There is new depth and intensity to the threat of terrorism on the soil of the United States and its allies. According to reports, in 2016 there have been 1,274 terror attacks in 50 countries, in which 11,774 people were killed and 14,303 injured.
We see variant reactions by our world leaders to these attacks. In the U.S., President Barack Obama refuses to recognize the true nature of our enemy, refusing to name Islamic extremism. It’s hard to defeat an enemy that you won’t name.
France, on the other extreme, announced a state of emergency and launched a nationwide crackdown on terrorism at a real cost to civil liberties.
It is no longer good enough to identify the good guys and the bad guys — the definition of which changes with the political tide. The world is dynamic and who were celebrated one day may become vilified the next. Equally fluid is the information that flows to those who maintain homeland security in the U.S. and beyond.
From whom do we seek advice? Who will open doors for us and act as an interlocutor — the Iranians? Despite the Administration’s obsession with befriending them, they are the largest sponsor of terrorism in the world today.
For the best advice from the Muslim world, the West must first seek to understand its complexities, and not just define it by sectarian violence. Instead of focusing on our enemies, we should emphasize our true Muslim allies — those who have shown effort to truly integrate Western values into the fabric of daily life.
To do so, perhaps we should shift our focus away from the Middle East and toward Eurasia. In this region, there are numerous Muslim-majority nations, many of which are emerging democracies, secular, modern and, pointedly, willing to help. The West should promote and support such countries, many of whom break religious stereotypes. For instance, despite popular, yet uninformed thought, there are Muslim-majority nations who consider women’s rights as essential to the balance of their country. In lieu of subjugation, women are encouraged to take pivotal roles in business, politics, and higher education, among many other fields. As examples: Azerbaijan, Albania, and Kazakhstan.
Take our Muslim allies in the Caspian state of Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani constitution clearly defines the country as a “democratic, legal, secular and unitary republic.” The separation of religion and state is codified through a legal framework that, showing forethought and prescience, allows the scrutinizing of religious activities in the country.
Although Azerbaijan has been criticized at times for lacking continuity regarding human rights, it has far surpassed most other ex-Soviet republics on such matters. Azerbaijan provides people of all faiths the choice to practice their religion without restriction. Jews, Muslims and Christians live together absent the strife of the Middle East and other regions of the world. With its secular government, unlike in the majority of Muslim-majority countries, barely any Muslims in Azerbaijan (1%) say Sunni-Shia tensions are a pressing issue in their country, according to a 2013 Pew Research survey.
In addition, Azerbaijan has a zero-tolerance for religious extremists. The government has established the Caucasus Muslim Board (CMB) which is closely involved in the monitoring of potential ISIS recruits, facilitating early detection of radicalization. The CMB provides imams local training in order to prevent any foreign influence. The State Committee registers all religious organizations and has worked to eliminate judicial loopholes to finance terrorism, such as money laundering and illicit donations. It also monitors religious literature, which has been found to be one of the main sources of radicalization.
In Albania, while Muslims constitute 70 percent of the population, there is greater diversity in religion. For example. Albanian Orthodox (20%), Roman Catholics (10%) and Greek (3-5%) live side-by-side their Muslim neighbors.
While there have been times of acute religious persecution in Albania, especially under the Hoxha communist dictatorship between 1944 and 1985, today the legal and policy framework of Albania is favorable to religious freedom. Albania has been a reliable friend of the United States and South East Asian major economies, and has been a significant force in promoting tolerance in newly independent neighboring Kosovo, another predominately Islamic nation.
The government has been focusing on tackling corruption, reforming tax laws and elevating itself to a democracy that offers its people hope for the future.
And finally, in Kazakhstan, we see growing respect for human rights, rule of law and religious freedom. For example. The country has been focused on eliminating all forms of discrimination against women, including taking legislative measures to ensure the comprehensive development and advancement of females. The right to freedom of conscience is secured by the Kazakhstan constitution.
While the track records of Azerbaijan, Albania, and Kazakhstan are not flawless and in some cases, despite improvements, civil society would certainly benefit from more openness and reforms, shouldn’t the West identify countries such as Azerbaijan, Albania and Kazakhstan as success stories?
While extremism is not completely alien — true, a number of Albanians have joined ISIS — it is rarer than what we see in the Middle East (or even Western Europe). Shouldn’t the West embrace this encouraging fact and strengthen relations with these countries?
U.S. lawmakers are poised to help a country like Azerbaijan, for example, because it shares problems similar to those in the Western world — adequate housing, health care, education, and jobs… “normal” problems.
In exchange, these countries are poised to help the U.S. in understanding and dealing with Muslim hot spots; they often enjoy more open relations.
Azerbaijan and Iran have been deepening economic and political ties for the past couple of years, giving Azerbaijan insight into the Iranian government’s true goals and aspirations. Azerbaijani-Iranian relations could boost regional trade and economic development, reducing the prospects for ethnic, religious or even regional conflicts and becoming a powerful tool for improved EU-Iranian and U.S.-Iranian ties.
So often we tell other countries what they should be, failing to spotlight what they have achieved. Many countries, including Azerbaijan, Albania and Kazakhstan are already working with the U.S., the European Union and NATO; we must call upon them for counsel in a deeper and more meaningful manner.
The rhetoric of this presidential campaign season has too often been about fear and looking inward. In contrast, by aggressively befriending those nations who have made great democratic strides, we can provide exemplars to the countries who say they want to function independently in a secular and democratic fashion, yet fail to do so, either out of inaction or lack of desire. We can help others while serving ourselves.