Azerbaijan: Tolerance and multiculturalism

Much is made about religious tolerance in the Republic of Azerbaijan. Even the vaguely identified and little-known U.S.Commission of International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) inexplicably seems concerned of all countries with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Amazingly and apparently oblivious to the events unfolding around the world, USCRIF analysts seem to insist that radical religious extremists shouldn’t be confronted and that no state should act against radical ideologies.

Apparently, following the USCIRF logic even the speeches made very recently by European leaders, including British PM Cameron at the White House, or the actions by French and Belgian police should be censured by the Commission. This reflects not only the absence of coordination among various U.S. institutions, but also an appalling lack of strategic vision on the most pressing international matters.

The reality is that Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan for that matter, are amongst the world’s most tolerant societies and certainly rank at the top of the Muslim-majority nations of the world. 

In 2014, the government of the Republic of Azerbaijan established two institutions that solidified the country’s role as a model for ethnic and religious tolerance. The position of State Adviser on Inter-Ethnic Affairs, Multiculturalism, and Religion was established and filled by prominent academician Kamal Abdulla. In addition, the Baku International Center of Multiculturalism was launched, a center that immediately began to build on Baku’s role in advancing intercultural dialogue and humanitarian programming.

Azerbaijan, a predominantly Shiite Muslim country, is also home to several other ethnic and religious groups, including ancient Zoroastrian, Christian, and Jewish communities. Respect and tolerance for national minorities has played a vital role in the development of the country from antiquity to the days of the Silk Road to modernity. Minorities, as well as women, have been ubiquitous in Azerbaijani government since its independence from the Soviet Union.

The reality, if folks like USCIRF would take a look, is that Azerbaijan has made a concerted effort to create and foster the necessary political and social conditions for developing and strengthening the country’s traditions of multiculturalism and tolerance. Time and again, Azerbaijan has demonstrated that harmony is possible and issues can be resolved without resorting to violence or strife.

The real test for Azerbaijan’s tradition of religious and national tolerance was during the collapse of the Soviet Union. In this deeply troubled time, ethnic Armenians invaded some 20 percent of Azerbaijani lands creating nearly 1 million Azerbaijani Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), and ethnically cleansing the remainder. Despite such large-scale murder and displacement, the core principle of peaceful coexistence continued to define Azerbaijani society. Even as violence has flared over the past more than 20 years of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Azerbaijani society has maintained harmony amongst its religions and ethnicities.

Perhaps no relationship is more emblematic of this is the one that exists between the country’s Muslim and Jewish populations. As an Israeli citizen of Azerbaijani background, I can say proudly that the leadership of Azerbaijan shows a great degree of deference and partnership to the Jewish community. Under the patronage of President Ilham Aliyev and the First Lady, two synagogues and the largest Jewish educational center in the South Caucasus were built. Plans are in place for the first Azerbaijani Jewish museum, which will be the first Jewish museum in the South Caucasus. 

The ancient town of Krasnaya Sloboda (Quba) in northern Azerbaijan, said to be the only all-Jewish town outside of Israel, is the pride of Azerbaijan. In this region, Jewish and Muslim Azerbaijanis have been living harmoniously for centuries.

In the area of Quba, Muslims and Jews are linked by the tragic events of 1918-19 when the Armenian Revolutionary Party, an Armenian nationalist and socialist group also called Dashnak, massacred thousands of Jews and Azerbaijanis together.

The State of Israel, too, appreciates the role of the government of Azerbaijan vis a vis the Jewish community. Without this tradition of respect and partnership, the close bilateral relationship between Azerbaijan and Israel would not exist.

Trade cooperation flourishes between the nations. Israel is one of the main buyers of Azerbaijani oil in world markets. About 30% of Azerbaijani oil supplies go to Israel. Azerbaijan and Israel partner on various high tech projects and innovations. But the relationship extends into other areas as well. Today the turnover of Azerbaijani-Israeli cooperation is almost 3.5 billion dollars.

Importantly, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has earned the respect of a wide swath of Israeli society for his dedication in this realm and to the Jews of Azerbaijan.

The relationship between Israel and Azerbaijan, and Azerbaijan and Azerbaijani Jews, cannot be explained away by simple mutual self-interest. Common values and a shared history permeate the modern relationship. Both countries are enriched by the human connections and a determination to live in diverse and religiously tolerant societies.

By Arye Gut