White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism Reception (February 18, 2015)

February 18, 2015

Good evening to all and welcome to all to the Ben Franklin Room of the State Department. Many of you have been here before, but we’re delighted to have you back here and we are particularly grateful to all of you for taking time to be here for this important summit over both today and tomorrow.

We host a lot of events here in the Ben Franklin Room. There’s a great deal of history reflected on this floor, and I urge you to walk around the Jefferson Room and the Adams Room. The desk is there where the Revolutionary War, the Treaty of Paris was signed. Thomas Jefferson’s desk is back there, different artifacts, and we invite you all to have a sense of our history, which is short compared to many of you in this room, but we are obviously – all of us – on an ongoing journey in history.

And that is what brings us here to this important conference. I think it’s fair to say that we have never assembled in this room – certainly while I’ve been Secretary – a group of people for whom our purpose is more serious or more urgent than this is at this particular moment. We’re here for a simple, transcendent reason: To safeguard the future for our people, all of our citizens, and to safeguard it from people who slaughter children, innocent children in a Pakistani school; people who pin price tags on little girls in Iraq and sell them into slavery; people who put a devout Muslim from Jordan in a fiery cage for all to see; people who send young women into the markets in Nigeria with orders to blow themselves up; people who murder Jews in France and Christians in Egypt just because they belong to a different faith; people who execute a good and brave Japanese man because his government pledged humanitarian assistance – I repeat humanitarian assistance – to help the hurting and the homeless in the Middle East; people who kidnap a young woman from Arizona who perceived God in the eyes of the suffering and who dedicated her life to helping people in need in Syria.

Make no mistake: These people have no positive vision whatsoever. The represent a nihilism, a criminal anarchy that is unacceptable to any decent human being. They want to drag us back, literally, into Dark Ages; destroy the international system; obliterate knowledge as they destroy books and schoolrooms – knowledge, by the way, that has been gained over centuries and shared with respect among all of us. They want to convince young people that their highest aspiration in life ought to be to die blowing up a bunch of other people with you and whose aspiration it is to dictate to everybody else exactly how they must live and what they must believe and what they must do.

So I tell you – I just say this to you and I think all of you have probably come to this conclusion – their objective is to drive us apart, to divide us and to scare us, to frighten us away from values that have guided us for centuries and which are still evolving as they reach some higher notion of how we can live together and work together and make this a better world.

Well, take a look around this room. Look at each of you who are here, your neighbor next to you, everybody around here. Every culture, every race, every creed, from government, civil society, the private sector, and the United Nations are here, and we are as unified today and as determined as we have ever been. That’s what brings us here. And we have a different, and I think, we have a more honorable and more ambitious vision of the future, and we’re not about to let a bunch of thugs and basic criminals and murderers stand in our way.

The hope that we have for our children is not to strap a suicide vest on them, but to enable them to live and to love and to start families, build careers, pursue their dreams in safety, and give back to their communities and their countries, help to build community, build a future – not tear it down.

The terrorists murder teachers. They kidnap students. They burn books. Our goal is to open the door to primary and secondary education for more kids, boys and girls, and an education that teaches children not what to think, but how to reason, to compare ideas, to think for themselves, not be told what to think.

So our vision is a world where people can go to a mosque, go to a church, go to a temple, go to a synagogue without fear, without the fear certainly of being blown up, without the fear of any discrimination; where journalists can bear witness to the truth without being gunned down; where our central preoccupation day to day is not to attack one another for being different, but to help each other find the path to a better life and a more fulfilling world.

That’s why month by month and week by week, we have been coming together, I think effectively, to make inroads against extreme poverty, to improve food security in the least and the most disadvantaged parts of the world.

It’s why we’ve made vast improvements in child nutrition and maternal health. It’s why we’re on the threshold of an AIDS-free generation. And it’s why we will fight for as long as it takes to end the threat of Ebola, which brought us together.

It’s why we’re combining our efforts more and more to develop clean and sustainable energy and to save our planet from the devastating impacts of climate change.

