Policy analysts, legislators and faith leaders from India, Indonesia and the United States examined the challenges to democratic, pluralistic societies in the Indo-Pacific region to effectively combat extremism while guarding against authoritarian governance at a wide-ranging virtual forum on September 29, 2021.
Co-sponsored by the Global Peace Foundation and the New Delhi–based Sunday Guardian Foundation, the forum, “Toward a Values-based Consensus in South Asia and the Indo-Pacific,” underscored the foundational values shared by India, Indonesia, and the U.S. that have enabled diverse peoples to live in relative peace and social cohesion.
“I believe our dialogue today is unique with its attention to the underlying spiritual and civilizational values that are essential to realize both our humanness and basis for consensus,” said Global Peace Foundation James Flynn in opening remarks.
Session moderator Professor Madhav Nalapat, Editorial Director of the Sunday Guardian and iTV Network, said when “fringes are taking away from the moderate middle, that leads to a crisis in society, especially democratic society, that we all need to confront. All of us believe in principle of a horizontal world—that is, we are different, but equal. All human beings, all are children of the divine force.”
Dr. Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, a member of India’s Parliament and President of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, said that “spiritual democracy” is the sole guarantor of sustainable pluralism. India has “always rejected monopolism in spiritual practices,” he said, “and recognized that the ‘truth is one,’ even though wise men describe it in different ways.”
The forum featured two sessions. Session I, “Addressing Extremism at its Roots: Strategies Based on Shared Values,” and Session II, “Strengthening Regional Collaboration Towards Peace Security, Freedom, and Human Rights.”
Roots of extremism
Azhar Hussain, President of the Peace and Education Foundation, discussed many of the root causes of terrorism, among them a desire for meaning and purpose and an established social order; poverty and lack of education; lack of knowledge of human rights, ideological systems like democracy, constitutional rights or even their own religions.
Dr. Marsudi Syuhud, Board Chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest independent Muslim organization, described coordinated efforts in Indonesia to counter extremism, notably the establishment of the National Counter-Terrorism Agency in the aftermath of the 2002 Bali bombings. Agency work includes deradicalization efforts directed at the community level and among the prison population. The agency also coordinates with religious organizations such as Nahdlatul Ulama, which has national and international networks, and teachers who provide a clear understanding of Islam and its tenets of peace.
Values of diversity, with every religion enjoying equal rights, was “an ancient idea and a cornerstone of Indian civilization for thousands of years,” said Swami Shantamananda, New Delhi Head of the Ramakrishna Mission; “so much so that whenever people have been driven out from their dwellings, such as the Jews and Parsis, they came to India and found a home.
Swami Shantamananda called for good and conscientious people to join hands. “Governments are sweeping aside cultural concerns because their main concern are the economy,” he said. But with strength in numbers, people from different faiths who reject extremism, who “recognize the inherent divinity in all,” can influence governments.
Session II addressed security threats in the region, the growing influence of China and the threat it presents to democratic values and human rights.
Dr. William Parker, a career U.S. naval officer, CEO of Efficient Ships and former President of the EastWest Institute, said maintaining peace and security in the Indo-Pacific is “unquestionably one of the great challenges facing the world today.” Since Xi Jinping assumed leadership of the Peoples Republic of China in 2013, he said, the country has grown in confidence, military capacity, and economic strength, absorbing the Hong Kong and stating plainly its intentions of annexing Taiwan.
“We need to strengthen democracy and oppose authoritarian regimes. Above all we need to nurture quality education and quality livelihoods. That is the key to promoting a free, fair and resilient Indo Pacific.”
“But the world is not sleeping as it was in 1939,” Dr. Parker noted. The U.S. and Japan have developed complex planning activities in defense of Taiwan, and security alliances with India, Australia and Japan underscore the growing focus on the Indo-Pacific. He said these alliances must be strengthened, while clearly communicating with China that security and societal norms must be maintained to preserve regional peace.
Dr. Jagannath Panda, a Research Fellow, at the East Asia Centre of the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, outlined three threats that undermine regional security in South Asia: support of terrorism from autocratic leaders in Pakistan and the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan; tension between authoritarian and democratic practices and the need to bring pressure on China to revise its approach in regional affairs; and tension over the use of resources, which result in social inequality.
Dr. Panda said the U.S.-China rivalry increasingly presented India with a choice: to align with democratic values or authoritarian practices. “We need to promote a human-centric approach, a values-based consensus, that respects religion and encourages people to people contact,” he said. “We need to strengthen democracy and oppose authoritarian regimes. Above all we need to nurture quality education and quality livelihoods. That is the key to promoting a free, fair and resilient Indo Pacific.”
Presenting a more generalized perspective on the causes of authoritarianism, extremism and conflict, Dr. Paul Murray, Vice-Chairman of the International Religious Freedom Secretariat, said that the greatest obstacle and challenge for people of faith and conscience “are not the governments or institutions, but each of us, who seek to push one belief as superior to another.”
He urged people of multiple faiths, beliefs, or conscience to give voice in the public square “not to our religious banners, but to the transcendent universal principles” that are common to all to build a moral society.”
Concluding the forum, Dr. Aishwarya Pandit, Co-Founder of the Sunday Guardian Foundation, reflected on the importance of shared values among democracies, ideas of freedom of speech, of Indian spirituality, and reciprocal tolerance which were emphasized by presenters. “Human rights are important for people regardless of their religious outlook,” she said, “and are crucial for peace and security in the Indo Pacific region.”
The Global Peace Foundation regularly convenes regional conferences and forums for experts to assess issues related to conflict and underdevelopment, and to explore the role of shared values to build social cohesion and economic opportunity.