When religion obstructs growth – the Israeli case

The experience of Israel’s Haredi community shows how an exclusively religious education that rejects secularism is the door to a dangerous radicalism that threatens the whole social system

In the long, complex, and fascinating history of the European continent one of the most important turning points is the period 1650-1720, that marks the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment – a new era of thought that revolutionizes our worldview and our self-consciousness. The old, traditional, religious values– associated to a Middle Age that now belongs to History – begin to appear less solid and incontestable than they used to, and give way to reason and science.

It is in this context that the European philosophical, political and social landscape sees itself at the core of a new contraposition between secularism and religion. And of all the fields interested by this new debate, education – due to its influence on the future development of a society – receives particular attention. After centuries in which it had been prerogative of the Catholic monastic class and had proceeded hand in hand with religious studies, new demands and needs were emerging and an exclusively religious education didn’t seem sufficient anymore.

A new balance – with secularism dominating the public sphere and religion confined to the private one – began to take root in Europe; and education didn’t make an exception.

History, though, likes to repeat itself and the contraposition between religion/tradition on one hand, and secularism/modernity on the other, is now challenging the internal balances of all those countries, societies, and groups where religious identity is still the strongest one and religion a main pillar of collective life. And education is once again at the core of the debate.

For a State like Israel, born out of a specific religious identity and that since foundation has drawn from it its legitimacy, religion has always played a crucial role; but if most Israelis have found a positive balance between secularism and Judaism, this is not true for everyone.

Taking bus n.1 from the Old City of Jerusalem until Mea Shearim, you will find yourself in the heart of one of the oldest Jewish ultra-orthodox quarters, where women quietly walk on the streets dressed in their long skirts and long-sleeved blouses, and men come and go from Yeshivas and Kollels. In these schools – bulwark of the traditional Jewish education – men dedicate themselves to the exclusive study of the Torah and Talmud, in the name of religious observance, attachment to tradition and doctrinal devotion; and the Holy text is considered  not only the revelation of God’s word on the theological level, but the source of that pure Judaic law on which everyday life has to be built. Any form of secular education is on the contrary rejected.

Cut off from what happens outside the Yeshiva’s walls; auto-exiled from the dynamics of the outer society (whose secularism they fear as a deviant influence); cling to the exclusive religious dimension of their ultra-orthodox education, Haredim are inevitably led to a religious radicalism so entrenched in any aspect of their existence that intermediate possibilities do not exist: you are either ultra-orthodox or non-Jewish, and society is either religious or secular.

Such a religious radicalism – that first appeared among Jews in the XVIII century Europe as a reaction to the fear of cultural assimilation – can’t but have consequences that go beyond the Haredi quarter and represent a limit for the whole Israeli society, an obstacle for its growth, a threat to its stability, coherence and cohesion.

Haredim, in fact, due to an educational system that has provided them with religion as exclusive lens through which to interpret reality, give a radical religious lecture of the State and their own role in it.

It follows that they paradoxically don’t recognize the State of Israel in which they live because that would mean legitimizing a non-orthodox entity, and that they consider themselves as still living in exile rather than as part of the Israeli society. They therefore refuse to serve in the army as well as to pay taxes. And such a convenient isolationism can’t but create tensions (as many Israelis feel that different rules apply to different groups) and make the Israeli society a divided one. On the one hand, thus, those moderate Jews who have been building since 1948 a modern state; on the other hand the radical ultra-orthodox who deem legitimate their community only and don’t contribute to the growth of the State.

This last element should also be linked to the fact that the Haredim’s refusal of secular education in all its forms has created a “class of scholars” who generally lack relevant professional skills, and are thus condemned to unemployment and are reliant on state subsidies – a further financial burden on the shoulders of the rest of the Israeli society, and therefore a further source of tensions.

Moreover, blinded by the radical deviations of an exclusive religious mindset, Haredim condemn the diverse – meant as all those who embrace lifestyles irreconcilable with the saying of the Torah. This summer’s killing of a 16-year-old girl at a gay parade in Jerusalem at the hands of a Haredi man, more than just a sporadic act of violence by a disturbed individual, reveals the different speeds at which the Israeli society is moving and how its growth is curbed by the intolerance of part of it.

