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World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue: Experts come together in Azerbaijan to counter extremism

Azerbaijan recently held its 5th World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue in its capital city Baku where international leaders and members of the United Nations convened to discuss ways the Muslim-majority secular Republic can continue to strengthen its role as a model for other nations in the highly-volatile region to aspire to and to building a counter-narrative to violent extremism throughout the world.

I was invited to attend this important forum, along with a delegation of local community leaders from Los Angeles, California, which included two rabbis, a bishop, a Pakistani-American councilwoman, a Pakistani doctor and activist, a former Obama administration official, and two journalists.

In addition to this impressive gathering of world influencers, where President Ilham Aliyev, and his wife, First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, addressed those present, I attended several private meetings with government officials, visited historic, political and religious sites and had the opportunity to connect with locals to gain a perspective of what life is like for them, through their eyes.

Azerbaijan, which literally translates to “Land of Atropates” is known as the “Land of Fire,” which is proudly displayed throughout the capital city’s numerous eternal torches and the Atesghgah Fire Temple, an historic place of prayer for Zoroastrians and Hindus.

The country is strategically located at the crossroads of Turkey, China, Georgia, Iran, and Russia and overlooks the beautiful Caspian Sea. The nation also shares a border with Armenia, which it has severe issues with. The dispute is formally recognised as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Azerbaijan says Armenia is occupying its territories and Armenia claims the lands are theirs. This is a subject that will be revisited at a different time.

Outside of the forum, I had the opportunity to immerse myself into civil society and get a better grasp of what this innovative and brave, young republic is attempting to achieve; a highly-sensitive and potentially explosive endeavor considering its close ties to Israel, despite being an active member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), whose members do not share as close a relationship with the Jewish State.

Azerbaijan’s rich crude oil reserves have allowed the Central Asian nation to invest in large-scale, and growing, development over the last decade. In parts of Baku, there is a clear and literal juxtaposition of old and new. In some parts of the city are historic remains set against a backdrop of aesthetic high-rise buildings with European-esque moldings. In other parts of the burgeoning city, there are still visual remnants of the nation’s former Soviet ties; its shadow still lingers in the open.

But beyond its tangible appearance, the essence of the nation’s relatively controlled society is a clear indicator of the profound influence that the fall of the Soviet Union and collapse of communist ideology there have had on Azerbaijan’s civil society structure.

With its 27-year mark of independence and transition into a rapidly globalising Republic –and elements of post-communist and capitalistic rule – the need for a strong grip on its society is apparent, particularly with its position in a region that has increasingly come under international scrutiny for failing to curb the radical elements that lurk in many of its darkest and even well-lit corners.

Of all the post-Soviet Muslim majority republics in the historically-rich region, Azerbaijan is visibly the least observant nation, although religious freedom is a relatively strong point for them.

On the first day, our United States delegation met with Mr. Mubariz Gurbanli, Chairman of the State Committee on Religious Associations and Mr. Jeyhun Mammadov, Rector of Baku’s Institute of Theology which trains future Azerbaijani Imams and theologians. Those visits were followed by a visit to the Mountain Jewish Synagogue of Baku and a meeting with Mr. Ravan Hasanov, Acting Executive Director of the Baku International Centre of Multiculturalism.

The meetings were insightful and in-depth, resulting in many questions, answers and opening the floor up to even more curiosity about where the country’s direction may lead. I left each of these sessions acutely aware of the sensitive nature of Azerbaijan’s position as a potential kingmaker for the cause of religious freedom and unity between the three Abrahamic faiths in the region.

I also realised the level of scrutiny and criticism this young republic will be subjected to as a result of all the attention being placed on it by the media and especially human rights groups; many of which have proven time and again to lack the foresight and vision that is required for unprecedented and often revolutionary acts and change.

Each year the Azerbaijan’s government designates large funds to various religious groups to promote tolerance and unity in its society. One of the many points that stuck with me during our visit with Mr. Gurbanli was his statement that the Azerbaijani people do not raise their children to hate other religions and the emphasis on building trust between people in order to weed out intolerance.

A visit to the magnificent Heydar Mosque, the only mosque where Shias and Sunnis perform Jumuah (Friday prayer) together as one Jamaat (congregation). In all other mosques Sunnis and Shias can pray together under one roof, but perform namaaz individually. The masjed alternates between Akhund Rufet Garayev, who is Shia, and Imam Hafiz Abbasov, who is Sunni, to lead Friday prayers every week.

