The recent attention given to “honour killings” in Pakistan; the extremists’ attack on a bus mostly with Shiites from the north; and the sad incident of an 11-year old girl having been arrested, accused of blasphemy, made me reflect on numerous issues of wrong human behaviour in Pakistan, my home country Norway and elsewhere.

It is not the first time that we debate outdated cultural practices and traditions, often with moral and gender discriminatory aspects. Many times, religion is added and misused to justify it all. However, let us at the outset agree that no religious holy book, of any religion, permits cruelty against fellow human beings. Religion is about doing good to our neighbour, and believing in God, who is love.

The Quran states that mercy and forgiveness is better than revenge. The Bible’s New Testament narrates through many parables that Jesus taught his followers to forgive sinners and show compassion. Among Jesus’ followers, there were tax and customs collectors, seen as being corrupt sinners; there were prostitutes and outcasts; and there were other ordinary people, who needed God’s love. This was the new message and covenant; Jesus’ teaching was about a mild God, not the Old Testament’s hard God. The story about the woman, who was accused of adultery, is, perhaps, the best known. Jesus said that the one who was without sin should throw the first stone. Everybody left. Jesus told the woman that she, too, should go and sin no more! In other words, if God can forgive, who are we human beings then to say that we don’t forgive?

Yet, we know from history that religion has been used to include or exclude believers. Within religions, there is competition between various groups and denominations. It may often be secular power-struggle, rather than theological disagreements. Sometimes, the established larger groups will term smaller groups as non-Christian or non-Muslim, and define their right to exist.

This year, there is presidential election in America, as we all know. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney belongs to the Mormon faith, a small and very American Christianity sect. We witnessed debate about his faith, and some Christians, who belonged to larger groups, even consider Mormons a non-Christian cult. In Islam, we have similar sub-groups and opinions about others.

I believe a self-confident religion should allow and encourage sub-groups to develop, not for them to fight and quarrel with other groups, but to emphasise what they believe. Naturally, extreme sects should be questioned about their stance, but if they don’t harm others, they should also be allowed. I believe that a confident religion should help believers in other religions to practice their religion as well as possible, and they should be shown respect.

I remember some decades ago in Norway that we had a Minister of Church and Education, who was a nominal member of the Norwegian State Church. He was not a practicing Christian as would be common for the government’s head of the Church. The Bishop in Oslo was asked what he thought about that situation. He said that it was acceptable because he knew that the Minister, the late Einar Forde, who was also Deputy Chairman of the Labour Party, was interested in ideology, social equality, gender issues, development aid, and so many other issues that are indeed of concern to members of any religion. He worked for the betterment of people’s lives. The Bishop accepted his Minister, and it should be added, the Minister did indeed accept the Church that he had oversight over.

(Let me add a note about the Norwegian State Church. It was dissolved on May 21 this year, to be replaced by an independent people’s church, although the pastors and bishops will still receive their salaries from the state. Other religious societies, too, will receive government support, including Muslims. Symbolically, I believe the new situation shows greater openness and tolerance for other religions, which I know the large Pakistani-Norwegian community appreciate.)

Tolerance and inclusiveness in a society develop over time. It is not just in religion, but in many other fields that history shows that we were more intolerant in the past than we are today, and it is a fact that self-confident states, such as Norway and the other Nordic countries, have more generous and open attitudes towards other people. Urban, multicultural societies seem to have more positive attitudes to others. But it is not always the case. It is sad to see that even in Europe and America, melting pots for immigrants from all over the world, there is sometimes xenophobia and negative attitudes to people from other backgrounds and cultures. The recent Breivik terrorist killings and court case in Norway show the attitudes of one extremist, who also had sympathy from a small sub-group. He was opposed to Norway and Western Europe, allowing relatively large number of immigrants from different cultures and religions. I believe we have made a mistake in Europe not to discuss anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic and xenophobic attitudes in public. If the issues are debated in openness, there is hope that reason will prevail over ignorance.

One or two generations ago, racism was common and even institutionalised in a few countries. Today, I believe, there is less racism globally, but we are not yet “colour-blind”. We still have to work towards reducing it further, also in Pakistan, in many sectors of society. In sports, we have recently seen examples of racism that does not belong to our time. As regards discrimination of women, I believe that all over the world, there is more gender equality than ever. In education, for example, men must admit that girls and women often do better than we do, creating increased respect for women. Men who think that women should stay at home also have to admit that. There is more tolerance for various sexual, cultural, ethnic, geographic, linguistic and other minorities in most countries. Yet, there is a long way to go before we fully internalise Jesus’ teaching when he reminded people that there is no difference between a slave and a freeman or, a Jew and a Greek, because we are all one and the same in the eyes of God.

Again an example from Norway; the semi-nomadic Sami people in the north of the country are the indigenous Norwegians. They have been discriminated against for generations, but are today more accepted than ever before. When I grew up, many Norwegians, who had some Sami ancestry would try to hide it. Today, most of them feel proud of their background and work for observance of their rights. Hence, in recent statistics, the number of Norwegians, who consider themselves Sami, has grown by about a third. We have a separate Sami Parliament and a Sami Council working with the communities in the other Nordic countries and Russia. True, all this came late, but it is finally in place now, with relevant institutions and organisations. Improved knowledge has helped make the majority society realise that minorities are valuable and can enrich the society. Negative attitudes towards others are often based on ignorance, lack of information, fear and negative propaganda.

The United Nations and Unesco, in particular, have developed international standards and instruments, giving frameworks for human rights and tolerance. The Declaration of Principles on Tolerance summarises our rights and ideal behaviour at state, social and individual levels. In explaining the meaning of tolerance, it is emphasised that we should develop our capacity for independent and critical thinking. We should consider our own values so that we can reach a level of confidence and pride in ourselves. That is the basis for openness towards others.

The Unesco emphasises that education is the most effective means of preventing intolerance. The first step is to teach people what their shared rights and freedoms are, so that they may be respected, and so that they can help protect those of others. In Pakistan, we should continue our efforts in the schools, colleges, universities, NGOs and in society at large, so that tolerance and inclusiveness can become a trademark of the country. The tragedies I mentioned in the introduction to this article must never happen again, and they will not happen, if we become more confident and knowledgeable. Could not all educational institution in Pakistan make this year’s International Day for Tolerance, November 16, a special day for all citizens in and out of school?

 The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist based in Islamabad. He has served as United Nations specialist in the United States, as well as various countries in Africa and Asia. He has also spent a decade dealing with the Afghan refugee crisis and university education in Pakistan. Email: atlehetland@yahoo.com