Do We Criticize Others to Look Better Ourselves?

In politics as much as in religions, there is a tradition and culture for criticising others to define own values, beliefs, and standards.

The Islamic New Year, according to the Hijri Calendar, has just begun with the month of Muharram. It is a sombre time, especially the first ten days of the month, both for Shiite and Sunni believers, ending with Ashura on 17 July. We commemorate and reflect on the events in the Quran and also the serious issues in our own time. The month of Muharram is a time to take stock of the past as well as consider the opportunities and possibilities that lie ahead of us.

Let this preamble to my article today be a background to what I will discuss today. However, what I will discuss today is also a separate topic, notably the common way we human beings behave, individually and structurally, when we criticise others to look better ourselves. A friend reminded me of this recently, asking why we human beings criticise others rather than just defining our own foundations, values, and ways. This is certainly common in politics, but also in other fields, including religion, ideology, and in everyday life.

Some years ago, I worked with an Irish professor in anthropology in East Africa, who had received training to be a priest in the Catholic Church. Professor Reverend Tony Barrett said that the first couple of years of his yearlong training, much of the time went to define how the Catholic Church was different from the Protestant Church and its many denominations. He thought that rather than underlining the differences between the two major branches, the focus should rather have been on commonalities, even to include other faiths and religions. I believe that the more often we are reminded of that, the better we become as faithful human beings, especially in our time when there is high migration and a mixture of people of different backgrounds, cultures, and faiths. What we should always try to do is to be as good believers as we can in our own faith, and at the same time, allow others to be as good as they can be in their faith; we should borrow from each other, too, not necessarily to change, but simply to become better in own faith, learning and respecting others. After all, to be a human being, with its struggles and celebrations, is much the same wherever we were born, what we were taught, and what our faith is.

The famous religious historian, Karen Armstrong (b. 1944), who has visited Pakistan several times and established an international group with Pakistani members, is a particularly important analyst and thinker, emphasising commonalities in religions, indeed in all three Abrahamic religions. She has written a number of books after she resigned from being a religious sister in the Catholic Church in the UK over fifty years ago. I have been reminded of her important works by many Muslim men and women in Pakistan, especially women.

And then, last week, when the Norwegian PM Jonas Gahr Støre was interviewed by the newspaper ‘VG’ on his holiday island off the coast of South Norway, he was photographed with his summer reading on the table, notably a book by Karen Armstrong entitled ‘Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths’ (first published in 1996 and updated in 2015). Such a history book, by such a writer, is particularly important now when the tragic war rages between Israel and the Palestinian organization Hamas in Gaza.

Karen Armstrong manages to give a balanced view in her comparative religious studies, shedding insight into history and the present time. She is known for her work on Compassion and the Golden Rule, the opposite of criticising and drawing attention to differences within and between religions. In her book ‘A Letter to Pakistan’ (published in 2011), she discusses and explains the concept of the Golden Rule and Compassion, underlining that it means to try to understand others from their standpoint, and do unto others what we want others to do to us, or, said differently, not do unto others what we don’t want others to do to us. This is the foundation of all religions and of the worship of God. After she was awarded the TED Award in 2008, she used the money to develop a ‘Charter of Compassion’, with the international group I mentioned above. She has won a range of awards and honorary doctorates from Christian, Muslim, and secular universities, and other organizations and institutions.

In politics as much as in religions, there is a tradition and culture for criticising others to define own values, beliefs, and standards. Often, the criticism can be towards those who are closest to oneself. In certain ways, it may be useful to define oneself by underlining what is different in own thinking from what others believe and do, but at the same time, it is also be directly wrong. In practical politics and in everyday life, we should try to listen to our opponents much more than we do. I have written about this in a few earlier articles, saying that the established political parties, in Europe that means the social democratic parties, have a responsibility to listen to the new right-wing parties, who have gained some ground at elections and in opinion polls in recent years, sometimes up to a fifth or a third.

There is also support for the far left, such as in the recent French general elections. It is necessary that established old parties take seriously the opinions of people on the edges, although often extreme and protest-like. Debates should be true, honest, and respectful, even if we find the opponents’ stands outrageous. If we only criticise and characterise opponents rather than hold real debates, even dialogues, we learn little and may in the long run lose out. Also, we should realize that in our time, knowledge and competence to analyse is spread much broader than before, and that also means that the right to participate and the challenge is wider than before. Just the access we all have to look up and check facts and figures on the Internet has changed the ways of debating.

Again, to listen to others does not mean that we should change all our opinions; well, it may mean that when we learn, from friends and foes, we become more enlightened, moderate what we thought, and can draw better conclusions. I believe that in many cases, we would have been able to make better decisions for all if we had listened to all. My friend who reminded me of this was right. If we only criticise opponents rather than try to learn from them, we lose out. It is unfortunate that we get absorbed in our own righteousness rather than questioning and analysing independently. I believe that the current conflict between Russia and the West is a sad example of this, and also to a major extent the USA-China relations. I believe that the West’s rearmament, this week ‘celebrated’ at the NATO summit when the alliance is 75 years, is a tragic example of wrong thinking and action, lacking openness to each other, to real visions of peace for all - not having learned the meaning of Compassion and the Golden Rule in international politics and daily life.

Atle Hetland
The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from university, diplomacy and development aid. He can be reached at

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid