Hello everyone. Thank you General Vij for the kind introduction, and thanks to the Vivekananda International Foundation for inviting me to speak with you all today. The Foundation has been an extraordinary partner for our Embassy, and we are very grateful. Bahoot Danyavad!
My name is Sarah Sewall, and I serve at the U.S. Department of State as the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights. I am thrilled to be in Delhi again for my first official trip in 2016.
If we look back over the last year of friendship between India and the United States, we find much to celebrate. Our two countries launched a new Strategic and Commercial Dialogue and held the first-ever Dialogue on UN and Multilateral Issues. We forged a landmark agreement to reduce the threat of global climate change. And this time last year, you honored our country by hosting President Obama as your chief guest in the Republic Day Parade.
As Secretary Kerry has said of US-India relations, “we have entered a new era.” When President Obama lights the diya in the White House to celebrate Diwali, when the First Lady shakes her shoulders to bhangra with children in Mumbai, and when Prime Minister Modi draws a crowd of 18,000 cheering Americans in New York’s Madison Square Garden, we know something is changing.
If the ties between our two governments are growing stronger, the ties between our societies — our economies, histories, and core values — have always been close. As you all know, Swami Vivekananda helped set that in motion when he traveled to Chicago over 120 years ago to introduce Hindu philosophy to America. I understand that his birthday was just yesterday, so it’s especially fitting that we take stock of the common ties he helped forge.
Today, the United States boasts the largest and most successful Indian diaspora in the world. They lead our top companies like Google and Microsoft and are responsible for an astonishing fifteen percent of all start-ups in Silicon Valley. These individuals serve in some of the highest positions in government and rank among our very best artists, writers, and entertainers – from Norah Jones to Jhumpa Lahiri to Aziz Ansari. Annual trade between India and the United States has grown to over 100 billion dollars.
But it goes deeper than that. Our countries also share a common story. We both cast off colonialism and embraced the power of everyday people to chart their own destiny. We built vibrant democracies where all groups — regardless of their gender, race, religion, or class — have equal rights under the law. Both our constitutions begin with the same three words: “We the people.” Diversity is fundamental to our national identities, and it gives us a vitality and resilience few others enjoy. That is why we protect the rights of Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Jains, Sikhs, and others, and celebrate them as inseparable parts of our national family, or as Gandhiji once said, as “branches of the same majestic tree.” More than our summits and dialogues, our trade and commerce, it is this shared history and common values that bind our nations together in a deepening partnership.
We have also been brought together by the shared trauma of terrorism — from the attacks against the United States on 9/11 to the attacks in Mumbai on 26/11, to the recent bloodshed in Pathankot earlier this month. We strongly condemn these attacks and express our deepest condolences to the victims and their families. We recognize that terror is too often on India’s doorstep.
That is why we are strengthening our counterterrorism cooperation across the board, which Secretary Kerry and Minister Swaraj detailed last September in the U.S.-India Joint Declaration on Combatting Terrorism. From expanding intelligence sharing, to cracking down on illicit terrorist financing, better securing our borders, ports and public transportation, and helping to train thousands of Indian security personnel — we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with India and all countries in the region against this common threat. And we will continue to work with the Government of Pakistan to take the fight to all terrorist networks in the border region and do everything in their power to help India achieve justice for the Mumbai attacks — which claimed both Indian and American lives. That is what partners do — we help each other overcome shared struggles and face hard truths.
And that is what I would like to do today: to speak openly and honestly, as partners, about a common challenge we face. India and the United States — both free, inclusive, and democratic societies — face a similar test in overcoming the threat of terrorism while staying true to our most cherished values.
The endurance of terrorism, and the rise of groups like ISIL, underscores the limits of conventional approaches and tools. We need a broader, bolder, and smarter approach to turn back terrorism — one that goes beyond countering terrorists with our military, intelligence, and law enforcement tools to also preventing people from becoming terrorists in the first place. Only then can we ensure that the terrorists we eliminate are not simply replaced. That is how we reduce this threat over the long term and make sustainable progress in this generational struggle.
But how do we do that? It begins with addressing the forces that radicalize individuals to join violent extremist movements. Desire for belonging, perceptions of injustice and abuse, corruption and neglect, discrimination and marginalization – all can create fertile soil for violent ideologies to take root. In the global age, digital platforms and the free flow of people and goods make it easier than ever for extremists to infiltrate our communities with hateful messages and false promises of fulfillment, shadowy recruiters, and how-to manuals for mass terror. Over time, the interaction of grievance and violent ideology can transform our neighbors, brothers, and sisters, into killers prepared to turn on their communities.
Traditional security tools — soldiers and surveillance, wiretaps and police — these alone cannot effectively counteract this process. That requires a far broader, “whole of society” approach.
This was the central message last February at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism — or CVE — where India and the United States stood with representatives from foreign governments, multilateral bodies, and civil society to galvanize global action behind a broader and more preventive approach to violent extremism. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon reinforced that message last week when he released the comprehensive Plan of Action on Preventing Violent Extremism.
The comprehensive CVE approach calls for partnerships at every level between government and civil society. Public officials play a critical role by governing effectively, inclusively, and upholding the rule of law, which limits the grievances violent extremists exploit, such as corruption, abuse, and discrimination. But CVE recognizes that our ability to challenge violent extremism also rests on local leaders — businesses, academics, women, youth, and the faith community — stepping up to push back against hateful ideologies and promote messages of peace.
