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The Spirit of Norway
Sep 1, 2011

A model of reconciled diversity is the only way to the future in our globalized world.

It is indeed a tremendous challenge to come to terms with the perplexity of religion and politics in our time. As acts of terrorism are wreaking havoc in many parts of the world, people turn to religion both to find the cause and the healing. Questions abound. Can religion be a source for tolerance and reconciliation in the 21st century, or is it a breeding ground for hatred and violence? Is religion being hijacked from inside by misguided believers and by cynic political extremists? Grand theories of conspiracy against specific religions or political systems instill anxiety among ordinary people.

As the 9/11 tragedy in the USA is indelibly inscribed as a watershed in world history, so will 22.7.2011 for ever be remembered as a massacre that changed Norway. The first was a heinous act of people who misrepresented Islam to punish and humiliate a world power seen to be responsible for the suffering of millions of Muslims around the world. The other was directed against the State itself and the political leadership of Norway, by a person who used Christian imagery to express his hatred of Muslims. The perpetrator sees Norway's multiculturalism and open society as submission to a dangerous and foreign religion. He saw himself as true crusader for a Christian Europe. I believe it is fair to say that none of the perpetrators of these tragic events genuinely represent the religion they profess. Their unspeakable acts of violence against fellow human beings constitute a crime not only against humanity, but against God under whatever name.

These watershed events are reminders that to unravel the perverse mindset of extremists one has to go beyond personal faith and beliefs and look to other constitutive factors of psychological, social, cultural and political nature. Such factors do not provide an excuse for the horrendous acts of terror, but they indicate the complexity that needs to be addressed in curing this cancer in the body of humanity. But also collective and individual perceptions of oppression, marginalization and disrespect, feed a legitimate sense of loss and betrayal that offers a breeding ground for fanaticism and revenge. No single historic religion is without a history of inbred violence, be it Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or others.

While the reaction in the USA and some European countries after 9/11 was crusader language and large-scale cancellation of fundamental civil and political rights, the reaction in Norway, eloquently and consistently expressed by the Prime Minister and other political leaders, and hailed by the vast majority of the population, has been to call for an even more inclusive democracy, and more respect of human dignity and human rights for all. The message was clear; the way forward is not revenge, nor curtailing of fundamental freedoms, but increased openness to a more multicultural and multi-religious society. Religious leaders and communities have reacted in unison against the exploitation of their faith and spirituality using hatred and fear. They join the call for tolerance and mutual respect. In all honesty, it has to be added that some pockets of conservative Christians have expressed sympathy for the opinions of the terrorist, although not for his criminal acts. The same goes for some politicians on the far right of the political spectrum.

It is my humble opinion that the reaction of official Norway sets a standard for others to follow in countries where far-right ideologies and fundamentalist religious movements and individuals threaten to destabilize society. A model of reconciled diversity is the only way to the future in our globalized world. This is the message of our youth, those who lost their lives and those who barely escaped. They are the victors. Terrorists will always be the losers. This is the spirit of Norway. The political battle to sustain this legacy will show the strength of our nation.

Dr. Gunnar Stalsett, Bishop emeritus of Oslo
Former Vice Chair of the Nobel Peace Prize committee
Moderator of the European Council of Religious Leaders, Religions for Peace