In Azerbaijan they speak much about their multiculturalism dogma which I call interculturalism.
So, please allow me to explain why we differ on the term.
Multiculturalism is defined as the ‘presence of, or support for the presence of, several distinct cultural or ethnic groups within a society.’ This is a divisive approach. When a country has an array of cultures it is no longer a unified country. Rather, it is several small communities that differ from each other and may as much as not belong with each other. A country must be made of the same people, same language and same culture and within this culture one can keep one’s tradition one may have because of a range of circumstances and origins.
On the other hand, interculturalism is defined as ‘pertaining to or taking place between two or more cultures: intercultural exchanges in music and art.’ For a contemporary example: ‘proper planning, partnership, intercultural dialogue and a lot of faith brought us to this moment.’ That is a unifying term whereby different cultures come together and exchange their differences but within harmony.
Now that I got this off my chest, let me tell you, how does interculturalism, which also relates to different faiths’ interaction, works in Azerbaijan.
At the Caucasus Muslims Board Organization (CMB) offices, adjacent to the great mosque, where I was invited for an interfaith dialogue, I was received by Sheikh-ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazada, Chairman of the Caucasian Muslims Board, Alexander, Archbishop of Baku and Azerbaijan, Milikh Yevdayev, the leader of the Mountain Jews, Azerbaijan’s largest Jewish group, counting 25,000, Vladimir Fekete, the bishop of the Roman Catholic Church in Azerbaijan, Robert Mobili, Chairman of Albanian-Udi Christian community in Azerbaijan and Salman Musayev, 1st deputy chair of the CMB and the Sunni mufti.
The meeting took place a day after Mr. Ilham Aliyev was reelected, for 7 more years term, his 4th term, as the president of Azerbaijan.
Sheikh-ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazada, who was the main speaker at our meeting explained the importance of independence and the ability to practice one’s religion freely. For 70 long years Azerbaijan was a satellite of the anti-religion, Godless, Communist Soviet Union and practicing one’s religion during those years was a challenge. The Soviet rule believed that communism is the only religion one must practice and all else, whether it is Islam, Christianity or Judaism is basically null and void. Mosques, churches, synagogues and any and all religion practicing center were desecrated, destroyed, or used by the Soviets for all other purposes but not to practice a religion.
Once Azerbaijan gained its independence, in 1991, things changed rapidly. Heydar Aliyev, the first president of the republic, returned the freedom of practicing one’s religion to the believers. What Heydar Aliyev did is he allowed the people to express what was in their hearts for so long, which they simply could not express. With that, the first president of Azerbaijan laid the ground of what is to continue for infinity in this country, a safe environment for all.
While during the Soviet rule there were 17 mosques in the country, today there are 2,000; Synagogues that were terribly desecrated and neglected have been, one by one, reopening and so are all other religious center. And all that with the full support of the government, whether spiritually and/or financially.
With that, the goal was and is to make Azerbaijan a model of religions’ interaction for the world to learn from.
With that in mind, all main religions got together the day after the election to congratulate Mr. Aliyev for his landslide reelection. And they explain why.
With that in mind, this group of prominent local religious leaders got together the day after the election and have signed a letter, congratulating Mr. Aliyev for his landslide reelection as president that reads:
“PRESIDENT OF THE REPUBLIC OF AZERBAIJAN
HIS EXCELLENCY ILHAM ALIYEV
Distinguished Mr. President!
We are proud to congratulate you on behalf of all the Azerbaijanis on the occasion of the convincing victory in the presidential elections and wish you success in your in favor of the nation and the whole world.
You are the indispensable leader of the Azerbaijani people in the 21st century. In these elections, our people have demonstrated once again that they want to see as a Head of State a person who make them proud with his wise decisions and initiatives, who have attained the highest levels of protection for their interests for many years ahead. The people of Azerbaijan voted for the further advance of the great spiritual path.
Your Excellency! You have earned this worth, attitude, respect, and love with your large-scale activities, human thinking, and global efforts. Whether you are announcing Multiculturalism or Islamic Solidarity is an important place throughout your efforts in serving human values. With your name and consistent efforts, the Azerbaijani state, which throughout history has become a bridge between East and West, is making a special, valuable contribution to the processes in the world. We are proud to say with that today’s successes, leading role and active position of Azerbaijan in the process of dialogue between cultures, civilizations and religions around the world arise from your political will and global initiatives.
Distinguished Mr. President! Your great effort to strengthen Azerbaijan’s state independence and increase its economic power is the source of our pride. The care of the State about not only Muslim, but also Christian and Jewish religious temples, as well as material and spiritual help to the revival of national and cultural heritage, and religious monuments, along with practical steps to ensure a high level of state-religion relations in Azerbaijan are being highly valued in the international arena/ It is a true that the progress of the people in the land of Azerbaijan is based on the successes observed in all spheres of life, the activity of the head of state, who proclaimed that he is the President of every citizen of Azerbaijan, regardless of his religion, and who values ethnic and religious tolerance as the wealth of Azerbaijan.
God bless you!”
Azerbaijani society is assembled in the most unique way. From birth, Azerbaijanis are taught and are demanded of to practice ‘thou shall love your neighbor as yourself.‘ Interculturalism is a genetic specification of Azerbaijan, it is a lifestyle.
There is a book by attorney Barak Lurie: ‘Atheism Kills: The Dangers of a World Without God – And Cause for Hope.’ Communism demanded of the people a world without God. Free Azerbaijan gave faith back to its people.
President Aliyev brings to his people a country of stability and independence, which produces freedom of religion.
For that at the Mosque, all religions were sitting together and celebrate in front of me what must never be taken for granted.