The Washington Post recently featured an article on the revival of Yazidi culture and faith in Iraq by Gabriel Scheinmann, the director of policy at the Jewish Policy Center. Such a revival occurred thanks to the protection afforded to the Yazidis by the Kurdish Regional Government. Scheinmann, citing the atmosphere of tolerance for religious minorities, writes that he wishes this would be the model for elsewhere in the Middle East. Tragically, with the rise of Islamic State—a vicious, violence-crazed terrorist group in Iraq and Syria—these hopes have been shattered. One hears a lot about Islamic State’s targeting of Yazidis; despite claiming to be representative of the “Islamic State,” these jihadists actually mostly kill Muslims. From Shia Muslims, to the long-suffering Iraqi Turkmens, to the Kurds, the terrorists of Islamic State cannot seem to satisfy their thirst for blood.
Both the Washington Post feature and the actions of Islamic State underscore a fundamental point that so many in the West miss: location matters! Moreover, the way to build sustainably pluralistic—and hopefully, democratic—societies throughout the Muslim world is not to help flare up violence, but to promote inclusiveness and tolerance. Islamic State’s genocidal campaign against minorities also highlights another sad reality: minorities, such as Yazidis and Christians, were much safer in the lands they lived in for centuries under repressive secular regimes than they are when the central governments lose control over their areas to militant radicals. This is not a justification for the likes of Bashar al-Assad or Saddam Hussein, but it may explain why there are so many people in Syria who prefer Assad, with all his repression and violence, to the religiously driven zealotry of his opponents.
Another reality is that in societies not fully acquainted with notions of democracy, the political groups that come to replace authoritarian governments are often much worse than their predecessors. And the oft-entertained hypothesis that the democratic process would work itself out without posing any external threat has been proven to be a dangerous fallacy from Iraq, to Gaza, to Egypt, among others. Islamic State may well win the elections (not that they really care about the process) in the areas they control, just as Hamas did in Gaza and the Muslim Brotherhood did in Egypt. Ramifications of such elections, conducted to the satisfaction of schematically thinking Western observers, are clear and have been illustrated over and over again.
So what should be done to promote progress and reform in the Muslim world? The key, perhaps, as described in the article about the Kurdish region in Iraq, is to support economic growth, inclusiveness, and tolerance toward minorities, and to realize that these are indispensable fundamentals of any democratic society.
Muslims live throughout the world, not only in the Middle East. Perhaps the predominantly Muslim societies in Europe, such as Albania and Bosnia, and in Central Asia, such as Kazakhstan and its neighbors, could become models—even with all their flaws.
On these issues, one country stands out. The Republic of Azerbaijan—the only predominantly Muslim nation in the European part of the former Soviet Union—has for centuries been a home to an inclusive and diverse society, including Muslims, Christians, Jews, and others. Azerbaijan’s tolerant societal traditions have been widely acknowledged and are reinforced by its government’s policy of championing intercultural dialogue. With Azerbaijan being the only country in the world bordering both Russia and Iran, its Muslim community—including both Shia and Sunni—presents a model whose importance is hard to overestimate.
Many Afghan officials repeatedly stated that they hope to one day see Afghanistan following the Azerbaijani model. The many Iranian visitors to the capital of Baku, an architectural and cultural gem of Eurasia, quietly enjoy freedoms they cannot even imagine at home.
Nonetheless, stubbornly refusing to see the negative consequences of its simplistic and one-dimensional approaches elsewhere, the United States continues to act as the proverbial bull in a China shop, missing this bigger picture. Instead of promoting the long-term fundamentals in societies in transition, Washington bitterly criticizes Azerbaijan for trying to keep radicals at bay and seems to engage in an obvious campaign against official Baku. We have seen this before, when the U.S. criticized its best regional ally, Mikhael Saakashvili, just to enable the takeover of Georgia by pro-Russian politicians. We’ve also seen it with the Obama Administration’s indirect, but rather obvious, disapproval of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Israel.
The U.S. should not silently ignore the fallacies of its allies; on the contrary, it should help them to improve and reform. This, however, can only succeed if America pursues a strategic long-term policy of promoting stability with clear objectives in mind. Such a policy cannot be built to satisfy a rushed agenda of the Administration’s mid-level bureaucrats, or to satisfy or Washington’s desire to ignore the rest of the world just as it needs America most.