There is something weird and rather disturbing about Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) - a U.S.-funded media outlet that is famous for broadcasting information during the Cold War to support our friends and undermine our enemies - attacking an ally over our mutual enemy, radical jihadism.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has claimed repeatedly that Azerbaijan is not at risk from the threat of spreading Iranian-backed radicalism and therefore, accuses it of human rights violations for considering banning head scarves in public schools (something France did recently) and imprisoning radical clerics who foment the overthrow of the government in favor of becoming a satellite of the mullahs in Iran. Because Azerbaijan - a secular Shia majority-Muslim nation with vast energy supplies and a central player in the Caucuses and Eurasia - has secular alliances with the very nations the terrorists hate most, including a very close partnership with Israel - it is itself a target for jihadists, especially those coming from Iran. Given the difference in size and resources between Azerbaijan and Iran, the mullahs’ threats can never be taken as an idle exercise.
Azerbaijan sits on the Caspian Sea and is bordered by Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Turkey and Iran. In fact, it is the only nation to border both Russia and Iran. It is an ancient land and, with the exception of a few years of independence between the end of World War I and the rise of the Soviet state (it was the first parliamentary democracy in the Muslim world), it was a republic of the USSR. In the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has developed a decidedly pragmatic and pro-Western foreign policy, while still mindful of the dangers lurking in its neighborhood: It is engaged in a frozen conflict with Armenia, which invaded Azerbaijan more than 20 years ago to claim territory. It looks to Georgia as a close neighbor, but also as a buffer between itself and Russia. While some would expect it to be allied with Iran because they are both Shia Muslim, it is a secular state, believing strongly in the separation of government and religion. Ironically, it is Azerbaijan’s regional nemesis - Armenia - that has developed a very cozy relationship with Iran, including the conspicuous and now public weapon transfers that caused not only some serious U.S. concerns, but American deaths in Iraq. It is not irrelevant to also note that Azerbaijan is a state rich in oil and gas and, through its pipelines, is and will be a significant contributor to the energy needs of Turkey, Israel and Europe.
If there were ever a nation wary of terrorism in that part of the world, it is Azerbaijan. It is both too close to Iran culturally and too far apart from it in temperament, desire and fundamentalist religious commitment. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has been vehemently and relentlessly attacking Azerbaijan for closing mosques that preach Islamic fundamentalism, banning head scarves in public schools and imprisoning radical clerics. It is perhaps also worth noting that the ban of head scarves in schools was based on addressing socioeconomic issues and not based in religion. While it may have gone a little further than some nations with large Muslim populations in Europe, it does not have a majority population of “others” who can overwhelm the development of terrorism by its sheer existence. On the other hand, it does have a population that is quite mindful of the dangers - especially to women - of a radical takeover. Fighting back is a lot harder for a nation to do once a foothold has been gained, as we have seen in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Growing religious identity in Azerbaijan is probably a natural process in a post-Soviet society rediscovering its roots following decades of Soviet ideological domination. There should be a lively debate about the place of head coverings and other religious symbols in a secular society. However, unlike Pakistan, the Arab nations and even Turkey, the radicalization of this debate is fueled from outside, namely Iran. Calls for jihad by radicals in Azerbaijan and disturbances -including physical attacks on schools over head scarves - are an Iranian export. Their ayatollahs use their broadcasts into Azerbaijan to incite unrest and accuse Azerbaijani authorities of being “Islamophobic.” The issue at hand is not freedom of religion - for which Azerbaijan is quite well known - but whether the Azeri society is allowed to address its development without radical and even violent interference from Iran. The Iranian goal is to shift the discussion on social issues in Azerbaijan toward a discussion of whether the state should be secular or religious. America’s interests here are fairly clear and so is the side it should take.
Azerbaijan has been sensitive to its relationship with its neighbors far longer than we have even been aware of its existence. It cannot speak forcefully against Iran on a regular basis because that much larger nation is far too irrational as it is, and not entirely unwilling to flex its muscles to the detriment of everyone around it. It would advance neither Azerbaijan’s interests nor ours to increase tension in the region by leaving an opening for the further spread of terrorist ideology. It is worth noting that Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, effectively told Iran to mind its own business with regard to the head scarves, as well as many other issues.
U.S. foreign policy is inevitably caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to exerting its role as the only remaining superpower. We genuinely support freedom and human rights but it is unrealistic to assume that any nation can achieve them without the security and sense of well-being required to support them. Arguing that anything that might jeopardize the market for terrorism is against our policy of freedom for all human beings is both naive and inapplicable. Do we really want to tell yet another nation how to prosper by following our values and objectives? Democracy requires more than elections, it must be built on a culture that reflects the values and history of its people.
Of course, we have a responsibility to stand up for civil liberty; we would be defeated by terrorism and extremism if we did not. Azerbaijan offers plenty of reasons for criticism. Certainly, Azerbaijan needs to do much more in dealing with corruption, political freedoms and treatment of journalists. The need for further reforms is obvious and urgent. However, for such criticisms to have an effect, they should be perceived as something beyond “Azerbaijan bashing.” This is a nuanced “war” at best. Surely, there are other ways to express our concerns for civil liberty than blasting a friend who does not have the resources that France and Germany have in their battles against the spread of extremism in Muslim communities in their nations. Neither U.S. nor Azeri interests are served by an advance of extremism. Our mutual goals might well suffer a setback if we do not find a better way to avoid falling into the traps the religious radicals are seeking to set for us. After all, whatever the shortcoming current Azerbaijani authorities have, a pro-Western, strongly secular and pragmatic government that ensures progress, however slow in our eyes, is much better than likely alternatives, be it a government aligned with Iran or a government so weak that it would effectively be dominated by Moscow or Tehran.
U.S. foreign policy and concerns are certainly not served by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in this instance. As part of its mission, the service claims that it provides “uncensored news, responsible discussion and open debate.” This is a noble mission, yet even a brief look at the RFERL’s coverage of Azerbaijan shows a clearly negative bias toward Azeri authorities. Perhaps, such an approach was justified during the Soviet years when the objective was to use all means necessary to undermine our Cold War enemy. But what value does it have today against one of the very few friendly nations we have in a strategically critical area of the world? The issue is not RFERL’s freedom of speech because it is a U.S. taxpayer-financed entity established to advance U.S. interests. Given that, one would expect that its message to Azerbaijan would confront the one broadcast by the Iranian government’s propaganda outlet, Sahar TV, rather that echo it.
Xandra Kayden is a senior fellow at the School of Public Affairs at the University of California, Los Angeles.
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