Hate speech against other faiths is strictly forbidden in mosques there and the nation more recently passed a law that requires imams who wish to preach at mosques to only be educated in Azerbaijan as a tool to prevent radicalism.

Grubanli explained that there are plenty of religious groups and organisations that are working under the guise of religion, including Al Nusra, the Taliban, ISIS and Boko Haram. Along that line of reasoning, he explained that if a person who has studied outside of the country has been radicalised by any so-called religious leaders or members of those groups, imagine what they can teach inside of Azerbaijan.

His words are factual. But for many in the media, it’s a reality they are unwilling to accept instead opting to supplant the harsh reality of the world we live in with an emotionally convenient narrative that brushes the toxic truth under the delicate hand-woven carpet it is slowly eating away at.

The model for unity put forth by this budding nation is evidenced with the many “mixed families” with Jewish and Muslim parents who have build homes there. And the protection of Jewish life in the Muslim-majority nation is due in large part to its secular nature. The fact that their population is also only 10 million is another factor that helps.

There are currently seven synagogues in Azerbaijan; three in Baku, two in Qirmizi Qesebe which is near the town of Quba, and two in Oguz. The three synagogues in Baku each represent the three communities there, namely the Ashkenazi, Mountain and Georgian Jews.

My visit coincided with Yom HaShoah, which is Holocaust Remembrance or Memorial Day. We visited the Mountain Jewish Synagogue of Baku and the Ashkenazi synagogue there. Rabbi Shneor Segal, a Chabad rabbi who is the Chief Rabbi at the Jewish Community of European Jews Synagogue in Baku, led a memorial service at the Sweden House that evening. Israel’s Ambassador to Azerbaijan Dan Stav also presented at the event.

A trip to the historic Red Town, which is a unique and charming all-Jewish village in Azerbaijan’s Quba district serves as a symbol of Muslim-Jewish harmony and unity. Milikh Yevdayev, who was elected as the head of the Community of Azerbaijan’s Mountain Jews in 2012, provided us with the history and background of the town where he was born and raised.

Jews have lived in Azerbaijan for 2,300 years. While other Middle Eastern countries, and European for that matter, have seen a rapid and steady decline in their Jewish population, Azerbaijan maintains a thriving and well-protected Jewish population. In fact, no other Muslim-majority country has a thriving Jewish population living in it. That also rests in the fact that Azerbaijan has diplomatic ties with Israel while other Muslim-majority countries and particularly members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) do not.

Do not be mistaken, this young nation is still growing and has its work cut out for it. But the positives far outshine the negatives and it is critically important to focus on those strides forward in order to ensure that growth ensues and control over potentially radical elements is maintained. After all,

Culturally, Jews and Muslims are very close and they are also quite similar in their understanding of the world, having gone through similar experiences.

One of the most significant symbols of the women’s liberation movement, and a testament against the compulsory hijab, which is seen as an obstacle in certain Muslim-majority countries, is the “State of a Liberated Woman,” located in Baku’s Public Square.

Fuad Aburahmanov, who designed the statue which was erected in the square in 1960, said of his creation:

“The topic of emancipation of Azerbaijani women has attracted me for a long time. When I started work on the sculpture, for some reason I imagined an eagle that had become entangled in the net. She tears her bonds, finally, frees from them. One more moment, and it will soar into the sunny sky.”

The artist was apparently inspired by character of Sevil from a piece written by Cabbarlı Cəfər Qafar oğlu who wrote about the women who removed her hijab as a symbol of women moving from seclusion to inclusion into civil society.

For what it’s worth, the young republic has made some significant inroads in the area of human rights, even though it still has a way to go. But the most important part of this equation is that the seeds have been planted and the roots have grown. With continued attention, leadership and direction, this tree of unity should have no issue growing sturdy and strong and bearing fruit for all of its neighbors to enjoy and gain their own nourishment from.

And perhaps someday soon, the seeds of these same fruits from which Azerbaijan’s neighbouring countries eat will be planted into their own soil and the roots of religious freedom will start to grow there too. It’s a flavour that has been long awaited. The season is upon us.

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