Equally negative is how the exclusive reference to a text that was edited millennia ago in different social contexts, makes the Haredi community one in which women are subordinate to men (after marriage it is the wife who works and only the husband has the right to proceed with his studies) and marginalized in the community’s public life. For a society like the Israeli one, that has never failed to recognize and defend gender equality, the attacks (both physical and verbal) perpetrated by some Haredim against non-orthodox women who according to them don’t behave properly (for instance praying at the Western Wall with the Torah in their hands or refusing to seat in the back seats of public buses) are dangerous sources of tensions and divisions.

The radicalism produced by the Haredim’s exclusive religious education and closure to secularism creates a situation in which the Israeli society – in order to peacefully survive – can’t but take into account such a reality and its distortions, and sacrifice part of its modernity (for instance not recognizing civil marriages) to prevent the schism between orthodox and non-orthodox from growing wider and more dangerous.

The importance of religious studies is something not even atheists can deny, as they are part of our heritage – source of our deepest values and oldest traditions. But the example of Israel’s Haredim shows that only if associated to (and – I stress – not substituted by) a secular education can they retain all their positive strength and make religion a means through which to fight radicalism, and not a source of it.

In the Jewish world, the importance of a balance between religion and secularism had already emerged in the XVIII century when Moses Mendelssohn created the Haskalà movement to open Jewish religious traditions to Enlightenment; and is now defended by Israel’s moderate orthodox and, even more so, by those institutions recently emerged to offer Haredim both religious and scientific studies.

A broader political and social support to their concrete commitment and an enthusiast promotion of their initiative among Haredi younger generations are the best way to address the problem of Israel’s homegrown religious radicalism, by starting from the fundamental relationship between religion and education.


The long-time friendship that obstructs peace

Ghani’s re-approach to Pakistan hoping to jointly address the problem of terrorism is deemed to fail until Islamabad is the best friend those terrorists ever had

Even for a country like Afghanistan – whose population has been the victim of continuous violence since 1979 – this year the Taliban’s spring and summer offensive has been a particularly bloody one.

Between the 7th and the 10th of August Kabul was the theatre of four days of terror, death and anger that turned into a game changer for a President who spent the last year trying to cooperate with Pakistan to reach a deal with the Taliban. After the attacks, in fact, Ghani blamed Pakistan for the wave of violence in the capital, portraying the image of a Pakistan that sponsors terrorism – where the training camps for terrorists and the bomb-making facilities that used to operate in the past are still operating today, and where the Taliban are free to hold their meetings – a reference to the meeting held to appoint the new Taliban leader.

It seems, thus, that a turning point has been reached – one that makes Kabul no longer disposed to depend on an ambiguous neighbor, and that reveals how past enmities have always been around the corner during the last year, waiting for the moment to resurface again. Well, that moment might have come.

But why have Ghani’s efforts to get Pakistan cooperate with Afghanistan in the fight against terrorism failed?

This latest turning point in the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan reminds us that Pakistan is already involved in a decade-long relationship from which it can’t (read doesn’t want) get out: the one with the Taliban, whom – product of Pakistan’s deobandi madrassas – have always been used by Islamabad as a means through which to intervene in Afghanistan.

The friendship between Islamabad and the Taliban finds its roots in the Soviet-Afghan war, when Pakistan was supporting through weapons and finances (coming from Islamabad but also from Riyadh and Washington) the most radical mujahideens – above whom Hekmatyar – to get to indirectly control Kabul. After 1989, though, Pakistan’s support shifted from the mujahideens to the Taliban, because it had become evident how Hekmatyar would never enter Kabul, and because the fall of Najibullah and the discredit of all mujhaideen leaders were creating a vacuum the Taliban could exploit to gain support and take the capital.

