Inter-Regional Conference on ‘Whole-of-Society-Approach’ to Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism and Radicalization that Lead to Terrorism (P/CVERLT), Mongolia, 20-22 June 2019
Presentation by Dr. Arvind Gupta, Director, the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) on ‘Role of Inter-Faith Dialogue in Countering Extremism and Violence: Respect Diversity’

I would like to thank the Mongolian Ministry of Foreign Affairs the OSCE Secretariat, and the United Nations Office for Counter-Terrorism for inviting me to this inter-regional conference on ‘Whole-of-Society Approach to Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism and Radicalization that Lead to Terrorism (PCVERLT)’, at Ulaanbaatar. Given the increasing propensity of violence due to extremism and radicalization across the world, the initiative is timely.

In the last few years the world has witnessed mindless violence caused by extremist ideologies, while global networks of terrorist groups continue to exist, the internet and social media have emerged as potent tools of radicalization of young minds. We must find solutions to this serious problem, which threatens to tear apart societies, create global and regional tensions, and undo the gains the mankind has made in the last several centuries. There is no silver bullet. A comprehensive approach involving the whole of society is required to deal with the problem

Preventing the radicalization of mind, which causes the brainwashed youth to commit acts of terrorism, is the most serious challenge of our times. Despite international cooperation in the last few decades, the problem of extremism and terrorism remains unresolved and may even be getting worse. We need to think about why this is so. Unless we understand the nature of the problem, we will not be able to solve it.

Exclusivist ideologies breed intolerance

There is no simple explanation to explain why young people are getting radicalized. Is it poverty? Is it political grievances? Is it the lack of hope in the future? All these factors contribute to radicalization in some measures. But one explanation is the vice-like grip of extremist ideologies, which preach violence, on the minds of impressionable youth. Extremist ideologies are essentially exclusivist ideologies which breed intolerance by denying space for the existence of other’s viewpoints. Terrorism cannot be effectively dealt unless a powerful counter-narrative to extremism is built. The international community has failed to agree on an alternative narrative to extremism.

Distinction between Ideology and Philosophy

The former US President Mr. Bill Clinton had made a powerful observation some years ago when he pointed to a critical distinction between philosophy and ideology in the context of contemporary politics. He said that ideology closes one’s mind while philosophy opens it. Ideology is dogmatic for which evidence is immaterial, but philosophy is open to debate, discussion, and evidence. The problem today is there are many ideologies, each claiming to be superior to the other. Extreme ideologies create a feeling of “the other,” the enemy. Unfortunately, today there is very little open, honest debate among different faiths and ideologies. The growing intolerance to the others’ points of view, lack of accommodation, and the absence of genuine dialogue is the reason why extremism flourishes.

Many conflicts of today are fundamentally religious conflicts

Surveying the history of the world, one cannot deny that many conflicts and wars had religions at their base. The past religions wars last long and claim millions of lives. Samuel P. Huntington, in his celebrated book, Clash of Civilizations, posited that seven major civilizations of the world based on religions have religious fault lines running through them. Massive violence is created when these fault lines are opened up. The history is replete with long religious wars. The problems of fault line conflict have not disappeared. Political, economic, and other grievances easily reopen the religious fault line in multicultural societies. We have seen this happening in several parts of the world.

Huntington’s thesis may seem stark and controversial. But there is a kernel of truth in it. Conflicts have been avoided only through genuine dialogues. Many interfaith dialogues are held around the world. But mutual mistrust remains. What is needed is inter-faith, inter-religious dialogue, and discussion, which would help, clarify the tenets of each religion and how they deal with diversity. Diversity is the order of the day. It must be respected and accommodated. In genuine dialogue, each faith would be open to suggestion, criticism, and reform. Faiths should also be willing to give-up dogmatic doctrinaire stances if the evidence so demands. They should also find ways and means to deal with the dictates of modernity. A recourse to orthodoxy and fundamentalism is not the way to deal with modernity. Honest Inter-faith or inter-religious dialogues would help enhance mutual understanding, tolerance, and promote accommodation.

