Historical archive

Coexistence of Religions — Values and Tolerance

Historical archive

Published under: Stoltenberg's 2nd Government

Publisher Ministry of Foreign Affairs

I believe that dialogue and compromise are essential if we are to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Opening a dialogue does not mean giving up conflicting principles or values, Jonas Gahr Støre said in his address to the 7 th> Annual North South Europe Economic Forum in Oslo. (28.09.06)

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Minister of Foreign Affairs Jonas Gahr Støre

Coexistence of Religions – Values and Tolerance

7th Annual North South Europe Economic Forum (ANSEEF), Oslo, 28 September 2006

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

It is indeed a pleasure for me to welcome you all to Norway and to Oslo. On behalf of Prime Minister Stoltenberg, the patron of this event, it is an honour for me to represent the Norwegian Government here today – and I am delighted that Oslo has been chosen as venue.

I would like to extend a warm thank-you to the Chair, Dr Gramke, to the director and staff of the Institute for European Affairs (INEA), to the founder of the annual conference, Dr Tara, to the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) for organising it, and to the generous sponsors for making it possible.

It should come as no surprise that a Norwegian Foreign Minister applauds the choice of Oslo as venue for this conference.

But let me argue my case: tomorrow the main topic will focus on politics and economics, with an emphasis on the High North – which is in fact the key strategic priority of the Norwegian Government.

The beautiful surroundings we are in right now – high above Oslo – are around the 60 th> parallel. To most Europeans we are already well on the way to the North. But the High North is defined as north of the 70 th> parallel – considerably further north of most European horizons.

It is an area of Northern Europe where important developments pertaining to energy, management of living resources, industry, the environment and climate change are unfolding. It is a region full of opportunities and challenges. For Norway, both as a coastal state with jurisdiction over waters six times the size of its mainland area, and as neigbour to Russia. And for the rest of Europe depending as it does – as we all do – on vital renewable and non-renewable resources that are found in plenty in the High North.

But then there is another important theme on our agenda, and it is this that has inspired my intervention today – the coexistence of religions and the importance of values and tolerance in the age of globalisation. This issue is a relevant one in every setting in today’s interconnected world. I have been foreign minister now for nearly a year, and I see how this issue is emerging and re-emerging on the agenda week after week. Indeed, it may be prove to be the most important issue of our time, the test of our resolve to secure global peace and cooperation.


The coexistence of religions is a fundamental challenge in European countries, and in countries all over the world.

But we should bear in mind that the positive aspects of coexistence, the mutual, fruitful enrichment of society that continues to take place across religious and ethnic dividing lines rarely reach the headlines.

But these positive aspects exist. They are happening every day. Seen in a global context, successful coexistence may be the rule rather than the exception.

The media, however, seizes upon the incidents of tension, intolerance, and even discrimination and violence. And these are real. They are many and they are worrying. And they are close to us, and we need to deal with them.

Many politicians and researchers in the 20 th> century thought that modernisation and globalisation would cause religion to fade away, and society to become more and more secular.

This does not seem to be the case.

We see a growing interest in and involvement in religion. We see that religion is becoming increasingly important in the political sphere.

What people believe in has become politics. How people practice their religion has become politics. And in some regimes, politics equals religion.

Globalisation means that people from different cultures and religions meet, that different traditions and values are exposed to each other, often in real time, often with brutal effects.

But let us not forget that it is not religions that meet. It is people. People with a faith, a dedication and a vision that is inspired or legitimised by religion.

It is not, therefore – at the outset – religion that is the problem. It is intolerance, exclusion of others, discrimination, prejudice and xenophobia that we must stand up to.

And I belong to those who see the concept of “the clash of civilisations” as a misconception. As Dr Tara alluded to, the greatest challenges are rather to be found within civilisations, in the conflicts between different groups of the same religion.

All religions are potential bearers of peace, reconciliation and reflection. We need to find more ways of utilising this potential.