And across the globe, local leaders are stepping up to do just that. Youth activists in Uganda, Somalia, and the Philippines are challenging terrorist propaganda targeting their peers. Researchers from across the globe launched the RESOLVE network to share their findings about the local drivers of violent extremism, and I hope this Foundation becomes involved by contributing its own scholarship. Mayors and other local leaders from every region launched the Strong Cities Network to help each other build local resilience to violent extremism. Mumbai was one of the founding members of this Network, and I encourage Delhi and communities across India to join as well. Many could benefit from India’s example tolerance and resilience in the face of terror.
They would benefit from hearing about the countless leaders outside government confronting violent extremism in communities across India. When extremists murdered Malleshappa Kalburgi last August to silence his critical views — the third such murder in as many years — the Indian literary and artistic community was among the first to condemn the act.
Just south of here in the Mewat district, activist Archana Kapoor set up several “Mothers Schools” to give women the skills to detect and the self-confidence to challenge radicalization to violence in their communities and families. Women have such a critical role in CVE but too often are excluded from matters of security. Repeated studies confirm that women are often the best positioned to identify and address radicalization to violence among family members.
Religious leaders are among the most critical actors in pushing back against violent extremism. They can teach curious young minds tenets of faith and refute extremist interpretations that exalt violence. They are also well positioned to intervene to walk someone back from the path of radicalization. From their vantage point in the community, faith leaders can also help government identify and address local drivers of radicalization, like perceptions of government neglect and police abuse.
Across India, from Kerala to Kashmir, faith communities are mobilizing to challenge violent extremism. One-and-a-half million Muslims from the region gathered in Uttar Pradesh last month to reject global terrorism and affirm the Holy Qu’ran’s injunction that “killing one innocent person is equivalent to killing all humanity.” More than 70,000 clerics from around the world gathered in Bareilly to condemn ISIL as “inhuman and un-Islamic.” And in Delhi, students at a local college lit candles to outshine ISIL’s darkness as Muslim women raised their voices to decry ISIL for “carrying out such inhuman acts in the name of Allah.”
All of these voices — moms and imams alike — are essential to building the critical mass of influence needed to discredit violent extremism in our communities. These examples of family- and community-level interventions may help explain why so few Indians have joined ISIL’s ranks thus far. But that is not reason for complacency; it is a call to give local leaders a greater role in pushing back against violent extremism in their communities.
Governments can help by ending stifling regulations on civil society and allowing citizen groups to peacefully speak and organize around sensitive topics. They can give them a real seat at the table in policy development and ensure they have access to the resources and information they need to fully contribute. That is fundamental to the “whole of society” CVE approach. They can go a step further by proactively reaching out to build ties with communities targeted by violent extremists for recruitment, like in Maharashtra, where local police are partnering with local clerics to de-radicalize youth. Local officials can also support civil society with resources, expertise, and coordination. For example, governments can train faith leaders to use new communication platforms to dramatically expand their reach. They can help connect a local group with a national or international counterpart to learn from each other’s work. And they can provide direct funding to amplify their impact. But most importantly — governments must ensure that all people have the freedom to peacefully speak, organize, and worship.
But ensuring these freedoms calls for more than just enforcing laws, it means proactively speaking out — as both public officials and private citizens — to challenge calls for hatred and violence. Silence can embolden the criminal and the cruel — as in the lynching of a Muslim man last September, or the burning of churches in Orissa. Our own experiences remind us that no religious or political ideology is immune to violent extremism, from the history of White Supremacists in the U.S. to Maoist extremists here in India. Learning from the past, we must avoid the trap of invoking security to justify bigotry, profiling, and discrimination against any religious or ethnic group — including our Muslim brothers and sisters. That defies not only our deepest values, but strengthens the lies that groups like ISIL tell — lies that democracies are somehow incompatible with Islam.
In the United States, we have gone to court – and won – for the right of Muslim women to wear the hijab. In a time of heightened anxiety following the attacks in San Bernardino and elsewhere, our Secretary of Education sent a letter to every principal in America to ensure that students of all backgrounds feel safe and respected. When a teacher mistook a Muslim student’s science project for a bomb and sent him to the police, President Obama responded by welcoming him to the White House. And in an address to the nation following the terrorist attack in California, he reminded the country that Muslim-Americans are our neighbors, co-workers, sports heroes, and soldiers on the frontlines.
Here in India, the history of Islam is nearly as old as the faith itself. More than 170 million Indian Muslims live alongside Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Jains. When some voices openly worried that Indian Muslims would be swayed by ISIL’s propaganda, Home Minister Singh responded by calling them “patriots” and praising the country’s diversity as an enduring strength. That is the kind of leadership from public officials we need to see more of around the world — leadership in the spirit of Nehru, who famously ran headfirst into violent mobs urging tolerance during the furies of partition.
Violent extremists want a clash of civilizations. Throughout history they have sought to divide and to demonize. But the success and prosperity of societies like ours — free, diverse, and enriched by the contributions of all — fly in the face of everything they believe. As we face violent extremists, we must reject their terms of engagement and stay true to ourselves — by upholding religious freedom, ensuring legal protection for all, and speaking out against discrimination and hatred of all stripes.
For India and the United States, the choices we make — the example we set — will influence the world in profound ways. So let us show the world that, as we bring justice to extremist groups like ISIL, we can prevent the next generation of threat from emerging by empowering our communities, embracing our diversity, and staying true to our common values.