The Hindu-Buddhist Samvad: A case study

Hinduism and Buddhism are the two ancient faiths of Asia. Both religions preach tolerance and acceptance. Buddhism emerged out of Hinduism as a rebel movement. Yet, the two religions have not clashed. They coexist inter-mingle with each other and have mutual respect. Lord Buddha is revered by the Hindus as an incarnation of God. Several aspects of Hinduism are reflected in Buddhist traditions.

In 2015, Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Abe of Japan launched a unique initiative called the ‘Hindu-Buddhist Samvad’, or dialogue, on conflict avoidance and environmental consciousness. Four meetings of Hindu-Buddhist Samvad have been held in New Delhi, two in Tokyo, and one Yangon. Spiritual leaders, scholars, and experts of all major religions in addition to Hinduism and Buddhism religion have participated in these meetings. Prime Minister Modi emphasized the need for an honest dialogue, which produced no anger or retribution. That was the purpose of ‘Samvad.’ PM Modi mentioned that the roots of our civilizations are in our shared philosophy and heritage. He also said that without embracing the ideals of Gautam Buddha, this century could not be an Asian century. Lord Buddha’s idea, cut-across national boundaries, faiths, systems, and political ideologies.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pointed out that Buddhism and Hinduism teach compassion; Confucianism teaches benevolence, and Islam teaches fraternity. Thus, there is common ground for genuine dialogue among these religions. He also recalled Swami Vivekananda who said, “There is more than one path to spiritual heights. Diversity is not a weakness. Diversity is a source of creativity.”

First Inter-faith Dialogue, Chicago, 1893

In 1893 in Chicago, a World Parliament of Religion was held. Since then eight such congregations have been held. This was possibly the first international interfaith conference in which all major religions of the world were represented. Swami Vivekananda from India, then a young man in his early thirties, spoke boldly of the fundamentals of Hindu religion and its tolerant philosophy. He made a profound observation, which is relevant even today. He described “Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism” as “horrible demons” which had “filled the earth with violence.” One has to get rid of the fanatical mindset, which does not tolerate the existence of others. Quoting from ancient Indian wisdom, Swami Vivekananda pointed out that all path leads to the same truth: Ekam Sat Vipra Bahudha Vadanti. He put it like this, "As the different streams having their sources in different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee."

Respecting diversity is critical to the success of a dialogue of any kind. In Hinduism, there is the propensity to view everything as sacred and as an expression of the divine. This has made Hindu civilization not only tolerant of others but also as one that accepted others. Swami Vivekananda said at Chicago in the Parliament of Religions, “I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation, which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and nations of the earth.”

The Hindu-Buddhist Samvad Initiative has also dwelt upon the causes of conflict and how to deal with them. The Indian thinkers Sh S Gurumurthy, Chairman of the Vivekananda International Foundation, speaking at Yangon on 05 Aug 2017 at the IInd Hindu-Buddhist Samvad stressed on the need for introspection among all religions and review texts that steer religious ideologies towards conflicts and intolerance.

Importance of dialogue and the capacity to listen to the alternate viewpoints cannot be overstated. There is a need for adopting non-conflicting ideologies. There is a need to create a global network of leaders who are committed to the promotion of democratic values, conflict avoidance, environmental consciousness, universal responsibilities, and ethical behavior. Conversions must be stopped. This was the message from the leaders who attended the 2nd Hindu-Buddhist Samvad meeting in Yangon in 2017.

The shortcoming of Inter-faith Dialogues

Inter-faith dialogues are quite common. One may ask how useful they are? Many of those who participate in this dialogue points out that very often such dialogue turnout to be quite routine. The contending side presents their view points and looks for the least common denominator. The tendency is to avoid the real issues, confront head-on the differences, and convey the readiness to reform. This robs the dialogue of its genuineness. The dialogue must be conducted in a spirit of openness, reflecting the readiness to recognize the positive elements of the other’s faith. This often does not happen in the interfaith dialogue.


Let us recall what Hans Kung, a German Christian, and the President of Global Ethic Foundation said:

“No peace among the nations without peace among the religions.
No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions.
No dialogue between the religions without research into the foundations of the religions” .

We need a long term, sustained approach to dealing with problems of radicalization and terrorism. Intolerance is at the heart of extremism. Respect for all religions and the viewpoints must be inculcated.

Thank You!

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