If the Taliban had more chance than any other to take Kabul, then support to the Taliban was for Islamabad the key to reaching its long-time strategic and political objectives: gain strategic projection in Afghanistan in an anti-India perspective; have in Kabul a Pashtun pro-Pakistan government that would abandon Afghanistan’s territorial claims; turn Afghanistan into a place where to train Kashmiri militants; intervene from Afghanistan in the dynamics of Central Asia – a region whose natural resources had yet to be exploited.

Part of the calculus at the core of Pakistan’s friendship towards the Taliban were also economic interests, as – by supporting the Taliban – Islamabad could use the Quetta-Kandahar road to transfer goods westwards to Central Asia and southwards to the Middle East and the Gulf. Moreover, under the Taliban Emirate, Afghanistan’s poppy production increased dramatically, thus giving a major boost to Pakistani dealers and transport mafia and turning Pakistan into a key transport route for drug exports from Afghanistan.

These the main political, strategic and economic reasons behind the support given to the Taliban by the Pakistani government, the Pakistani army, the Inter-Services Intelligence, the transport mafia and drug dealers.

And though, in the early ‘90s, the friendship between Islamabad and Mullah Omar’s group was leaning in favor of the Taliban, as they were at the time more important for Pakistan than Pakistan was for them: they were in fact Pakistan’s door of access to Afghanistan and Central Asia and the ones who provided hosting and training to Kashmiri militants. Such imbalance became essential in influencing the bilateral dynamics between the two neighboring friends, as it led the Taliban to take advantage of it and refuse to recognize the Durand line, advance claims in parts of the NWFP, give havens to radical Sunni Pakistani groups, and advocate an Islamic revolution in Pakistan. The result was an inevitable social and political unrest in Pakistan – with the security and stability of the country threatened by Sunni-Shia sectarian clashes and Sunni extremism, and the government losing any sparkle of legitimacy and credibility it might have.

To these counter-effects that were beginning to result from Islamabad’s support to terrorists, it is to be added that the smuggling trade in which Pakistan was involved with the Taliban was making corruption spread, was obstructing Pakistani industries, undermining law and order, widening the rich-poor gap (and therefore social contradictions) through a vicious spiral that was making the rich even richer and the poor even poorer.

Moreover, backing a terrorist group condemned by the international community for its abuses, Pakistan found itself isolated – something that had tough consequences on the country’s already suffering economy.

But the political and military elite, as well as the intelligence, had no interests in changing a policy that was increasing their personal wealth and power.

Then, 9/11 and the US invasion of Afghanistan came. Far from being a turning point that led Islamabad closer to the international community, it actually led it closer to the Taliban. After being defeated, in fact, Omar and his loyalists fled to Pakistan, where they could re-organize the group through the establishment of their Shura in Quetta and plan their resurgence thanks to the help coming from those among the elite who hoped to use the Taliban as a proxy force after the US withdrawal. From 2001, thus, Pakistan has been the safe haven from where the Taliban could freely plan attacks to be carried out beyond the Durand line.

But the friendship with the Taliban has always been extremely costly for Pakistan (for the country’s population, if not for its leaders) and new counter effects emerged in 2007 with the birth of the Pakistani Taliban, whose aim was to turn Pakistan into a Taliban state, and who began conducting attacks within Pakistan that are still hitting the country today (as happened in Peshawar last year).

Their emergence clearly showed how Pakistani leaders, by supporting terrorism, were condemning their own country to it. And though, this didn’t lead to any shift in Pakistan’s Afghan policy. It merely led to a hideous distinction between “good” and “bad” terrorists that largely survives today, and that is proving itself the main obstacle to have a sincere cooperation between Kabul and Islamabad on the issue of the Afghan Taliban.

Until Islamabad puts an end to its long-time friendship with the Quetta Shura’s Taliban, no counter-terrorism cooperation with Kabul will be possible.

The only, faint hope left to Ghani, the Afghan people and the peace process, is to convince Islamabad that a cooperation with Kabul would bring about benefits – in terms of regional and internal security, legitimacy, and inclusion in the international political and economic system – that the friendship with the Taliban cannot give.

Only time will tell us how many Afghans and Pakistanis still have to die for this to be understood in Islamabad.


