IN A WORLD WHERE A KNIFE, a gun, or a raised fist rapidly become defining symbols of the modern age, an emblem as old as humanity has emerged to stand up against intolerance – the circle.
Norwegians have felt the deep sting of hatred in recent weeks and as a people they could be forgiven for secluding themselves in their homes, with curtains drawn. They chose the opposite, preferring to testify to their respect of tolerance in the light of day.
It all started on Saturday, February 21, when more than 1,000 Muslims gathered together to form a human shield around Oslo’s synagogue. It was a direct response to an earlier attack on a synagogue in neighbouring Denmark a week previous, where a Danish-born son of Palestinian immigrants killed two people in an event promoting free speech at the city’s synagogue. It was Copenhagen’s only synagogue and the effects were immediately felt.
So it was that Oslo’s Muslim community showed their solidarity with their Jewish neighbours by forming a circle, 1,000 people strong, around the synagogue as the service progressed. Norway’s Jewish community only numbers 1,000 people itself and was understandably insecure following the attack of the previous week. The demonstration sent a clear signal to not only Oslo, but all of Europe, that the time had come to stand up against hatred, prejudice, and killing.
The Jewish community and all of Oslo could have left things at that, but they had a further statement to make, again in the form of a circle. Hundreds of Norwegians from all walks of life gathered to form a “human peace ring” around a Muslim mosque as a kind of symbolic “thank you” for what the Muslim supporters had done the week previous. The call for citizens to join the rally put it simply but firmly:
“We want to stand shoulder to shoulder with our Muslim fellow citizens to show disgust towards increasing Muslim hate and xenophobia in society. In this time of fear and polarization we feel it is more important than ever to stand together and show solidarity. We believe in and will highlight the human will to live together in peace and in respect for each other regardless of religion and ethnicity.”
This is what it will take, not just in those areas where attacks occurred, but in every peace-loving community around the world, to remind us that we still have to gather if we are to prevail. Or, as Albert Schweitzer put it: “Until we extend our circle of compassion to include all living things, we will never find peace.”
Haters have to find objects against which they unleash their own inner turmoil. They lack a sense of proportion, believing that their own violent and hate-filled acts are greater than they really are. They live out their own alienation. In their actions they seek out respect as confirmation of their cause. But they can’t get it because the larger community of citizens and institutions are built on a greater understanding of tolerance. The powerlessness of those who hate to such a degree is revealed by those communities that refuse to yield. If forming a circle is the way move forward in peace, then so be it.