And it’s why we’re here together tonight and it’s why we’ll be together tomorrow, because we know that the outbreak of violent extremism is not going to be defeated by any one country, by any one group acting alone. We have to do this together. We have to coordinate almost as never before, because we’re living in a totally different world, unlike the last century, unlike the World Wars where news traveled differently. This is instantaneous. And believe me, they are exploiting that to a fare-thee-well.

Together, my friends, we have a very significant generational job to do, and it requires a lot more than sympathetic words and fine sentiments. We have to build firewalls against ignorance and hate, and we’re going to have to develop plans for effective action that is going to reach into local communities and at-risk neighborhoods on every continent. And we’ve got to bring real and timely help to areas of the globe that are on the front lines or next in line as targets for terrorist infiltration. We have to teach skills, create jobs, develop positive role models for young people whose minds have not yet been grabbed and stolen and affected. And we have to encourage development of police and judicial systems which will deny safe havens to terrorists and that will treat all people fairly so that the feelings of alienation and exclusion don’t spread among minority groups in whichever country it might be.

We have to fight every single day against the corruption that erodes faith in authority and contributes powerfully to feelings of cynicism and despair. Remember that Tunisian fruit vendor wasn’t part of any religious movement; he was tired of being slapped around by a police officer and denied his ability to be able to sell his goods on a street corner. And so he self-immolated, and thus began a whole wave of events of people reacting to their powerlessness. So we have to win the battle of ideas on the social media and we’ve got to empower women, because no society will move forward if half of its population is held back.

Now this sounds like a long list, but I’ve got to tell you it’s really not a long list, and it’s fundamentally just strategic common sense. It’s that simple. The hard part is making it happen everywhere. The hard part is pulling everybody together to implement what we need to implement. And that’s why President Obama decided to call people together, and we will continue to work with every country in an effort with no, by the way – no arrogance that suggests that we have all the answers or that we’re even the best messengers in lots of cases. We understand those limits and we approach this with significant humility, understanding that in some places only the indigenous population, only the people who live there, can really message what has to be done. But we all have the ability to touch those folks. We know the resources to do this exist. In trillion-dollar, multiple-trillion-dollar economies, a world that is growing, we have the wealth. We have the ability. And the task before us is to combine the right partners, the right planning, the right degree of political commitment, and over a sustained period of time we will win.

One way to make that happen is to be clear this is not just a job for governments. This is really important. We have to amplify responsible local voices, including people from within the faith community. We have to look to the private sector as the primary generators of opportunity. And we have to turn for help to foundations and philanthropists, and we have to make certain that civil society is able to operate freely and without fear. And above all, we should understand that the cost of preventing terrorism may be high, but it doesn’t at all compare to the cost in treasure, and more important in blood and tears and sorrow and suffering, that we pay when terrorism is not stopped in time.

So this, my friends, is a challenge for everyone. It’s a job for everyone. And it is a chance for each and every one of us to do our part. I know this is a gathering and more of a social event than a working event, but nevertheless, we’re here for a serious purpose. And I thought it was important to make clear this evening just how much this challenge must be assumed, the responsibility for dealing with it, by every single one of us. There’s no one else. We are the people who’ve been put in positions of responsibility, and we are the people that folks who get up every single day and go to work and hope to have a future are looking to to make the right decisions and make this happen

Ben Franklin lived to be 90 years old. And he had a lot of fun doing that too, I might add. (Laughter.) And among his favorite sayings was that energy and persistence conquer all things. So I just ask all of you to keep those words in mind. I hope everybody here will derive confidence from them. I hope you’ll derive good ideas and thoughts about how we march ahead to accomplish our goal. And I am convinced this is by far, without any question, the defining fight of our generation. (Applause.) We like to refer to the Greatest Generation. Well, now is our chance to see if we can live up to it and do what we know we need to do. I know every single one of you are up to that task, and I thank you so much for being here and coming here and being part of this discussion tomorrow.

We want to leave here with real ideas, real thoughts. Don’t hesitate if there’s a criticism. Don’t hesitate if you want to say to us, “There’s a better way to achieve this.” We’re open. Nobody’s cornered the market on ideas. But I hope over the course of the next 48 hours, we’ll move a lot closer to doing so. Thank you all and God bless. Thank you. (Applause.)