Azerbaijan: Bridging the divide

 19 Jun 2013 - 3:04

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev inaugurating the Second World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue in Baku recently. & Azerbaijani students presenting a cultural dance before the delegates at the Heydar Aliyev Centre.

By Hussain Ahmad

In these times of sectarian and racial strife and conflict, nations are struggling to preserve the harmony built over decades. But some pernicious influences are too hard to resist as the world is rattled by conflicts at various levels: between the East and the West, Christians and Muslims, Sunnis and Shias, other ethnic groups and between numerous sections which had lived in harmony for centuries. The Muslim world, especially, is in a state of turmoil. And the Arab Spring, which was supposed to usher in a new era of freedom and harmony, has unleashed new demons which can’t be contained, at least now. 

Amid this confusion and chaos, Azerbaijan stands out as a model the rest of the world can emulate. Seeing the regions around it being shaken by sectarianism, terrorism and all kinds of distrust, the government of President Ilham Aliyev has been working on preserving and strengthening the love and harmony among the various sectarian, ethnic and religious groups in the country. The objectives are two-fold: first, ensure a continuation of the past, because Azerbaijan’s past tells the story of diversity and unity which had never been ruptured; second, set an example for the world making use of Azerbaijan’s strategic location on the world map. The country is a link between the West and the East as it straddles both these worlds, which broadly means a link between Islam and Christianity, and therefore it’s in a position to interact with both at an equal level, not from the point of view of the other. In other words, Baku, with its role of a geographical bridge, also serves as an intercultural and inter-religious bridge.

The government has taken a number of steps to foster harmony among groups and send a message to those who might be trying to divide people taking advantage of sectarian and religious hatred spreading in the Middle East and across the world. “Azerbaijan has been home to representatives of all religions for centuries. We are proud that today Azerbaijan is an independent, multi-ethnic and multi-faith country. Representatives of all religions, all nations live as one family in peace, friendship and understanding. This is our great wealth and great advantage and I believe that this factor played a role in the successful development of Azerbaijan,” said President Ilham Aliyev, recently inaugurating a forum in Baku titled ‘Living Together Peacefully in a Diverse World’, held as part of the second United Nations World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue. 

A day before the Forum, which was held early this month, the government launched a new initiative to foster relations: the opening of a National Tolerance Centre in Baku. The main aim of the Tolerance Centre is to support and promote tolerance and to provide for mutual respect. The representatives of all ethnic and religious groups in Azerbaijan were present at the inauguration ceremony, where they shared their experiences of living as a single community in the country, supported by a government that doesn’t discriminate between groups. Azerbaijan, which is a Muslim country, has huge Shia and Sunni and populations, and is also home to various groups of Christians, Jews and the Baha’is etc. “We consider the construction of mosques and synagogues as positive secularism,” said Elshad Iskandarov, Chairman of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations.

When sectarian divisions are ripping apart several Muslim countries, and religious extremism has assumed dangerous proportions, the people of Azerbaijan have been able to stick to the ideals their national leaders have espoused.  In a sense, the emergence of fundamentalism and extremism represents the failure of a government, and for the same reason, the absence of these harmful forces in Azerbaijan is a testament to the robust, peaceful policies of its government.

Under Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan is consolidating its preeminent position in the region, the foundation for which was laid by his father Heydar Aliyev. Azerbaijan is an energy-exporting country and the government has been using its resources sensibly for the welfare of the people and enhance its status abroad. It has a foreign policy that is vibrant and pro-active, and enjoys excellent relations with both East and the West. For example, last year the most grandiose song contest of Europe, and perhaps of the world, Eurovision, took place in Baku. That Baku was chosen as the venue for such a prestigious event is an acknowledgement of the faith of Europe in the country’s leadership and secular values.

Very few countries in the world can claim the religious and ethnic diversity of Azerbaijan at a time when the presence of more religious, sectarian and ethnic groups is seen as a recipe for violence and mistrust. Luckily for the country, it has been a place of religious tolerance at all times. “I am very pleased that in the period of independence, we have been able not only to protect but also to maintain the positive trends. I believe that we have intensified them even more and we do not limit our activity by the margins of the country,” Aliyev said at the UN meet.

Hosting the UN Intercultural Forum was part of the country’s strategy of becoming an intercultural bridge. 

Delegates from close to a hundred countries participated in the Second Forum on Intercultural Dialogue (the first forum too was held in Baku) and the partners of the forum included Unesco, the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, the Council of Europe, ISESCO and the UN World Tourism Organisation. Another important event took place in Baku in 2010, the World Summit of Religious Leaders.  

The Azerbaijan government wants to enhance its role in promoting dialogue. “There are conflicts on religious and ethnic grounds in different parts of the world, there are civil wars and tendencies of misunderstanding are growing. And I think that the discussion of these important issues in this format will contribute to our cause, to our cooperation,” Aliyev said.

The Peninsula