Unlikely Allies

Ambassador Elin Suleymanov says Azerbaijan can serve as a model for Jewish-Muslim relations. (Courtesy of the Fletcher School/John Davis Photography)

Ambassador Elin Suleymanov says Azerbaijan can serve as a model for Jewish-Muslim relations. (Courtesy of the Fletcher School/John Davis Photography)

“Azerbaijan is a friend of the Jewish people, of the Israeli people and of the American people,” said Elin Suleymanov, the Republic of Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the United States. “This is not just a coincidence. It is a conscious decision by the government of Azerbaijan and the people of Azerbaijan.”

That was the message that Suleymanov reiterated more than a handful of times during a meeting this summer in his office in Washington, D.C. — a meeting that took place in armchairs and included hot tea and sweets native to Azerbaijan, which is pronounced Az-er-bu-jan and is located in the Caucasus Mountains west of the Caspian Sea, south of Russia and north of Iran.

“Azerbaijan is located at a crossroads of cultures,” said the ambassador, as he reviewed his nation’s deep history, which is both fairly old and fairly new at the same time.

The Azerbaijan Democratic Rep-ublic (ADR) was established in 1918 as the first secular Muslim-majority country built on the principles of a Western-style democracy with a constitution that granted equal rights to all citizens, including voting rights for women.

“Everyone was allowed to work and be a part of the society,” said Suleymanov. “This was before even the United States.”

ADR, however, existed for only 23 months, as it was invaded and incorporated into the Soviet Union by the Red Army under the name Azerbaijan SSR. On the verge of the Soviet Union’s collapse, ethnic strife in Nagorno-Karabakh and Moscow’s indifference to the conflict resulted in calls for independence and secession, which culminated in Black January. Subsequently, ADR’s flag was restored as the state flag, and, following that, the modern Republic of Azerbaijan emerged as a successor to Azerbaijan SSR on Oct. 18, 1991.

Throughout its history, the people of Azerbaijan have remained open, and that includes not only to women and the West, but also to the Jews.

Suleymanov said there were always Jews who served in parliament and that one of the country’s first ministers of health was a Jew. Suleymanov grew up going to school with Jewish children, was educated by Jewish teachers and had a Jewish doctor.

According to Suleymanov, the Jewish population of Azerbaijan dates back 2,500 years.

“It is not like they live in our country — I don’t know who lives in whose country. There is a long history,” he said.

The story goes that the Azerbaijani Jews, referred to as the “Mountain Jews,” arrived in the area after the exodus from Israel. They passed through Persia, where they picked up the Farsi-based language they still speak, and eventually settled in the Caucasus Mountains.

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