As Rev. Cannon Dr Trond Bakkevig wrote in a recent article: ”Dialogue between religions is absolutely necessary to enable religions to see themselves from others’ perspectives. Religious dialogue promotes a healthy examination of one’s own beliefs, and makes it easier to work together for peace and justice.”

And equally important – it is us human beings who are responsible for bringing about hatred, fear and violence.

We know this. The recent shots fired at the Jewish synagogue here in Oslo have shocked us deeply. We count now on the police to investigate the incident and ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice. And we must count on the overwhelming majority to denounce terror, violence and hatred.

This is our message to the Jewish community – and to all religious communities: your safety is our safety – Oslo is our common city – a city of inclusion. The attack is deplorable and totally unacceptable. And it demonstrates how important it is for us to fight extremism and violence.

The challenge goes further. With renewed tension in the Middle East we need to highlight more clearly that the politics of Israel and the religion of Judaism are two separate issues. Jews around the world must not be held responsible for the situation in the Middle East.

Similarly, we cannot hold Muslims responsible for the acts performed by radical Islamists. Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are two faces of intolerance that our democratic society must fight to the end.

It is a challenging task to raise awareness of this complex and multifaceted issue, and to find ways of engaging people in meaningful discussions.


Focusing on the European experience, we have to acknowledge that some citizens still see their societies as ethnically and culturally one-dimensional. I believe some in Norway do.

This makes the integration of religious and cultural minorities more complicated.

We see that some groups, even political parties, have demanded that minorities adopt all the values and traditions of the majority. Minorities are held collectively responsible for the opinions and actions of a few individuals. And, what we now see more frequently, is that groups are often defined according to religious beliefs.

Thus every Muslim is expected to condemn the violent acts of the Islamist extremists. And every Jew is held responsible for the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. Both approaches are wrong; both approaches put people in boxes.

It is easy for stereotypes to arise also in multifaith and multicultural societies. Stereotypes are simplifications of reality. And they become dangerous when they take the form of unfounded, hostile, black-and-white images.

We must make everybody feel that they belong and – at the same time – that they are able to preserve their religious and cultural identity.

If we fail to give all our citizens the same opportunities, we will see an increase in social inequality and injustice. We need to bring every individual in our communities on board and make them feel that they have a stake in society.

Many Muslim communities in Europe, Norway included, are at the lower end of the socio-economic scale with lower living standards, less participation in higher education and greater hurdles to access the labour market.

At the same time, cultural ties within these communities are also making the barriers to integration higher rather than lower.

There is more bonding inside these communities than bridging with other communities.

These are structural challenges and we need to address them. This is a complex task and goes beyond the focus of my address.

But one thing I am certain of: finding more successful approaches to integration is the most pressing challenge for our societies.

Looking beyond our own societies, we see how the process of globalisation can easily lead to greater polarisation.

In the rhetoric of the war on terror, and other battles and struggles, of the perceived “clash of civilisations”, it is the extremes that dominate. We are being divided into “civilisations”, into “us and them”, “the good and the evil”, “those who are with us and those who are against us”, “friends and enemies”.

So, what opportunities do we have for peaceful coexistence?

I believe the key tool in our globalised world is dialogue. Dialogue based on a firm understanding of values, human rights and mutual obligations.

Some say that dialogue and compromise are signs of weakness.

I strongly disagree. I believe that dialogue and compromise are essential if we are to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Opening a dialogue does not mean giving up conflicting principles or values. It is a way of managing fundamental differences. Dialogue can be seen as a value – as a success – in its own right. And dialogue and engagement are ancient tools of diplomacy – ancient and at the same time modern. Those who believe solely in military intervention are just ancient – and not modern at all.

Earlier this year – as we all know – emotions ran high following the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. The episode challenged us to reflect on the following questions.

How do we exercise freedom of expression – a key human right – while respecting the diversity of our multicultural world?

Can we accept restrictions or limitations on a fundamental human right?

What are the long-term consequences of being insensitive to the culture, faith and emotions of others?

And what does tolerance really mean? Can my reaction to what I perceive as your intolerance come across as intolerant itself?

