Azerbaijan: Israel’s Religiously Tolerant Muslim Neighbor
Illustration: Flame Towers in Baku (Photo by Investigation11111 - Own work, [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia)
Despite the recent role of religious factors in inter-country relations around the world, one Muslim-majority country prides itself on tolerance and multiculturalism. Although recent intensive conflicts have damaged an interfaith world order, the Republic of Azerbaijan and Israel have had a close relationship for many years with several historical, religious, and political common points.
Today Azerbaijan has increased its economic and military cooperation with Israel. The relationship between the two countries is particularly surprising because Azerbaijan is a Muslim-majority country. How did this come about?
Unlike many cultures, Azerbaijanis do not view Jews as foreign or alien. The people-to-people bridge between Azerbaijanis and Jews plays a special and vital role in the relations between the two countries. Israelis with roots in Azerbaijan have for many years been doing a great deal to foster the emerging economic and even geo-political cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel.
For over 2600 years, the Jewish people have lived in the territory of Azerbaijan; they rarely experienced harassment, insults, pogroms, and anti-Semitic actions. In fact, the Muslim-Jewish friendship in Azerbaijan has been one of the great examples of inter-religious relations in history.
Situated in the southern Caucasus Mountains west of the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, becoming a strong, secular state. Members of different religions and confessions live in peaceful coexistence in our historically Islamic country, with a 90% Muslim majority population. In the capital, Baku, the places of worship of three different monotheistic religions are located 400 meters apart from each other.
Historically positioned at a crossroads of different cultures and civilizations, Azerbaijani Muslims value the peaceful coexistence of members of other religions along with Islam and have done so for centuries, without discrimination and confrontation on religious and ethnic grounds. The Azerbaijani political constitution and the values of the people have created the conditions needed for ethnic minorities to live according to their traditions.
Both in the past and in the modern era, preserving and developing multicultural — as well as tolerant — values have been the pillars of stability in every society and state. Against a background of world conflicts on religious-ethnic and social-economic grounds, many countries have failed to preserve tolerant, multicultural traditions. Our people consider and accept tolerance not only as a law, but also as a spiritual value.
At the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, only one religious community (Islam) existed in Azerbaijan. With only 17 mosques then, today it has more than 2,200. During the last ten years alone, 140 mosques have been built and more than 80 were renovated, with dozens being built or restored at the expense of public funds. At the same time, 13 churches and seven synagogues were established and are operating in the country today. Additional religions are also given special attention.
The declaration of 2016 as the Year of Multiculturalism is clear proof of Azerbaijan's care and attention to the interfaith dialogue. At the same time, Muslim organizations have taken this into account when evaluating the work done to preserve Islamic values and culture done in the state of Azerbaijan. In 2009, Baku was declared The Capital of Islamic Culture by ISESCO (The Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). Promoting religious tolerance and multiculturalism is implemented not only in words but in practice, and has became a state policy.
After the Armenian-Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, a fifth of Azerbaijani territory was occupied by the Armenians, displacing one million Azerbaijani people, and resulting in brutal murders in Khojaly and the destruction of our national and historical monuments. Yet today, when visiting Baku you can go to the Armenian-Gregorian Church and witness that everything has been protected by the Azerbaijanis in its original form. In 2010, when Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, visited the 19th century Armenian church in Baku, he recognized the necessity of a dialogue between religions and culture in his remarks to the World Summit of Religious Leaders.
The point of these events is to strengthen dialogue and confidence between the Islamic world and Western countries in the hopes of establishing a global platform for cooperation among different cultures. In the Azerbaijan Republic, the State Committee for the Work with Religious Associations plays an important role in formulating exemplary state-religion relations in the country. With a mandate to fight against religious radicalism and promote the principles of religious tolerance, the State Committee acts as a central executive power.
If we bring our Azerbaijani cultural and historical traditions to the international arena, we can hope to find common solutions to eradicate religious radicalism and violent extremism. Azerbaijan has become a unique country developing diversity of religions as a place of multiculturalism and tolerance. The rights of every person in Azerbaijan — regardless of their race, religion, or national affiliation — are protected by law. Thus, multiculturalism and tolerance have became the lifestyle of Azerbaijani citizens possessing different beliefs and cultures.
My name is Safar Safarli and I live in Baku, Azerbaijan. I graduated in the international relations field. I work for our government fighting religious radicalism and extremism, as well as promoting religious tolerance and multiculturalism in our country. My work is directly related to international relations and I have published numerous articles and books on multiculturalism and religious tolerance. In addition, I research the historical roots of Azerbaijani-Jewish relations, trying to make all efforts to promote peace and to eliminate religious conflicts in the world. I try to show that even if Azerbaijan is a Muslim-majority country, it demonstrates religious tolerance among various religions and nations, especially a fraternal relationship between Jews and Azerbaijanis.