Day Two, May 3, 2017
Azerbaijan, the Good Boy Neighbor, Sharing Is in the Nation’s DNA
When you arrive in Azerbaijan, you become fast convinced that harmony and unity between people is not impossible. Down deep in the DNA of the Azerbaijanian nation lies a gene called harmonious coexistence, which every Azerbaijanian is proud to carry.
That is what I leaned today, a lesson that was repeated to me all day by members of the three monotheistic religions that make up the fabric of the Azerbaijanian society, 95% are Moslems and the rest are Jews and Christians. I ended the day puzzled, why is it possible in Azerbaijan and not anywhere else? I will try explain, though it is difficult because the makeup of a human soul is inexplicable.
Sharing Is in Azerbaijan’s DNA
The day started with a visit to the Martyrs’ Lane, or Alley of Martyrs, formerly known as The Kirov Park, a cemetery and a memorial place located on the highest point of Baku, dedicated to those who were killed by the Soviet Army during Black January, a violent crackdown in Baku on 19-20 January 1990, pursuant to a state of emergency during the dissolution of the Soviet Union and later to those killed in the Nagorno-Karabakh War, the sorest point in the peaceful, love thy neighbor as you love yourself, Azerbaijanian nation.
Let Us Talk Banks Not Tanks
A visit to the offices of Hikmat Hajiyev, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson enlightened me of what came later and right through the day. “Our foreign policy is multidimensional,” Mr. Hajiyev started running through what makes every Azerbaijanian so proud, the harmony of their society, regardless of religion or doctrine.
“We find a beneficial mutual thread to partner with everyone; Israel, Iran, Russia, etc. Our foreign policy is our domestic polity. To create full cooperation and bring prosperity to all people. Our huge vision and goal is to become the central link, the corridor that connects East and West. A Eurasian railway is being constructed that will connect China, with Baku, Iran, Georgia, Belarus and Turkey to Europe,” Mr. Hajiyev goes on.
“Throughout history, Azerbaijan was the battle ground between powers. That was the highest price the people paid. We want to talk banks not tanks. Our strategy is diversification of our economy. We export our agriculture to Russia; last year we enjoyed the visit of 2.5 million tourists and we are gearing toward ongoing larger numbers of visitors. Our country is rich in black gold, fossil fuel. We want to take this oil gold and turn it into human gold, using the revenue to invest in our education system. We used to send our brightest to study abroad but no more.”
Though I could have listened to more, our conversation had to end because there were others at the door to meet with Mr. Hajiyev and hear him telling, with pride and enthusiasm, about the bright future Azerbaijan’s leadership is preparing for its citizens.
From the Foreign Ministry building we headed to visit the only Catholic Church in Azerbaijan, serving 300 local parishioners and 600 foreigners. President Heydar Aliyev gave the church the land, located near the sea front. The impressive building was built with public funds with art motifs of local artists, and donations, even from Moslems.
The pride of the Church is the freedom to practice and pray, in Russian and English languages, in a Moslem country and the church is officially recognized by the state and it takes part in all government forums.
With trepidation of what to come next we headed to the Caucasian Moslem Mosque, a huge complex, built at the turn of the 20th century, in Baku, with the funds of a woman. I must admit that with all that is happening in the world I was not at ease but that changed immediately as I set to speak with Mr. Hasanov Simran Seyfaddin. Mr. Seyfaddina is a PhD in law and the head of the Administration Caucasus Moslem Board, established in 1874, overseeing Azerbaijan’s 95% Moslem population of 60% Shia and 40% Sunni and his press secretary, a woman. Mr. Seyfaddin is a strong-minded person and well-spoken, and he gave me a lesson in what Islam is all about. In 1918 the organization became one, the only Shia Sunni organization in which the Chair is a Shia Moslem and his deputy is a Sunni Moslem.
I asked how come when the entire Moslem world is split and at each other’s throat. There is a formula to this unfathomable phenomenon and according to Mr. Seyfaddin it is as follows:
1/ Unity and acceptance is in the genes of the Azerbaijanian people. They do not know otherwise.
2/ Government’s right policy and legislation punishes discrimination.
3/ “The policy of our office is to avoid Shai-Sunni conflict, which is political and a grab of power. For centuries, our national mentality is of respect of others,” explains Mr. Seyfaddin. “In Azerbaijan, they believe in Islamic solidarity, which brings about positive effects. The Supreme Religious Chairman of the Caucasian Moslem Council is a Sunni but the Sheikh, Sheik-ul-Islam, is a Shia who oversees the inter-religion affairs of post-Soviet countries and he is the Chairman of the coordination council of CIS Moslems and has been holding that position for 30 years,” Mr. Seyfaddin tells me with pride. “The harmony of all religions is the spine of our society’s culture, it is based on civility of true Islam, not the autocracies elsewhere.”
“What is it with radical Islam,” I asked.
Mr. Seyfaddin: “We can talk about this subject for many hours as radicalization in Islam has a very long history and it stems from politics using religion for power.”
I walked out of the Mosque, headed to visit the Ashkenazi Synagogue. Its basement was built in 1945, and during Communism was used as a Russian arms Slick. As I walked, I was still scratching my brain for answers.
Fourteen years ago, with much influence of Mr. Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan President, with funds gathered from all over the world, including from the Sheik-ul-Islam, the 4-story building was built and is proud to have 400 members.
Azerbaijani Jews are happy and secure. There are approximately 25,000 Jews living in Azerbaijan. With the country’s first oil boom in the late 1800s, Jews arrived in the country from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Poland.
Azerbaijanian Society’s Synchronicity
Though it is most complex to explain, one can say that Azerbaijan is a center of congruent society.
There is a certain naiveté to the people of a country that is only 26 years old. The country restored its independence in 1991 and the present one is in fact the second republic. The first Azerbaijan republic was established in 1918, named Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, which lasted a short while and today is it Republic of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan became the first secular democracy in the Muslim world and it granted the voting right for women in 1919, as a first among Muslim nations, even one year before women in the United States could vote.
If you are apprehensive about visiting a Moslem country, take my advice and my lead and travel to Azerbaijan. All your preconceived notions will melt away in the company of gentle, polite and civil people.