A religiously tolerant Muslim-majority nation need not be an oxymoron.
At least weekly, the greatest minds — diplomats, academics, theologians, politicians and experts of all stripes — are gathered to discuss the issue of worldwide terrorism. They discuss geopolitics, religion, economics, geostrategy and make bilateral and multilateral agreements and proclamations on the
Meanwhile, just in recent weeks, there were major Islamist terror attacks at London Bridge, Manchester Arena and Westminster Bridge, followed by a terror attack on a London mosque. It marked the latest harrowing episode in a world where the prospects for interfaith coexistence seems bleaker by the day. The only thing experts seem to agree upon is that terrorism cannot be defeated by conventional military force. It may be necessary, even obligatory, but it is a short-term fix to keep terrorists at bay.
The topic nary discussed is Islam; Muslims outside the Middle East; what Islam means to Muslims? Do the collective “we” contemplate Muslims in the panoply of considerations? We lament the thousands of Muslims who die at the hands of their brethren, but what about the role of Muslim-majority societies?
There are more than 50 Muslim-majority nations on the planet. Not all of them are failed states like Syria, Libya and others. Not all are eager and ardent supporters of terrorism like Iran. Not all are moderate at the top, yet not so at the bottom of their respective societies, like Egypt.
Let’s do our due diligence and work with leaders of Muslim-majority nations to help make models for nations to follow, but, more importantly, for people to follow. The answer to terrorism may be an alternative to terrorism…a Muslim alternative.
Westerners tend to think of all Muslims living in or emanating from the Middle East.
Seemingly forgotten are the newer Muslim-majority nations. Many of ancient cultures and linguistic traditions and many secular, emerging democracies. Once comprised in the Soviet Union, these peoples are now the sovereign nations of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and others. Each is largely secular and stable to varying degrees.
A case in point is Azerbaijan, a Muslim-majority nation, complete with a millennia-long and proud history of acceptance of other faiths and a decidedly warm relationship with the Jewish state of Israel, the U.S. and Europe. Is it a perfect nation, no. It has its periodic issues with press and assembly freedoms, but it is a stable, secular, ultra-modern and emerging democracy.
Sounds like a fairytale? Azerbaijan doesn’t have to be a religious-cultural-political phenomenon. Its model can be used by others as an antidote to terrorism.
A religiously tolerant Muslim-majority nation
Jews report that they are not merely tolerated, but celebrated, by the country’s Muslim majority. Azerbaijan’s Jewish community consists of the “Mountain Jews” (5th century AD), Ashkenazi and Georgian Jews, who arrived fleeing pogroms in Russia.
“Representatives of the Jewish community in Azerbaijan say that there is no anti-Semitism in the country, they have never faced such phenomena there, they say they live in Azerbaijan in an atmosphere of brotherhood and friendship for centuries,” Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman remarked in 2016.
Pope Francis praised Azerbaijani religious tolerance, telling Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, “These good relations assume great significance for peaceful coexistence and for peace in the world.”
It is so, likely beginning with proper separation of church and state. Azerbaijan’s constitution affirms the country as a secular state and codifies religious freedom for all citizens. Therefore, while approximately 91% of Azerbaijanis are Muslims, religious minorities are protected and respected.
A Muslim-majority ally for the Jewish state
Israel has two peaceful neighbors, Egypt and Jordan. Despite their governments’ peace treaties with Israel, much of both populations still harbor anti-Israel and anti-Semitic views. This is not the case in Azerbaijan.
Israel and Azerbaijan have mutually beneficial and thriving diplomatic, defense and economic ties.
President Aliyev revealed last year that Azerbaijan purchased close to $5 billion in defense equipment from Israel, only part of an expansive bilateral relationship, officially since 1992. Israel purchases roughly 40% of its oil from Azerbaijan.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Azerbaijan twice, while Israeli officials’ other landmark visits include Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and President Shimon Peres, to name a few. Regularly, high-level Azerbaijani officials travel to Israel, including Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov and other high-ranking cabinet members and countless members of parliament and business leaders.
A model for the world
So what does this mean?
In a broken world, the Azerbaijani story proves that coexistence is possible. Rather than writing off Azerbaijan as the exception to the rule, world leaders should deeply familiarize themselves with this genuinely moderate Muslim-majority state and replicate its environment. President Ilham Aliyev should be at the head of every table. This goes not only for other Muslim-majority nations, but also for Western countries struggling with influxes of Muslim immigration and waves of Islamist terror.
A better future is possible. Azerbaijan has written the first chapter. It’s time for other nations to write the rest of the story.
Heydar Aliyev International Airport. Domestic terminal at night (Wikimedia Commons)