Address, Madina Institute
By: Ingrid Rosendorf Joys, General Secretary STL
First and foremost; thank you for the invitation to this exiting seminar about the road to community, also focusing on polarisation and division in society.
My name is Ingrid Rosendorf Joys, and I am the General Secretary of The Council of Religious and Life Stance communities in Norway – in short STL.
It is indeed a pleasure and honour to talk after Professor Al-Ninowy. We have met before. Professor Al-Ninowy was here to speak on a Conference STL co-organised with the University of Oslo a few years back. There is a funny story there, that I trust Professor Al-Ninowy remembers: When Al-Ninowy was here at the time we were invited to an audience at the Royal Castle, to meet with the Crown Prince. The Crown Prince had seen a poster about the conference and was interested in the topic that was similar to the topic of today’s conference. Since he – the Crown Prince – was not able to attend the seminar, he invited us to come and see him the day before. We did – this was right before the National Day – 17 May/17. mai and the Royal Band was rehearsing by playing the national anthem on the Castle Square, it was pump and circumstances but we had a very good conversation with the Crown Prince about the opportunities and challenges in a pluralistic society.
Anyway – STL has for 21 years brought together religious and life stance communities (life stance is the humanists, the non-believers) for dialogue and political impact. This was important twenty years back and is probably even more important today: securing platforms for interreligious dialogue.
The common aims for The Council`s work are:
- To promote mutual understanding and respect between different religious and life stance communities through dialogue.
- To work towards equality between various religious and life stance communities in Norway based on the UN`s covenants on Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.
- To work internally and externally with social and ethical issues from the perspective of religions and life stances.
The two main areas in which we work are dialogue and political work.
The situation in Norway – both present and past – has been blessed with good relations and high level of trust between the religious communities. This is probably also because of the cooperation that has been going in for more than 20 years. It is also reasons to believe that the current cooperation builds and rebuilds the trust between the religious communities. As we realise that we are currently moving into more challenging phases in Norway, Europe and beyond, we believe – we even count on – that this advantage will be constructive in our efforts, enabling us to live together in diversity.
So what are the factors that can lead to divide?
Socio-economical factors are important. This is perhaps the single most important factor. The growing distance between rich and poor. The experience of lack of opportunities, the experience of racism, inequality and limited life chances. The experience of exclusion. The lack of recognition when it comes to religion and culture heritage and practices can also be important.
So how do we prevent this gap within the society from happening? What are the measures and countermeasures?
First and foremost we need to recognise that Norway has been a country with few differences between the inhabitants. We were all farmers and fishermen back in the days, everybody was members of the same Church, the State Church. This is eventually changing. To become a diverse society is a process. Jonas Gahr Støre said one time when we were discussing the minority religions position in Norway: We use to be clever dealing with similarities but we need to be better dealing with differences.
In STL we promote building a society open to religious and life stance believes and practices. We believe that it is vital that people can live their religious life in the society with as few obstacles at possible.
We believe that people should be able to observe and be religious from cradle to grave and that the society should allow and support it.
We realize that not all things happening in the name of religion are positive, but we believe that a society open to religion, to discussion about religion and even open to criticism of religion is better suited to deal with both the positive and the negative elements within or in the outer limits of religion.
We experience that the religious communities contribute quite a lot in the society. Religion offers a frame for ethical reflection and a base for identity. Often religious communities can be a bridge between the society of origin and the new country. They offer after school activities for children, women’s groups, choir exercise and lunch for the elders to mention but a few activities.
Religion can be an integration tool but it can also nurture a «us» and «them» rhetoric or paradigm. We need to build on the positive aspects and make our voices heard when we experience the latter. The interreligious platforms as STL are important in such processes. By being representative and wishing each other well, we can be a platform for common concern and best practices. We need to remind ourselves that my freedom is dependent on your freedom.
This autumn STL is very much involved in the work going on regarding the new proposed law on religion and life stance communities. Norway is increasingly more diverse when it comes to cultural and religious belonging. We believe in – and work for – a society open to different religions and life stances. We believe that people should be allowed to live their full life including their spiritual sides open in the society. We believe in an active and supported politics on this field and we believe that the politics should be built on equality between the religious communities. We argue for a liberal society where people can believe what they wish, change their believes and choose not to believe. We aim to build a society of disagreement. We acknowledge the common solutions and the reasonable special interests.
So all is fine then, one might ask? And much is in fact working just fine. But there is of course work in process and there are challenges ahead. Let me end by mentioning a few of them. Two of them addressing the religious communities and four addressing the society at large:
- That religious communities are fulfilled by being on their own and not contributing to the larger society.
- The moderate within the different religions avoid confronting their extremists? (I think that all moderate have a responsibility to fight extremism within their tradition, respond to voices and groups that highjacks their religion.)
- That all politics are identity politics thus reducing all of us “to become our religion”. I believe all of us have multiple identities. To quote the famous Muslim thinker, Tariq Ramadan: – It is possible to be both a poet and a vegetarian.
- That we are so afraid for pluralism and diversity that we fear religion because religions are diverse.
- That we say we wish to integrate our newcomers but instead assimilate them.
- That we nurture false agreement instead of building a society of disagreement where we can focus on what people contribute with instead of who they are.
I leave it with this and look forward to the discussion.