By Silvestre Reyes
President Barack Obama is committed to helping the United States extricate itself from the constant violence in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The fact that no American troops have lost their lives in either country this year is a testament to the President’s efforts, and something for which all of us should be thankful.
As this country tries to shift away from a near constant focus on the Middle East, towards Asia, there has been a lot of chatter among foreign policy elites to rethink our strategic relationships around the world. However, I believe this type of thinking is misguided. The ascendency of the Islamic State in the Levant and Iraq (ISIL), and the terrorist attacks across Europe, make it clear that the United States is going to have to be focused on dealing with threats from the Middle East for some time.
One nation our leaders in Washington must continue to work closely with is Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is a secular Islamic nation of just less than 10 million people, which has been a consistent and reliable partner for the United States, helping us confront radical elements inside Islam. If we are going to be successful in defeating these forces of darkness, we are going to need Islamic countries like Azerbaijan to help us.
After all, to help prevent these terrorist groups from recruiting new members, we have to demonstrate that it is possible to be Islamic, and tolerant. And, with that level of tolerance comes peace, stability and prosperity – the three things most people are truly seeking in life. We need their support so that efforts to defeat these radical elements inside Islam are not seen as a war on Muslims by the United States. But rather, a joint effort by peace seeking countries around the world opposed to using religion to suppress freedom and basic human rights.
Let me assure you, Azerbaijan’s commitment to defeating radical elements with the Islamic faith has been substantive and real. In the Afghanistan war, the Azerbaijanis have helped our military and NATO to transport goods and personnel in and out of Afghanistan, allowed U.S. aircraft to fly over their airspace, and even sent troops to help root out Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
From my time in Congress as chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence and as a member of the Armed Services Committee, I know firsthand that Azerbaijani defense forces have proactively helped the United States manage threats from terrorist groups with a track record of attacking Americans. I believe their diligence in these matters has saved lives.
Azerbaijan is also an example of what an Islamic country can accomplish if it embraces tolerance. Azerbaijan’s economy continues to grow, and the residents of that nation are experiencing a vibrant economy. Perhaps most impressive for an Islamic country, is that women in Azerbaijan have equal rights to men, in fact, Azerbaijan was the first majority-Muslim country to grant women the right to vote in 1918. Azerbaijani women are represented in the nation’s political, business and academic communities.
Something else to consider, is that Azerbaijan has developed strong economic ties with the United States. In my home of Texas, oil and gas companies are doing business in Azerbaijan and it is good for the economy of the Lone Star State. Tax dollars are flowing into our government at the state and federal levels thanks to our investments in Azerbaijan.
The Azerbaijanis have also demonstrated a level of religious tolerance almost unheard of among Islamic countries. In that country, thousands of Jewish people live free of fear from attack by radical groups. Can the same be said for Jews living in Paris or much of Europe? In fact, Azerbaijan has strong relations with the nation of Israel. The Israelis get 40 percent of their petroleum from Azerbaijan, which is critical for the Jewish State because most oil-rich Islamic countries won’t trade with the Israelis, due to their long-standing anti-Semitic views and opposition to the creation of Israel.
When you consider all of these facts about Azerbaijan, it is clear why it is critical that United States preserves strong relations with that nation. If we are going to defeat the radical terrorist groups, we are going to need the partnership of countries like Azerbaijan, which respect religious tolerance, the rights of women and the benefits of peace and stability.
Silvestre Reyes, a former democratic congressman from El Paso, Texas, and has made multiple trips to Azerbaijan, most recently serving as an election monitor in 2013.
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