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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.

The Circle of Friendship: Azerbaijan and Israel

Whether they were spoken by the great Chinese military strategist Sun-tzu or Machiavelli or even fabled Godfather Michael Corleone, the words “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” offer great advice. But, seemingly, they have been ignored by the United States, which excels at taking its allies for granted and creating needy and desperate relationships in the eyes of its enemies.

One such case in point is Azerbaijan, a robust, secular, majority Muslim, emerging democracy and a trusted and valued ally that is showing great allegiance to Israel and to the United States. This, while simultaneously driving Mullahs and extremists throughout the world crazy (evidenced by the constant stream of vehemently angry rhetoric emanating from Tehran and elsewhere)  by embracing Western culture and ideas.

Now Israel’s closest ally in the Eurasia and, by extension, the Middle East, Azerbaijan is thriving by proving the world wrong about its perception of Muslim culture and body politic.

While the Middle East burns, American politicians seem to be blind to the bigger picture: It is not the gift of American bombs and warplanes to warring factions that will create a safer world, but it is the spread of Western culture, trade and ideals.

While President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin level expressions of distaste at one another, and while Obama meets with the Chinese as they blatantly spy and steal our biggest secrets, nations such as Israel and Azerbaijan suffer from conspicuous neglect.

Perhaps they have become the two guests at a party who suddenly find themselves with no one else to talk to and thus forge a friendship … and a very good one indeed.

One trip by the American president to Azerbaijan would speak volumes about that country’s policy and its support of Israel, the U.S. and Europe.

Even as America seemingly plays into the hands of the Iranians by allowing their stalling tactics to remain intact as they rush to finish a nuclear weapon, Azerbaijan remains a friend and ally of the U.S., Europe and Israel.

Even as America stands by as Iran threatens the very existence of Israel and the West,
Azerbaijan retains its policies of freedom and tolerance toward all relations and ethnicities.

As America sends more weapons to enable warring factions that will all prove disastrous for peace processes, Azerbaijan and Israel remain partners in trade and support.

However important the friendship of these two nations, it is the high profile presence of a major world power that can call attention to the better side of our natures.

More than ever it is crucial that all nations who respect tolerance, integrity and the dignity of the human spirit to remain diligent in their efforts to grow and prosper while helping one another.

Azerbaijan’s recent hosting of Jennifer Lopez singing and dancing in front of an adoring Azeri Muslim audience is proof there is much common ground. Azerbaijan’s trade and diplomatic relations with Israel is proof countries can work together for the greater good, despite the Mullahs seething over Azerbaijan’s Western proclivities.

In Azerbaijan, they respect and educate women, men, Jews, Christians, Sunnis and Shiites, all of whom can be elected members of its parliament and serve in high-ranking government and business roles.

The wonder of the human condition is that, after all is said and done, it is our sameness that draws us together, the common need in us all to be respected and admired as individuals.

Perhaps the U.S. should more closely examine the relationship between Azerbaijan, Israel and the West. The friendship that exists between Azerbaijan and Israel is a great place to begin looking for positive signs — in the present and for the future.

Also read, “Unlikely Allies.”

Norma Zager is a freelance journalist and columnist who teaches at California State University, Los Angeles.