Is multiculturalism in Azerbaijan a valuable model ?
Multicultural approaches and policies vary widely all over the world, ranging from advocating for equal respect to various cultures in a society, to a policy of promoting the maintenance of cultural diversity, to policies in which people of various ethnic and religious groups are addressed by the authorities as defined by the group to which they belong.
Two different strategies, recently presented by Camilla Habsburg-Lothringen, have been developed through different government policies and strategies. The first, often labelled as interculturalism, focuses on interaction and communication between different cultures. The second one, cohabitative multiculturalism is centred on diversity and cultural uniqueness; it sees cultural isolation as a protection of uniqueness of the local culture of a nation or area and also a contribution to global cultural diversity.
Azerbaijan’s multicultural “third way”
A type of “third way” between these two strategies has been developed by certain central Asian counties, e.g. Azerbaijan, where state policy has been accompanied, in a complementary way, to a certain activism of intermediate bodies (civil society, universities, think tanks).
Multiculturalism is a state policy of Azerbaijan and it has become a way of life for this Republic, which says it wants to ensure mutual understanding and respect for all identities. Its peculiar location between Eastern Europe and Western Asia and its socio-political context have prompted Azerbaijan to adopt a multicultural-led agenda as a strategic tool of foreign policy. From a historical perspective, representatives of many ethnic and religious groups have lived together with Azerbaijanis since the era of the Safavids’ empire and during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today there are more than 649 registered religious communities in Azerbaijan, among which 37 are non-Islamic. It has 13 functioning churches. The Catholic community was registered in 1999. According to the agreement between the Azerbaijani Government and the Holy See, a latine Catholic Church was built in 2007 in the country’s capital city, Baku.
Specific state measures promoting multiculturalism
The intention to develop multiculturalism and tolerance at the level of state policy in Azerbaijan is based on an ancient history of statehood of the country and on development of these traditions. Nowadays, thanks to the government’s action, this political behaviour has acquired a form of ideology of statehood and political practice (state policy), whereas the political bases of these concepts have found their reflection in relevant clauses of articles of the Constitution, legal acts, decrees and orders. In particular, article 48 of the Azerbaijani Constitution ensures religious freedom.
This state support is expressed through material and financial assistance from the budget of the Country and its Presidential foundation, to dozens of national-cultural centres, magazines, newspapers, radio and television programs which are an expression of language minorities.
The declaration that 2016 would be a Year of Multiculturalism in Azerbaijan took place against the backdrop of religiously motivated ethnic conflicts in the Middle East. Could this kind of State-led multiculturalism, which could be considered as a form of soft power, be intended to be introduced as a model of multiculturalism elsewhere, especially to states and societies of the Middle East, where radicalism has spread rapidly over the last 20 years?
In recent years Baku has hosted numerous international events, such as the Baku International Humanitarian Forum, the World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue (in partnership with UNAOC, UNESCO, UN World Tourism Organization, Council of Europe and ISESCO), the European Games in 2015, the Islamic Solidarity Games in 2017, the 7th Global Forum of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (April 25-27, 2016). With the same purpose, the Baku International Multiculturalism Centre was established in 2014, with the mission to preserve ethnic, religious and cultural diversity of the country, and to introduce Azerbaijan as a centre of multiculturalism to the world.
Lessons for Europe ?
In his October 2016 visit to Baku, Pope Francis praised Azerbaijan as a place of religious tolerance after meeting with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev. After a private meeting with Sheikh ul-Islam, the region’s grand mufti, the two men held an interreligious meeting at the country’s largest mosque with Orthodox Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders.
Which lesson could the Azerbaijani model teach Europe ? Addressing issues and policies on multiculturalism requires an approach that combines state policies with the resourcefulness of civil society and intermediate bodies. Such an approach intends to be respectful of minorities, avoiding assimilationism, and seeks to create a new “foedus” (pact, alliance) which preserves the rights and culture of minorities, while at the same time ensures the values of the majority of the population.
The real challenge of the Azer multicultural model is to continue maintaining the peaceful coexistence between ethnic, linguistic and religious groups in a world characterized by the growing impetus to particularistic identities and in a macro-regional context where sectarian and ethno-linguistic clashes are likely to polarize all actors of the area.
Research associate at Institute of High Studies in Geopolitics and Auxiliary Sciences (IsAG), Rome, and Ph.D. researcher at University of Padova
This is an adaptation of a longer article published in Modern Diplomacy on 05 November 2016: http://moderndiplomacy.eu/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=1866:multiculturalism-is-dead-not-quite-yet&Itemid=133
EN The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Social Centre.