Religious Tolerance: Finding a Model that Works in Dangerous Times | Commentary

Four years after the start of the Arab Spring, the wider Middle East finds itself in complete chaos with the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, turmoil and growing insurgency in North Africa, and the danger of a new escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In response, the U.S. administration and congressional leaders have called for greater action to curb extremism. In fact, following the news from the region can make one extremely pessimistic about the future of interfaith relations, and inevitably create the perception that Muslims, Christians and Jews will never live peacefully together.

But this understanding is specious. The Congress and administration should reach out to the few strong U.S. allies in the Muslim world that show conclusively the possibility of building an environment which brings religious communities together rather than fostering division. Washington should look as an example to a government that has effective policies that encourage interfaith harmony and discourage extremism. One strong U.S. ally that has centuries of inspiring success in tolerance and inclusion is the Republic of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan, a majority-Muslim nation on the shores of the Caspian Sea, has built a community of acceptance where Muslims, Jews and Christians enjoy peaceful coexistence and live in harmony and respect for each other.

Azerbaijan has always been proud of its diversity. Azerbaijan was home to one of the earliest Christian nations in the world, and the Christian community has helped to shape Azerbaijan’s history through the ages. Today, this community remains an important and vibrant part of Azerbaijani culture and society.

Living along side of the Christian and Muslim communities is a thriving Jewish community of about 30,000 which too has a long heritage in Azerbaijan dating back over two thousand years. When, over the centuries, Jews in the surrounding regions found themselves persecuted, they found Azerbaijan as a haven. During the World War II, many European Jews escaping Nazi persecutions found shelter in Azerbaijan. The Jewish community has been an integral part of Azerbaijan’s economic, cultural and political life, and today synagogues and Jewish schools flourish in the country. Israel’s Ambassador to Azerbaijan said in September that there is “zero anti-Semitism in Azerbaijan, which ‘can be a model for other countries in terms of attitude towards Jews’”.

And at a time when sectarian hatred threatens many in the Middle East, Azerbaijan’s Shia and Sunni Muslims live together in mutual respect. They intermarry, work and even pray together without any discrimination.

The three major religions have prospered because of the age-old respect and tolerance of the Azerbaijani people, who pride themselves on peaceful coexistence. But as the experience in different parts of the world shows, social tolerance cannot achieve much if the government promotes intolerance and allows sectarianism to take hold.

The government of Azerbaijan, however, has created an environment that nurtures and promotes the ancient traditions of tolerance, and rejects radicalism, extremism and hatred. Azerbaijan sees diversity as one of the country’s great strengths and virtues, and has worked to ensure that this diversity continues to blossom. The government has built and rebuilt synagogues, mosques, and churches; created new cultural centres for different faiths; and financially supported all three religions without discrimination. Christians and Jews are represented in all three branches of government in Azerbaijan.

Religious harmony also finds its reflection in the country’s foreign policy. It is no coincidence that Azerbaijan enjoys excellent relations both with Israel and the Muslim world, and is increasingly regarded as a bridge-builder between communities and cultures.

The government has repeatedly, over the course of the last decade, brought together religious leaders from the region and around the world to promote interfaith dialogue — an example which is sorely needed. In 2015, Azerbaijan will host already the 3rd World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue.

The United States also has an interest in such a success story. Azerbaijan — secular, tolerant, and inclusive — is crucial to a region ridden with strife. As the Congress debates how to address the growing threats arising in the region, they should look at how countries like Azerbaijan have encouraged religious freedom and fought extremism. Given the rising dangers of radicalism, hate and intolerance in the world, it is important for the Congress to support America’s tolerant and secular friends and consider the Azerbaijani model of interfaith acceptance and community engagement as a functioning example, and encourage this policy around the globe.

Nasimi Aghayev is Azerbaijan’s Consul General to the Western United States.