Azerbaijan positions itself as promoter of multiculturalism

Ilham Aliev and Irina Bokova, in Baku. [Georgi Gotev]

Baku is hosting a world forum on intercultural dialogue, conveying the message that if multiculturalism was failing in some European countries, it is alive and kicking in Azerbaijan and could be an example to the world. EURACTIV reports from Baku.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev opened a two-day forum yesterday (18 May), held for the third time under the heading “World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue”. The event was previously held in Baku in 2011 and 2013.

In his opening speech, held before representatives from over a hundred countries and several international organisations, Aliev made reference to the traditions of ethnic and religious tolerance in his country which he said has only become stronger in the last 24 years of independence.

Indeed, Azerbaijan is an Islamic country with a secular society and a deeply entrenched culture of tolerance and gender equality which, according to European diplomats, is a model which needs to be promoted. Moreover, the country is located at a crossroads of civilisations and wants to be seen as a “bridge”, both politically and economically.

The oil and gas-rich country is also obviously investing in projecting a positive international image of itself, the latest example being the European games, an Olympic-type of event to the scale of the continent which Baku will be hosting from 12 to 28 June.

In a modernistic concert and conference centre named after his father Heydar Aliev, former Politburo member of the defunct USSR and first president of independent Azerbaijan until his death in 2003, his son and successor played the host with obvious routine.

Several high level international officials attended the forum, including Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, the UN largest agency specialised in education, science and culture, Nassir Abdulaziz al-Nasser, UN High Representative for the Alliance of Civilisations, and Iyad bin Amin Madani, Secretary General of the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation.

One of the oldest mosques in the world is in Azerbaijan, in the city of Shamakhi, dating from 743, and also one of the oldest Christian churches, an Armenian church from the 12-13 century, is also located in this country.

“Orthodox and Catholic churches, synagogues, Zoroastrian temples, all that is proud of our cultural heritage and we are proud of that,” Aliev said, adding that his country wanted to promote the values of multiculturalism, because this was what the world needed.

In fact, Azerbaijan has set up an international centre for multiculturalism in 2014, as a concrete effort to promote these values. Also, in 2008, Azerbaijan launched the so-called “Baku process”, a dialogue between culture ministers, individuals and groups with different cultural and religious backgrounds, promoted as an “antidote to violence”.

In what may sound like indirect criticism of the political mood in Western Europe, Aliev said he was aware of the pessimistic ideas about multiculturalism, but added that Azerbaijan was the proof that multiculturalism is alive.

“It is dangerous to consider that multiculturalism is something that doesn’t have a future. On the contrary. If we give up our efforts, the situation in the world will be even worse”, he said, speaking in English and without a prepared speech.

The alternatives, he said, were alienation, discrimination, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, which as history has shown, led to the Holocaust.

In his speech, Aliev also made reference to education as a pillar for development. Although Azerbaijan is a resource-rich country, he said that wealth and prosperity could be better ensured through education. Indeed, Azerbaijan is a country with a 100% literacy rate. Education is the best guarantee against radicalism, fundamentalism, Aliev argued.

Today all fundamental freedoms are provided in Azerbaijan, Aliev said, including freedom of the press. This is however an area where his country is most criticised by human right defenders. The country’s diplomats respond to this criticism by saying that their young democracy was not yet perfect, and reproach a certain bias to the NGOs.

>> Read: Diplomat: Azerbaijan is unfairly targeted

EURACTIV asked a Western diplomat if he would qualify the regime in Azerbaijan as a cult of personality. “Not more than the cult in France to De Gaulle,” the diplomat said, refering to the late French President (1958-1969).

In her speech, Bokova said that while the organisation prepares to mark its 70th anniversary, its mission had never been so important, with conflicts tearing countries apart and civilians hit the hardest, with a rise of violent extremism and cultural cleansing, with mosques, churches and other temples destroyed, minorities persecuted, education under attack and girls forced out of schools.

UNESCO is working hard to include education in the post-2015 development agenda, Bokova said, adding that the world needed a new form of cultural literacy, with stronger freedom of expression to ensure that all men and women be able to reject message of hatred.

She said that the campaign “United for heritage” was precisely to counter the extremist propaganda.

“The protection of cultural heritage is more than a cultural issue. It is an imperative of security and peace”, she said, delivering the second part of her speech in French.

“Extremists rape us, they destroy our cultural heritage, but not at random. They seek to disintegrate societies. This is a war against the minds of people,” Bokova said.

Iyad bin Amin Madani, Secretary General of the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation, said that while the 20th century had been the age of ideologies, the 21st appeared to be “the century of identities”. The challenge was to make sure that these identities are tolerant, that they should recognise the other, in order not only to live, but to partner with those with a different identity.

Without mentioning German Chancellor Angela Merkel or British Prime Minister David Cameron, he regretted statements by European leaders who said that multiculturalism had failed.

>> Read: After Merkel, Cameron too says multiculturalism has failed

He also said that multiculturalism was not about transforming people into “robots, capable of expressing only one set of values”.

Dialogue between the different identities should be a shared commitment to understand each other’s realities, to tolerate and accept, instead of creating “monopolies”, Madani said.

He also argued that culture was a basic prerequisite to global sustainability and development, adding that the organisation he represents was open to new approaches of intercultural dialogue.

Summing up the essence of the problem, Madani said it was easy to find agreement in such nice surroundings as the beautiful building of the conference venue. The challenge, in his words, was to bring the same understanding to areas of conflict, to areas where people differ.

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