Last month, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a panel discussion in the US Congress about the state of human rights in Azerbaijan. In that panel discussion, US congressmen voiced strong opinions that were critical of Azerbaijan, a Muslim majority country friendly to Israel but which is in a long term conflict with Armenia, a, Christian country which has been accused of a rise in antisemitism.
But just how much does the average American know about Azerbaijan? Could he know enough to express an opinion on the Congress panel discussion?
Ken Abramowitz, the founder of Save the West, noted that often people have strongly biased and bigoted perceptions, even if they have not invested any time in reading and becoming educated about the said topic. In relation to Israel, he noted how many average Joes among the left in America support the Palestinian Arabs because of the concerted well-funded propaganda campaigns by Palestinian Arab organzations on and off campus, without even reading a single objective book on the Arab-Israeli conflict, visiting Israel or doing anything else to become educated about the topic.
I wondered if I could use Azerbaijan as a test to see what the average American knows about that South Caucasus country, whose warming relations with Israel are being encouraged by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations..
In order to find out, I first traveled to Chicago, one of the largest cities in the United States. It is from Chicago that former US President Barack Obama launched his career to become President of the United States. Rahm Emmanuel, Obama’s former Chief of Staff, also served as mayor of Chicago in the past.
In Chicago, I interviewed five random Americans on the street and asked what they thought about Azerbaijan.
The first interviewee asked, “Where is Azerbaijan on the map?” The second one stated, “I don’t know much, but wasn’t that area part of the Soviet Union? I don’t quite recall.” The third interviewee said, “If it is not related to stuff for my kids or my business, I don’t really give a damn.” His wife concurred, “I am a math teacher and I only study stuff related to my field.” And the fifth one said, “Isn’t that some country near Iran? I am not quite sure.”
If the average person in Chicago knows nothing about Azerbaijan, how can Americans be expected to defend one of America’s greatest allies in the war against terror if they do not even know what Baku is and cannot find Azerbaijan on a map?
Next, I went to a smaller city, Portland, Oregon. This gave me a west coast perspective from a more rural surrounding. In Portland, I went to a local restaurant and asked five random Americans what they thought about Azerbaijan. It was the same story that I faced in Chicago.
The first interviewee said, “I don’t know what Azerbaijan is. It sounds familiar, but I do not remember what it is. Is it a country?” The second person said, “Don’t they have a conflict with Armenia? I cannot quite recall.” The third interviewee said, “I played soccer in Asia and could find it roughly on the map, but I do not have any political details that are arising to the surface of my mind.” It seems most Americans are like the fourth interviewee, who said, “No, sorry, do not know anything.”
Another interviewee, Rachel Clark, was able to recall that there was an attempted attack upon the Israeli Embassy by Iran inside of Azerbaijan, but she was the daughter of former Portland Mayor Bud Clark. She was not your typical American. However, her associates are aware of how uninformed American society is. A woman who was standing near her said, “There are tens of millions of Americans who cannot even tell you who their congressmen and senators are.”
Clark concurred, “Most people in Kentucky do not know where Oregon is. They will ask, “Is it between California and Washington?” Daniel Salomon, a PHD candidate at Portland State University, related, “The left here was very critical that when we went to war in Afghanistan, most Americans could not find Afghanistan on a map, yet they were in total agreement that the country should be bombed.”
These findings regarding Americans’ ignorance of the world around them are statistically backed up. According to a recent Pew Opinion Poll, only 56% of Americans know that Ukraine is not part of NATO, only 51% of Americans know that the present US Secretary of State is Antony Blinken, only 48% of Americans know that Kabul is the capital city of Afghanistan, only 48% of Americans know that the US Embassy in Israel moved to Jerusalem, only 41% of Americans could correctly identify the Indian flag, and only 17% of Americans know that the Xingjian province in China has a Muslim majority.
A similar survey conducted by the Council on Foreign Relations found that less than half of Americans knew that Afghanistan provided safe haven to Al Qaeda leading up to the September 11 terror attacks, this despite the fact that America was in Afghanistan for two decades. The same poll found that just over half of Americans could find Iraq on a map, even though 100,000 US soldiers were stationed in Iraq just one decade ago. According to this same survey, only 30% of Americans said that they learned about US foreign policy in school.
And when the average American is not educated to be cognizant of the world around them, they are easy prey for purposeful minisnformaton. And in this manner, one of Israel’s greatest friends in the Islamic world, Azerbaijan, faces possibly bigoted characterizations and even boycott proposals, reminiscent of what Israel faces on US campuses and in other places from the BDS Movement, without many blinking an eye.
More should be done to educate the American population regarding the world around them because the world’s greatest superpower should not be able to pursue policy decisions with most of its population having their heads in the sand.
Rachel Avraham is the CEO of the Dona Gracia Center for Diplomacy and an Israel-based journalist. She is the author of “Women and Jihad: Debating Palestinian Female Suicide Bombings in the American, Israeli and Arab Media.”