Too many divisions and contradictions within Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Taliban make the peace deal a target that cannot be reached now. But the developments of the last months have shown us where should we start from and what should we go through

Since his earliest days as President, Ashraf Ghani’s main target has been the fight against terrorism, meant not as a military confrontation that no side could endure, but as a diplomatic arrangement to a problem that is tearing the country apart. And this is indeed the most realistic approach: due to the support the Taliban enjoy both within and outside Afghanistan’s borders and due to the difficulties – in terms of preparation, organization, means at disposal – the Afghan Army and the Afghan Security Forces still face, a military confrontation would be vain. The only possibility to put an end to terrorism, then, is to sit down, talk and work on an arrangement that would include the Taliban in the country’s political framework.

For this to happen, though, Ghani needs the support of Pakistan – a country that has always given Afghan Taliban a safe haven to act from and to hide in; and this is where Kabul’s recent shift in foreign policy and in the weaving of regional alliances finds its justification.

After Ghani spent months trying to convince Pakistan to convince the Taliban to negotiate, a first step forward was the talk held in Murree on the 7th of July, that saw the attendance of the Afghanistan High Peace Council, the Taliban, Pakistan and – as observers – China and the United States. The importance of these talks lies in the fact that it was the first time the Taliban accepted to take part in such discussions with the government of Kabul, that they used to consider an American puppet. And though, interpreting these talks as a sign that the peace deal is around the corner, would be an optimistic overestimate of what the situation actually is, and an unjustified underestimate of the divisions and tensions that exist within each party involved in the process.

First of all, in Afghanistan there are still tough contrasts between Ghani and those politicians – mainly linked to former President Karzai – who condemn the country’s new foreign policy as one that will make Kabul dependent on Pakistan. They criticize Ghani for getting politically closer to a country that has always allowed Taliban to find a safe haven in its south-western region and in cities such as Quetta, Karachi and Peshawar. And this criticism doesn’t only come from Karzai’s entourage but also – and most importantly – from a large portion of the Afghan population – especially in the South, where Taliban traditionally conduct their attacks. Therefore, Ghani’s new approach to the issue of terrorism and to Pakistan doesn’t enjoy full support within his own country, and makes the Afghan side of the talks a divided one. On the one hand, in fact, there is the government, disposed to change the country’s traditional alliances to pursue negotiations with a terrorist group against whom military actions have always proved vain; on the other hand there are the government’s political opponents who condemn a negotiating process that leaves to Pakistan the leading role, and part of the population that, after years of suffering at the hands of the Pakistan-backed Taliban, feels betrayed by the perspective of talks with them. A non-united front, thus, that could curb Ghani’s freedom to propose mutually acceptable arrangements and, therefore, weaken his negotiating position.

More worrying – and threatening – than Afghanistan’s divisions, though, are Pakistan’s.

If Islamabad, in fact, has over the last months publicly stated its support of the Afghanistan-Taliban talks, the truth is that its stance is as ambiguous as ever and the real commitment of its political and military entourage quite dubious and inhomogeneous. On the one hand, there is the position – still to be understood how strong and influential – of those who think that Pakistan, for giving the Taliban a safe haven, has itself paid too high a price in terms of internal terrorist acts, and that the country should now support the talks between Kabul and the Taliban in order to reach regional stability. On the other hand, especially within ISI (the Inter-Services Intelligence) and among some officers of the Pakistan Army, there are those who make an opprobrious distinction between “good” and “bad” terrorists (represented respectively by the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban) and still look at the support given to the Afghan Taliban as an efficient way to limit India’s footprint in Afghanistan, while giving Islamabad influence on the events over its western border.

Such divisions, thus, make it difficult to judge how sincere Pakistan’s efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table are, and whether Islamabad is seriously looking for a stabilization of the region or just engaging in its latest attempt to widen its influence through a manipulation of the peace process.

