“A country without woman is destroyed and remains helpless but in the hand of woman this world will only have bliss. She will exalt humanity.”
This quote from Hussein Javid, the Shakespeare of Azerbaijan, sums up the cultural, economic and political rationale behind the recent appointment of Mehriban Aliyeva, the first lady of Azerbaijan, to the post of vice president. Today, in the Muslim world where women are fighting an uphill battle for gender equality and a seat at the decision-making table, this Muslim nation of 9 million the size of South Carolina has taken a historic leap forward.
Why does the appointment of a reform-minded, intelligent and worldly stateswoman halfway across the world matter for United States, and why is it important for Washington to applaud and wholeheartedly support Mrs. Aliyeva? If we are to successfully tackle the challenge of Islamic extremism, then we must find and support positive and uplifting alternatives. Mrs. Aliyeva’s success can become a model for the rest of the Muslim world to emulate. Thankfully, this wise woman of the East has the ingredients for success.
In many ways, “Mehriban Khanum,” as she is affectionately called by her countryman, embodies her nation’s core values. These are values we Americans can both relate to and have championed throughout our history. First, Mehriban Khanum, whose name literally means “kind lady,” represents the fundamental value of religious tolerance, which is in the DNA of this Shia Muslim country. She has been a champion of Azerbaijan’s tolerance towards all religions. Members of the Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Bahai faiths live side by side in peace and harmony in Azerbaijan. For example, when the Jewish community decided to build a new synagogue in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, she gave her full and public support.
Not surprisingly, it was Mrs. Aliyeva and not her husband, President Ilham Aliyev, who represented her country in meetings with the pope to discuss interfaith dialogue. And unlike Azerbaijan’s neighbor Iran, where members of the Bahai faith continue to be persecuted by the intolerant ayatollahs, Mehriban Khanum has stood by this faith community. In short, Mehriban Khanum feels that it is in the deeds of a Muslim that one shows one’s piety and not in intolerance toward members of other faiths.
Mehriban Khanum’s second personality trait captures another feature of her nation’s core value: namely, being charitable toward those less fortunate. As founder and head of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, the “kind lady” has championed numerous philanthropic projects around the world. For example, immediately after the 2008 earthquake in Pakistan, she mobilized the resources of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation to rebuild a school in one of the most remote regions of that country.
Mrs. Aliyeva’s kind heart, motherly love and charitable acts have touched those in the Washington, D.C. area as well. For example, the Longview School in Montgomery County, which serves children with disabilities, has been a recipient of her foundation’s donation. And thanks to Mehriban Khanum, the inner city youth of Washington, D.C. have scholarships for internships during their senior year. This was the result of a partnership between the Heydar Aliyev Foundation and D.C.-based Urban Alliance.
Mehriban Khanum’s philanthropy has literally helped save the lives of children with life-threatening heart ailments. Through Bethesda-based “Save A Child’s Heart,” Azerbaijani children were flown to Israel for life-saving heart operations. Incidentally, where many narrow-minded Muslim leaders refuse to deal with Israel, this “kind lady” of charity has extended her hand of friendship, cooperation and charity to Israel. It should therefore not come as a surprise that Mrs. Aliyeva was awarded the prestigious French Medal of Honor for her tireless efforts on behalf of those less fortunate. While some in the Muslim world wage a jihad to destroy, this “kind lady” of Islam is waging a jihad to give back and build.
The third factor that makes Mrs. Aliyeva tick stems from the Azerbaijanis love of nature. With nine of the world’s 11 climate zones blessing their country, Azerbaijanis are farmers by nature. As such, the environment and preservation of what they see as God’s blessing is paramount. In other words, they see their soil as a gift from God that has to be protected and preserved. This Azeri trait is what has led Mehriban Khanum to become an advocate of tree planting as a means to not only tackle climate change but preserve man’s relationship with nature. She feels that if every country around the world followed the simple but time-honored tradition of planting trees not only will we protect the earth but rally a divided world around a simple but very important economic activity.
Suppression of woman’s rights continues unabated in many parts of the Middle East. At long last, one of America’s strongest allies in the broader Middle East has taken the bold step to address this issue head on. The United States must applaud and wholeheartedly support the appointment of the “kind lady” of Azerbaijan as vice president.
• S. Rob Sobhani is CEO of Caspian Group Holdings.