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Learning From Azerbaijan By: Judy Lash Balint
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, February 21, 2006

American college students may want to take a lesson from Moslem students in universities in Azerbaijan.  According to the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, there’s no anti-Israel sentiment on Azerbaijani campuses, no anti-Semitism and “the students don’t care about the Palestinian conflict.” European Jews might want to take a trip there too, since, according to the Conference of Presidents official Malcolm Hoenlein, unlike in most European capitals, it’s quite comfortable to walk the streets of Baku wearing a skullcap.

Talking to reporters in Jerusalem yesterday, Hoenlein emphasized that Azerbaijan is a moderate Moslem country that treats its minorities well.  Yes, there was one large Danish cartoon protest demonstration in Baku, but it was peaceful, noted Hoenlein.  Unlike in Europe and many American cities, Moslem women aren’t wearing the hajib headscarf and they’re attending universities in representative numbers. Israel maintains an embassy in Azerbaijan and Azerbaijani students study at Israeli universities. Citing the friendly atmosphere created in Azerbaijan, Hoenlein reported that at a diplomatic reception in Baku for his group, the Israeli ambassador was seen hugging representatives of various Arab countries.

So what should the West do to encourage and cultivate this strategic Moslem state that shares borders with Iran, Georgia, Russia and Armenia and is at the hub of the energy revolution in the Caucasus?  For Hoenlein, who has just returned from a five-day visit there together with sixty-five American Jewish leaders, the answers are fairly clear.


Don’t regard the Moslem world as a monolith, Hoenlein advises. Every Moslem country is unique. “We have to become more sophisticated in dealing with them individually.”


“We give too little attention to those who practice moderation,” Hoenlein says. In recent months the Conference of Presidents group has visited Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Qatar and emerged with a similar message. “The west has to rethink its policies towards the Moslem world,” he continued “we have to strengthen our connections to the moderates and support the people who are struggling for human rights.”


Financial aid and moral support to dissidents and reformers in Iran would be a good place to start, notes Hoenlein. “If we want to see change in Iran we have to support the people there who will bring about change. And what we have done up until now is everything possible to dissuade them.”


Focusing on Iran’s serious human rights abuses and the hundreds of public executions of women and children on spurious charges, Hoenlein condemns the silence of the West. “It’s inconceivable. It’s incomprehensible, and it destroys the initiative of people inside the country” to press for change.


While praising President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” speech, Hoenlein says the Islamist dictators are completely open in advertising their crimes. “If the West doesn’t respond, we’ve abandoned the people of Iran.”


Most important, says Hoenlein, is to take seriously the Holocaust denial speeches of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that included a call to destroy Israel. “His words are part of a deliberate strategy to mobilize the Moslem world.  The speeches are part of his nuclear program,” claims Hoenlein and should not be dismissed as mere ranting.  Hoenlein warns against the appeasement policy of Europe.  “Somehow they always excuse what the dictators say and look for some faint ray of hope.”


Supporting the moderates does mean supporting a process of democratization, Hoenlein states, but “democratization is more than just an event.  One election doesn’t make a democracy—it’s a process. We have to help build the institutions of democracy.”  Azerbaijan’s president told the Jewish group that he is fully behind moving toward democratization but Hoenlein took away the message that “if you push too hard and try to accelerate the process you’ll break the system.”


The visit of the Jewish group was closely covered in the Iranian press, but it’s doubtful the Iranian journalists will write about the Conference of Presidents project to bring Azerbaijani teachers to Israel to learn how to teach the Holocaust.


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Judy Lash Balint is a Jerusalem based writer and author of Jerusalem Diaries: What's Really Happening in Israel (Xulon Press). She blogs at http://jerusalemdiaries.blogspot.com.

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