some of the latter days are not always holidays but are still marked in the country’s calendar, with official events and media coverage.

We live in a time when the nation-state is getting weaker, or rather, when there is more cooperation between groups of states, such as EU in Europe, and other groups elsewhere, often for trade purposes, but also for military (and peace) purposes, such as NATO. Capitalism has its international organisation in WTO. And the UN and the many specialised and other organisations have their roles – and potential roles – with dozens of days marking and drawing attention to important issues and causes, such as the UN Day of 24 October.

We live in a time when international and internal migration and urbanisation are essential, and when people travel as tourists, for work, family visits, and so on. Also, people who live in each country and community are more diverse than ever – as for religion, world outlook, values and more.

As touched upon above, holidays are not only for religious, national, and military aspects but also merely for labour union issues. A holiday means a day off from work. If the government wants to reduce the number of holidays, it becomes a labour union issue, and if it wants to add a holiday, it becomes an issue for the employers association. That has little to do with either religion, nationalistic or military reasons.

Do we need the holidays the way we have them? Yes, I think we do. And I think countries with a majority religion (Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, etc.) should have religious holidays. After all, they are important historically and serve the purpose of uniting people (well, sometimes divide), even in a time when people become more secular and live in multi-religious and multi-cultural societies. Some of the nationalistic holidays are important, too, but they should not have too much military and war aspects attached to them.

True, in the more and more secular West, it would be possible to take away some Christian holidays, possibly not having double holidays for Christmas, Easter and Whitsun (Pentecost), for example, and maybe some other days could also be removed. But, if we do that, I suggest we should add other public holidays. For instance, in Norway, there is not a single holiday from the beginning of June until the end of December. Could we not make Thanksgiving a holiday – as we early had a holiday in the autumn for prayer and repentance? But I would make it a bright day rather than a gloomy day!

In my home country, could we not consider making Eid-ul-Fitr a public holiday? Or could we perhaps find a day for all religions and faiths – or a World Day for Peace, or a day for diversity, inclusiveness and equality, including gender equality?

I am glad that for the first time in Norway, people have begun talking about establishing a Muslim holiday, with a small but crucial Muslim minority in a land with 6-700,000 immigrants (but less than half Muslims) out of just over 5 million people. And then, in Pakistan, and in other countries with religious minorities and indeed, religious diversity, which is growing in our time, we could have a holiday or two for those, too, couldn’t we?

When I in the 1980s and 1990s lived for many years in Kenya and Tanzania, it was always a pleasure to feel the atmosphere of other people’s religious feasts – on the radio, TV, in the neighbourhood, shopping centres and just when we met each other. Especially in metropolitan Kenyan capital Nairobi, we were good at sharing and caring for each other, even if it may have been a bit superficial as it is in urban settings. But even so, it helped in making us just feel that human oneness that is so important.

In the meantime, dear reader, may I wish Muslims and all others in Pakistan and beyond, Ramadan Mubarak. You are in my heart, and I hope I am in your heart.


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