The political aftermath of the refugee crisis in Europe, and the rise of far-right populism, is cause for growing concern in Azerbaijan, a country that sees itself as a bridge between the West and the Islamic world. EURACTIV reports from Baku.
Baku is currently playing host to the “International Humanitarian Forum”, a high-profile gathering attended by over 400 delegates from 71 countries, several international organisations such as UNESCO, and a dozen Nobel Prize winners.
The largest delegation was Russia’s, led by a deputy prime minister and consisting, according to the official list of guests, of over 70 personalities, many of them on key positions.
In contrast, the delegations of Germany or France numbered less than 10 members. Not all delegations represented governments, some of them being comprised of leaders of religious groups or intellectuals. The largest delegation from an EU country was Italy’s with 44 people listed.
Armenia, a neighbouring country with which Azerbaijan is technically at war over the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, was not represented at the conference. Nagorno-Karabakh is a territory of Azerbaijan which fell under the control of Armenia in the process of the unravelling of the Soviet Union.
Message to the world
In a glamorous setting – the ‘snail’ building designed by the late Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, the conference issued messages to the world, which seem to have been well prepared in advance.
The concern over the rise of Islamophobia in Europe was firstly expressed by the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, who opened the meeting with a 27-minute speech. The same concern was further expressed by several other speakers representing the Islamic world.
Aliyev said that Azerbaijan was probably unique as a country of predominant Islamic religion where tolerance to other religions is an established fact and has been for several years spearheading multiculturalism as its message to the world.
Aliyev, although fluent in English, spoke in Azeri, without prepared notes. According to the translation, he did not mention the EU, preferring the term “Europe” when he criticised recent developments in the Union.
The president of Azerbaijan said that in the last year “new dangers” had appeared in Europe and “in several other places”.
“We see alarming trends. Some countries have been fully devastated”, Aliyev said, without mentioning by name Syria, the origin of the migration pressure the EU is experiencing in the last two years.
“People leave their countries to save their lives and go to Europe, but their arrival is creating very big tensions in some European countries”, Aliyev said.
”We have seen very degrading actions against migrants. Anti-migrant sentiments are boosting radical groups. Election results show that such radical groups are gaining more and more support. This is a very dangerous trend”, Aliyev said, according to translation.
Without mentioning Slovakia, Aliyev deplored statements from European politicians who said their country was ready to receive migrants only if there are Christian. Slovakia’s PM Robert Fico had come under fire in the EU precisely for such statements.
“This raises the souvenir of fascism in Europe raising its head”, Alyiev said, according to the translation.
“Without a dialogue between the civilisations we won’t be able to mitigate this threat”, Aliyev argued. He also raised the point that Islamophobia was a matter of concern, because “some media, some NGOs and some politicians are deliberately propagating negative messages about our religion, our Islam. They are linking Islam to terror”, he told the audience.
The role of media was also addressed by several speakers, who conveyed the message that journalism is failing globally, to the detriment of societies.
Alyiev also used the word ‘fascism’ twice, also referring to Nagorno-Karabakh.
“Armenian fascism has create a very big tragedy”, he said, according to translation.
Many speakers praised Azerbaijan for its leadership in promoting a better understanding between Christianity and Islam.
UN Security Council under fire
Abdulaziz Othman, Director General of ISESCO, the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural organization, praised Alyiev’s efforts to promote better understanding between the nations and slammed the UN Security Council for being ineffective in dealing with the “unprecedented threats” to world security.
“The Security Council is not fulfilling his duties. Not in Palestine, not in Nagorno-Karabakh, not in Syria, not in Afghanistan, not in Somalia”, Othman said, prompting massive applause.
Olga Golodets, Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, read a written message from Russian President Vladimir Putin to the conference, and said in her own statement that “the wisdom “of Putin and Alyiev would “set the tone for peace and justice in the world”.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper from the Simon Wiesenthal Center (USA), praised Azerbaijan for its commitment to multiculturalism and religious tolerance.
Many other compliments were voiced. The President of the Imams of France Haseen Chalgoumi said that in the same way that Mecca was the beacon of spiritualism for Muslims, Azebaijan had become the “beacon of tolerance”.