These questions apply to all of us: representatives of governments, of the media, and people who identify themselves within or outside a religion. For many people in my country, it was a big surprise that Muslims reacted so strongly to the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. And vice versa, many Muslims could not understand how anyone could commit such an outrageous act as to print the cartoons.

Quickly the debate turned towards the dangerous dichotomy of “us and them” – “we and the others”.

We learned that we did not need to apply a global perspective to grasp this polarisation. We did not need to go to the Middle East or even half as far to meet reactions.

The reactions were unfolding in the midst of our own society.

Norwegians of the Muslim faith – many of them born in Norway, educated in Norway – stood up and said that they too felt deeply insulted. In our own language, with reference to our own cultural code, they explained their inner feelings.

That made us ask: How do we handle this? Should we print the images? And if not, why not? And either way – what is really at stake here?

At the height of the controversy following the publication of the cartoons, we discovered that we already had an important channel of dialogue. Two religious organisations – the Islamic Council in Norway and the Church Council of Ecumenical and International Relations – sat down together to address the issue.

The dialogue had a considerable impact.

First, it enhanced respect across potentially tense and divisive lines.

Second, it seized the middle ground.

And third, it challenged the dominance of the extremes.

The purpose of the dialogue was not to agree, since it makes little sense to seek to agree on the value of one faith versus another. But the two organisations identified some common principles which they could both agreed on the “bridges” leading to common ground and a joint platform. They sought to find out how to manage differences, how to be sensitive to the deeply held beliefs of others. They published a common statement that highlighted the importance of religious feelings and underlined that freedom of expression is a fundamental right – but one that must be exercised with respect and wisdom.

The basis for this wisdom is found in many of Europe’s schools and intellectuals. For example, the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, has given us important insights into how we can make democracy function in a multicultural and multireligious society.

Habermas warns against underestimating the importance of religion in a democracy. He encourages people to be tolerant and to respect the integrity of religious people.

At the same time, Habermas makes it clear that everybody must be able to participate in the public debate on an equal basis, regardless of their religious or secular standpoint. This makes it possible to agree upon common principles that are universal and binding.

Both religious leaders and ordinary members of religious communities must be encouraged to take part in the democratic debate. We must create and strengthen arenas for this debate, at both the formal and the informal level. And for this to happen – in any given country or community – it is vital that we all speak the same language, that we have channels of communication.

Then, there are those who believe that we should have more restrictions on what can be expressed. I am not convinced.

Blasphemy laws are still in force in many countries, including in Norway. But my country’s blasphemy laws have not been invoked since the 1930s, and to be frank, they do not seem to be an appropriate way to approach the cultural and religious issues of the 21 st> century. They were originally drawn up to protect the religious establishment – the church in the case of Norway – more than religious individuals.

Besides, blasphemy laws can easily be misused to silence critical questions about religion and authority. As we know from history, such laws have been used in Europe to persecute individuals with dissenting beliefs.

There can be no real freedom of religion without freedom of expression. They are interdependent, and it is therefore wrong at the outset to present them as conflicting rights.

We do, however, have to ask ourselves: Is it reasonable to refrain from expressing certain views out of consideration for religious sensitivities? How can we ensure good, ethical journalism that upholds freedom of expression while respecting religion and beliefs?

The right to freedom of expression can only be restricted in connection with expressions that encourage acts of violence or discrimination against individuals who practice a particular religion.

Defamation of a religion might be offensive to its followers, but it is not in itself a violation of either national law or human rights. People must accept that their religion’s values and doctrine may be criticised and questioned.

What we must strive for in Europe is a pluralist and tolerant environment for religious discussion. This would give everyone the opportunity to counter criticisms and engage in debate on values and ideas.

The media, obviously – as you will be discussing later on – also have a key role to play. They have a vital function as watchdog in any democratic society. The media should enjoy freedom of expression and editorial freedom.

However, the media also share the responsibility for fostering mutual understanding and respect in our societies.

Presenting stereotypes in the form of hostile images is counterproductive to our efforts to create pluralist and tolerant societies.