But more relevant than the internal opposition Ghani has to face and more relevant than Pakistan’s ambiguity, are the divisions on the Taliban side. Not only are there significant differences between the Quetta Shura and the Taliban Qatar office (that sent no representative to Murree), but also within the Quetta Shura itself cohesion is far from being the norm. Some, such as Mullah Zakir and many young fighters, oppose the peace talks and prefer to continue the war and make the most of the successes achieved during the spring and summer fighting seasons. Others, among whom Mansour, seem instead to recognize that the perspective of establishing again a Taliban Emirate in Afghanistan is nothing more than a utopia and that the only possibility the Taliban have to regain some of their past power is through an arrangement with the government and an inclusion in the existing political system.

These divisions have now been further worsened by the announcement of Mullah Omar’s death – until July 30th known by a few Taliban leaders only – that has opened an internal fight for succession. The main rivals appear to be Mansour – on July 30th elected new leader – and Omar’s son, Mullah Yaqoub, who is backed among others by Mullah Zakir. Such internal contrapositions at the leadership level at this point in time can’t but have serious consequences on the peace negotiations. Until the Taliban lack a leader recognized as legitimate by everyone, they risk losing their unity and cohesion, making thus impossible for Kabul to continue with the talks. Proceeding now, in fact, Kabul would inevitably find itself talking with only one part of the group, while leaving out the other(s) -something that would imply for Afghanistan many costs and no benefits. The country and its people would have to pay the double price of making some political concessions to the Taliban engaged in the talks without, though, getting security in return, as those Taliban branches not involved in the negotiations would refuse to recognize any Government-Taliban arrangement and would rather take the arms to undermine the peace process and delegitimize any agreement.

A peace deal is the last card the country can play to come out of a decades-long internal war. The truth, though, is that the deal is based on a triangle made up of Afghanistan, the Taliban and Pakistan, but none of them seem to be internally united nor coherent in its actions and in its approach to the negotiations. The deal, thus, remains for now the chimera it has always been, and it will have a chance of becoming something concrete only when Ghani gets the internal support he needs to push his negotiating initiatives ahead; when Pakistan hardliners manage to realize all the political and economic benefits a regional stability would bring; when the Taliban unite themselves under a single leader capable of seeing how a deal is for the Taliban too the last card they can play to save themselves from vain terrorist acts that bring mujahideens to death but not to Kabul.

Why Al Qaeda is a bigger threat than ISIS – Distinction between Group and Ideology (part 2)

How the categories of “group” and “ideology” can help to compare the main points of strength and the main weaknesses of bin Laden’s group with al-Baghdadi’s. In this second part, a focus on ISIS to understand how its recent staggering success doesn’t mean the group is invincible

When al-Baghdadi became leader of what is now known as ISIS it was 2010, and the group he found himself at the head of was on the verge of decline; so much so that foreign analysts were no longer considering it in their studies, and aspiring mujahideens were no longer considering it as a group to possibly join. Without going deep into the though interesting strategies that al-Baghdadi adopted to make the group surge again, it is to be underlined that all ISIS has been doing since 2010 is the product of a specific ideology, that retrieved and improved the one that had been formulated by former leaders.

If Al Qaeda’s ideology was – as said – a global, abstract and universalistic one, ISIS’s ideology has since the beginning been the opposite. Though both ideologies take the moves from the concept of jihad meant as just, armed struggle to be conducted against the infidels, they are then built differently around it. For al-Baghdadi’s group the jihad against the kafir is not a global one, with no space and borders, but a localized one, to be conducted on a specific territory and against a specific enemy. If Al Qaeda, in fact, used to conduct its attacks against the “far enemy”, ISIS has always had a more delimited (and also more rational) approach aimed at conducting jihad against the “near enemy” – namely the governments of Syria and Iraq.

To explain why and how such an ideology took form, another parallel with Al Qaeda is necessary. Bin Laden’s ideology was the result of an exasperate lack of territoriality; while al-Baghdadi’s ideology is exactly the product of a definite territoriality. Even before gaining control of what is now the area of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, in fact, ISIS has always been present and active in a specific territory only; and this element made it necessary for the group to take into account that specific reality, that specific context with all its dynamics, and to adapt its message to it. The shift to self-declared State has just made this territoriality more steady and therefore difficult to cancel, but is actually nothing new for a group that has always shown a high awareness of its operative environment.

