The realities of Norway contrast in many ways with the situations in Egypt, Palestine and Israel, which the Gandhi Voyage visited before arriving in Oslo.
Although the Scandinavian countries are often applauded internationally for their progressive attitudes, commitment to foreign aid, and considerable financial prosperity, the encounters over these days revealed some of the challenges that Norway faces. At the same time, audiences were keen to hear impressions from the time in Palestine and Israel, and the Gandhis’ involvement in peace-building efforts between Pakistan and India were also the subject of lively exchanges.
Speaking at the Norsk Utenrikspolitisk Institutt (Norwegian Institute for International Affairs), Prof Gandhi examined the relationship between Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, addressing the sharp divides and the noticeable deficit of honest dialogue, despite some efforts. He recognised the imposing challenges the region faces, but was generally optimistic, insisting that 'the solution to suspicion is to meet the person who suspects you - suspicion cannot be removed without dialogue.’ Returning to this issue later in the week at an open house meeting at Sophus Lies Gate, the Initiatives of Change Centre in Oslo, he also identified the hopeful signs from the joint initiative of the Times of India group in India and the Jung group in Pakistan, who have collaborated to bring fresh, positive perspectives to their respective readers on both sides of the border; 'sometimes a simple message does acquire powerful champions and they are able to address the whole nation', Prof Gandhi said.
Seemingly intractable divisions in many corners of the globe turn on widely divergent views of what is meant by justice. Given Prof Gandhi's recent visit to Palestine, and the focus on Pakistan/India relations in many of the public meetings, the inevitable question was eventually posed to him in blunt terms, suggesting that his remarks on justice were 'too easy, because everyone has their own idea of justice'. He agreed with the point, but continued: 'One answer is dialogue: listening to the respective notions of justice. There is no way forward if we are simply focused on determining which theory is correct. The beginning of justice is the acknowledgment that my idea of it may not be the best.' He added that forgiveness can often be a key to transforming a situation; 'when one human heart experiences the ability to forgive, then something happens in the world.'
These questions are pertinent to the situation in Norway, both because of the large Pakistani population in Norway, but equally because the seeds of similar problems are being identified by many. The Muslim population in Norway is rapidly growing, and after the paroxysm of emotional responses on many sides to the Danish political cartoons episode in 2005 and 2006, the need for a more developed and appreciative understanding between different groups needs a more concerted response. But meeting a group of Muslims in Daru Salaam Islamic Centre, Gandhi expressed his concern with generalisations, highlighting that 'in the same way that Nordic countries are not one homogenous people, nor are Muslim countries'.
Jorulf Silde, who is overseeing the ‘greening’ of Oslo University, emphasised the problem surrounding motivation in public policy and society's attitudes: 'if we let society build its laws, its walls - everything - on fear, it will be a terrible society.' Creating a space for dialogue and understanding that can confront the fear factor is an area that Initiatives of Change has identified as a need in Norway. One of the tools being employed is the Peace Circles, and during one evening some of the Voyage team had the opportunity to meet with the women who have taken part in the three Peace Circles in Oslo. The idea was to have a chance to gain some insight into the lives, concerns and engagements of women from other parts of the world by sharing stories and convictions. The group comprised 30 women of a variety of backgrounds, and a 'feminine power to embrace and to listen', as one participant described it.
As Norway continues to grapple with these issues and others - including signs of the breakdown in relationships within families - the Gandhis' visit highlighted that initiatives are underway to address these challenges, which are also mirrored in many ways throughout other Western European countries.