Forget Kabul, Look to Baku: The Search for Muslim Moderates

 Forget Kabul, Look to Baku: The Search for Muslim Moderates
 by Rabbi Abraham Cooper
 Associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance

It's not been a good day for God. We are now learning the details about a horrific attack on U.N. aid workers in Afghanistan that left as at least 11 people dead including two U.N. workers who reportedly were beheaded. The igniter of the mass murder was Terry Jones, an extremist parading as a Christian pastor in Florida who confirmed on his website that he had burned a Quran on March 20. That was the day he dubbed "International Judge the Koran Day," where he presided over a six-hour trial against the Quran. At the conclusion, Jones declared the holy book guilty, and a copy was soaked in kerosene and set aflame.

The Afghan Imams who turned the ignition for the mob violence at local Mosques were, I am sure, as convinced as Rev. Jones that they possess the inside track to Heaven. This outrage will certainly succeed in hardening hearts and minds here and hatred in the Muslim world for America.

It's at difficult times like these, when extremists revel in the power of their hatred, that I think back to my visits to place called Baku. That city, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, is the capital of Azerbaijan. It is an overwhelmingly Muslim country. And it is today, one of the few Muslim nations where this Orthodox rabbi can walk around openly with a yarmulke on my head without worrying for my safety.

I first visited Baku during the Jewish High Holy Days in 1972, in the heyday of the Cold War. I was there to meet with Soviet Jews, including Refuseniks seeking to immigrate to Israel. Back then, the KGB shadowed every move we made. Back then we saw that Azeri Muslims and Jews had a common enemy: a Communist system, whose official atheism left no room for believers.

In recent years, I have returned twice to Baku, now the capital of a secular Muslim country. My return to the local synagogue for evening services was, thank God, devoid of any of the drama of the Soviet era. I was just another Jew joining a minyan with 10 other Jews to pray to our G-d. I met the leaders of the Jewish community, whose only complaints were about each other, not the government which guaranteed their freedom of assembly, religion and education. Younger members of the Jewish community were surprised that I was surprised that Israel and Azerbaijan have diplomatic relations and that you can fly from direct from Tel Aviv to Baku. Josef Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev must be turning in their graves.

Last year, I participated in a major Interfaith Conference in Baku. There were a number of things about the gathering that deeply impressed me. First, the host, the Grand Mufti, warmly welcomed a Christian cleric who came from Armenia, despite the fact that the two neighbors are still at war with each other over disputed territory. Secondly, that an Ayatollah from Iran was present. And third that the Grand Mufti with the Ayatollah and a number of rabbis within earshot, launched into a public and explicit denunciation of religious-inspired terrorism, including suicide bombings.

As I sat seaside with some locals listening to a jazz band one evening, I reflected that here was a western-oriented, Muslim, secular society with some tough neighbors, including Iran and Russia. Here was a Muslim land that moves a lot of oil, yet allows people to pray and play pretty much as they see fit. Pity most Americans never heard of the place.

Maybe it's time we start paying more attention to our real friends in the Muslim world in places like Baku, where people admire what America stands for, and less to a corrupt Afghanistan that on a good day steals our aid and on a bad one like today, watches as the very people dedicated to helping their nation are brutally murdered in the name of God.

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