Such a definite ideology couldn’t but give rise to a precise political project, and it did.

ISIS’s aim has since the time of al-Zarqawi (when the group was known as AQI) been the establishment of an Islamic State in Iraq. With al-Baghdadi, the objective has been adapted to the new situation emerged in Iraq (where Sunnis were ever more excluded from power) and Syria (where in 2011 the civil war broke out), and the project thus became the creation of an Islamic State in the Sunni area across these two states. From this stronghold it would then be expanded until the borders of what once was the Umayyad Caliphate. A political project, therefore, that is both anachronistic, because of the rhetoric of restoring the power of the ancient Islamic Caliphate, and modern, because of the way in which the Islamic State, its organization and its rule are conceived.

This situation has both advantages and disadvantages .

Being ISIS’s ideology so deeply connected to what was and is the Iraqi and Syrian environment, it is not possible for it to spread such as Al Qaeda’s message and ideas did. If Al Qaeda’s ideology was so abstract and global that it could be easily adopted by other jihadist groups whatever their area of belonging, with ISIS we have the opposite situation: its ideology is too specific to be transferred to groups acting in a different context and interacting with different actors and enemies. If a group takes on ISIS’s ideology, it can’t but take on its specific political project too – the recreation of the ancient Caliphate – and can’t but build its actions around that precise objective.

This difficulty for ISIS’s ideology to spread, creates the most relevant difference between ISIS and Al Qaeda: ISIS has an ideology but is not an ideology (something that on the contrary Al Qaeda became after 2001). ISIS is a group in the strictest sense of the term and therefore has a detailed, coherent and centralized organization; a relevant capacity to control all the group’s actions, that are in fact conducted coherently with the group’s ideology and project. There are no sub-groups under its umbrella but only loyal fighters, so that the problems of coordination and control that the Jihadist Nebula has created to the Al Qaeda core group are unknown to ISIS.

This element is fundamental in granting to the group capacity of action (that same capacity Al Qaeda has been losing since 2001); and this image of an active, successful jihad is what leads such a high number of fighters to join its ranks. Recruitment comes thus to mark another difference between bin Laden’s group (now al-Zawahiri’s), that has seen decreasing the number of wannabe jihadists joining it, and al-Baghdadi’s group, that never ceases to attract jihadists from all over the world. Moreover, as opposed to Al Qaeda, ISIS recruits fighters not through fatwas but rather through videos and messages that present the group’s achievements and the group’s political project, of which wannabe fighters are invited to take part. This high capacity of recruitment, possible through the proposal of a concrete objective that Al Qaeda was never able to formulate and that gives aspiring mujahideens the sense of being sacrificing everything for something real, adds to ISIS’s strength.

And though, ISIS’s recent success shouldn’t lead us to think that it is immune from vulnerabilities. If being a group proper gives ISIS capacity of action, control, and rule, as well as power of attraction, it also makes it less resilient than Al Qaeda is. Being a group means being a concrete, delimited, specific entity; that means an entity against which fighting is possible and comparatively easier than fighting against ideas and views. If ISIS is a definite actor, that we can describe and localize, then to be destroyed is not an ideology but the group and what it has achieved. The elimination of the Caliphate (unlike the elimination of Al Qaeda’s Afghan safe haven) would bring about the elimination of ISIS, in the moment in which ISIS as group, the Caliphate it built, and the ideology it elaborated are all part of a same, single reality. Being ISIS a group with an ideology and not an ideology in itself, if that group is cancelled its delimited and specific ideology –being nontransferable – would lose the reality on which it depends and would simply die with it.

The fight against ISIS is not easy at all, but it has more possibilities of success than the fight against Al Qaeda. If the latter – we said – is weak as group but resilient as ideology, then ISIS is exactly the opposite; and this goes to our advantage because it means that in front of us we have an enemy we can fight.

Determination and disposal to do that actively are part of another story.