It is important that the media – together with civil society and governments – present a balanced picture of reality. Governments and the media have different responsibilities and duties. In a democratic society, we meet both as common stakeholders and as opponents.

Governments have to state – and re-state – the value of freedom of expression. And they must be ready to fulfil their obligations to protect this right – not least by ensuring safe working conditions for editors, journalists, and photographers.

In short, we have the responsibility to guarantee a free press. I believe our responsibility also entails ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to exercise freedom of expression.

But governments also have other key responsibilities that are imposed by international law or national regulations. We have a duty to protect all human rights in a fair and equal manner.

We face this challenge both in politics and in journalism. Few issues are one-dimensional. All people, but especially those who are weak and vulnerable, have the right to be protected, and not be subjected to harassment or discrimination.

To a certain extent, such protection can be secured by law. But not completely. Some of this responsibility falls to us as individuals, and the messengers, the media. Each and every one of us must endeavour to act with sensitivity and wisdom.

It is a positive sign that these topics are now on the global agenda for exchange and debate.

Three weeks ago Norway co-hosted a Global Inter-Media Dialogue together with Indonesia, in Bali. The idea was to invite media representatives to discuss tolerance and freedom of expression. Almost 80 journalists took part. The conference proved to be a success, first of all because the media representatives found the meeting necessary, useful and inspiring.

The preparations were challenging and highlighted the importance of engaging moderate forces in dialogue. Norway and Indonesia plan to continue the cooperation, and hope to co-host a follow up meeting in Norway next year.


Dear friends,

Europe – both in north and south – is regarded as a stable continent.

But its history is far from harmonious - and it is easy to forget that the Europe we live in today, where many different states, cultures and languages interact quite peacefully and benefit from one another, is in fact a major achievement – and a fairly recent achievement.

The European continent is well organised, it is safe and secure – and it is a continent of interdependency.

In this context, the European Union has played, and continues to play, a vital role in defining and developing common ground on which all Europeans can participate and prosper. Two and a half years ago, the EU grew dramatically with the addition of more than 100 million people from Central and Eastern Europe. Thanks to the EU – and to some extent thanks to NATO – this transition has been managed with care and inclusion.

Norway is not a member of the EU, but we are ardent Europeans. Through our participation in the European Economic Area (EEA), we are an integral part of the Internal Market, of the enlarged EU. And we contribute to and benefit from social and economic harmonisation across the union.

Through the EEA and Norwegian Financial Mechanisms we have taken on a particular responsibility for enhancing solidarity, opportunity and cooperation in Europe. These mechanisms make available 1.17 billion euro over a five-year period to support projects in a wide variety of sectors.

The aim is to reduce social and economic disparities in Europe and to support new EU member states in their efforts to participate fully in the Internal Market.

Tomorrow – as I said – your focus will be on the High North of Europe, an emerging and fascinating region, a region of great promise.

There is an extensive Northern European cooperation covering a broad geographic area: from the European Arctic and sub-Arctic to the southern shores of the Baltic Sea, including the countries in its vicinity; from the north-west of Russia in the east, to Iceland and Greenland in the west.

The EU’s Northern Dimension, in which Norway, Iceland and Russia are partners, is an important political framework in this respect. This framework will change in 2007, when the Northern Dimension becomes a common endeavour, and the EU countries and the Northern Dimension countries become partners on an equal footing.

The broad geographic perspective of the Northern Dimension – as well as the visionary regional project of the Euro-Arctic Barents Cooperation launched in 1993 – reflect the importance of seeing the challenges and opportunities in this vast area in an overall European – well, even global – context. For Norway it is important that cross-border issues related to the environment, nuclear safety, natural resources, social welfare and health care are included as priority sectors.


To conclude – dear friends – it is interesting to note that foreign policy today extends from the management of natural resources in northern waters – to the management of religious diversity, faith and cultural pluralism in a globalised world. It is all about vital resources and basic values.

Once again we are reminded that foreign policy is not about taking the path of least resistance; it is about striving to reach high ideals, paving the way for freedom, human rights, democracy and justice – and for global understanding.