Multiculturalism is a state policy of Azerbaijan and it has become a way of life of the republic ensuring mutual understanding and respect for all identities.
The year 2016 was declared the Year of Multiculturalism in Azerbaijan, as stated by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on January 10.
This decision was made taking into account the fact that Azerbaijan brings an important contribution to the traditions of tolerance and intercivilizational dialogue.
Its peculiar location between Eastern Europe and Western Asia and its sociopolitical context -where people of various religions and ethnicities have lived together in mutual respect- have allowed Azerbaijan to adopt a multicultural-led agenda as a strategic tool of foreign policy.
Despite challenges due to the instability of the area and unresolved armed conflict with neighboring Armenia for the control of Nagorno-Karabakh, the disputed territory internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but under Armenian military control, Baku has made an effort to create and foster the necessary political and social conditions for developing and strengthening the country’s traditions of multiculturalism and tolerance.
Today Azerbaijan, a country which established the first secular democracy in the Muslim world in 1918, and offered women the right to vote in 1919, also acts as a model for peaceful coexistence of members of different nations and religions for many other countries.
One of the oldest mosques in the world is in Azerbaijan, in the city of Shamakhi, dating to 743, and also one of the oldest Christian churches, an Armenian church from the 12-13 century, is located in this country.
Indeed, currently there are more than 649 registered religious communities in the Republic of Azerbaijan, among which 37 are non-Islamic. Azerbaijan has 13 functioning churches. The building of the Jen Mironosets Church (the building was built by Hadji Zeynalabdin Tagiyev in 1907) was granted to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1991.
Aleksi II, the Patriarch of Whole Russia who was on a visit in Azerbaijan in May 2001 granted the status of a church to this temple. The catholic community was registered in Azerbaijan in 1999. A special building for the conduction of religious ceremonies was purchased for the community and it became a church in 2000.
According to the agreement between the Azerbaijani Government and the Vatican the Roman Catholic Church was constructed in 2007 in Baku. It has been more than 2500 years since the Jews settled in Azerbaijan.
Currently 6 Jewish religious communities are registered here. Today there are 7 synagogues functioning in Azerbaijan.Development of multiculturalism and tolerance at the level of State policy in Azerbaijan is based on ancient history of statehood of the country and on development of these traditions.
In recent years Baku has hosted numerous international events, starting with the Baku International Humanitarian Forum.
The capital of Azerbaijan has hosted this Forum since 2011, which aims to build an authoritative international platform for world scientists and cultural figures as well as acclaimed experts to discuss pressing global humanitarian challenges.Azerbaijan is also well-known for its capacity to organize very high level international events.
Since 2011 Azerbaijan has hosted the World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue, in partnership with Unaoc, Unesco, UN World Tourism Organization, Council of Europe and Isesco.
Through this initiative known as the “Baku process”, Azerbaijan acknowledges the power of intercultural dialogue and demonstrates that such meetings bring all people closer and create the conditions for positive intercultural and inclusive relations.
At the same time, hosting the first ever European Games in 2015, Azerbaijan will host the Islamic Solidarity Games in 2017.
This year Baku hosted the 7th Global Forum of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations on April 25-27.
The Unaoc aims to reach a more peaceful and socially inclusive world, by building mutual respect among people of different cultural and religious identities, and highlighting the will of the world’s majority to reject extremism and embrace diversity.
By using the United Nations tribune, Azerbaijan showed its multiculturalist traditions, and urged other countries to respect tolerance, intercultural and inter-civilizational dialogue. With this purpose, 2014 saw the founding of the Baku International Multiculturalism Center, which aims to preserve ethnic, religious and cultural diversity of the country.
Here, Azerbaijan as a centre of multiculturalism and tolerance of the world, and carried out research into and promoted existing multicultural models of the world.
In a visit to Azerbaijan , October 2016, Pope Francis praised Azerbaijan as a place of religious tolerance as he met with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and his spouse, the First Lady, Mehriban Aliyeva. Pope Francis expressed gratitude to President Aliyev for the warm welcome.
He also met privately with Sheikh ul-Islam, the region’s grand mufti, before the two men held an interreligious meeting at the country’s largest mosque with Orthodox Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders. A significant activism of civil society in this issue is also demonstrated by many initiatives and projects being created by Azerbaijani think tanks and academic groups.
One of the most interesting and relevant is the International Multicultural Network (IMN) founded and headed by Khayala Mammadova, which is “an online presence to connect researchers and practitioners with an interest in multiculturalism, aimed at promoting and disseminating research on the multifaceted multicultural agenda and for comprised of scholars, state and community actors specialising in the fields of multiculturalism, intercultural and interreligious relations across diverse disciplines and geographical regions”.
It connects researchers from all ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Likewise, it appoints Country Representatives, and promotes publications (books, journal articles, and research reports), discussions and events in order to advise, educate and inform on subjects related to multiculturalism and cultural diversity.
In a peculiar way it is possible to see multiculturalism as a strategic tool of foreign policy which defends itself from religious and political extremism. Azerbaijan represents a country’s success story that could be viewed as a model, especially within a regional framework where radicalism has spread rapidly over the last 20 years.
*Khayala Mammadova: Head of International Multicultural Network, Azerbaijan