Azerbaijan – Little known bastion of interfaith tolerance

Azerbaijan doesn’t always have the best name recognition – indeed it was subject of a sketch at the Eurovision Song Contest where Swedish comedian Sarah Dawn Finer (AKA Lynda Woodruff) repeatedly mispronounced the name of the country. Recent and upcoming events such as the Europe Games and Formula 1 attracted some media attention, but besides those working in the oil and gas industry and human rights NGOs, many would struggle to locate it on a map. However, it may be worth taking a closer look at this Muslim majority country with remarkably low levels of antisemitism and a strong tradition of interfaith co-operation.

At a time when neighbouring Turkey is in turmoil and questioning the place of religion in an avowedly secular state, Azerbaijan appears to sense an opportunity to present itself as a role model. It’s home to the Grand Mufti of the Caucus Allahshukur Pashazadeh, who uniquely represents both Shia and Sunni Muslims in this mostly Shia nation. Touted as one of the 500 most influential Muslims in the world, Pashazadeh is keen to recount how he and other Muslims have supported numerous initiatives in Jewish and Christian communities in the country. Beyond financial and logistical support, religious services of all flavours are often attended by guests of other faiths in a way that is seen as unremarkable in a country of around 10 million people.

Leader of the Mountain Jewish community of Azerbaijan, Milikh Yevdayev, one of the three communities which make up the Jewish population, was keen to point to the community’s vibrancy. A second Jewish high school has just opened in the capital Baku, joining three nurseries and even a Yeshiva. Indeed, restoration of a number synagogues in the country has also been partly paid for not just by the Azeri Government, but leaders of the Muslim community. The idea that one would be at risky to walk the streets in a kippah in a city such as Paris was a shocking revelation for Yevdayev.

Azerbaijan also enjoys good, if discreet relations with Israel. It does of course neighbour Iran, and is wary of any interference in its internal affairs. Common threats, military and economic co-operation form the bulwark of this little known relationship, and Israel maintains an embassy in Baku.

Challenges persist. As a former Soviet Republic, Azerbaijan is still grappling with the growing pains of transition. A bloody conflict with Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh has poisoned relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan and violence flares up on a regular basis. The Government clearly wields massive influence in ensuring that a lid is kept on extremism, which some argue leads restrictions on freedom of belief and expression.

However in a region where positive models of interfaith engagement are in increasingly short supply, it’s worth pursuing an exchange of ideas and offering support. President Ilham Aliyev has declared 2016 the ‘Year of Multiculturalism’ in the country, and it’s clear that Baku is investing significant resources to promote its vision. It’s also a thinly veiled response to those such as Angela Merkel who has previously declared multiculturalism a ‘failure’. At least when it comes to their own country, Azeris would beg to differ.

President of the Board of Deputies Jonathan Arkush and International Relations Officer David Walsh held talks with Azerbaijani religious leaders under the auspices of Faith Matters and the Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

About the Author
International Affairs for the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Fluent Turkish speaker and LGBT rights advocate.
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