Western countries have been voicing unjust remarks on the religious situation in Azerbaijan. Some are supposedly worried of the tolerance levels here… Whereas everyone knows that Azerbaijan is one of the few countries known for having no problems in the field. So, why do such thoughts even occur?

Rizvan Huseynov, Historian and Head of the Caucasian History Center, discusses the topic in a wider context, from history to geopolitics, to find an answer to the question.

‘Geography is the main criterion to determine religion, nationality, even economic ties. Our landscape mainly comprises lowlands and intermontane terrains, which shapes the minds and consciousness of the locals. The region has been at the crossroads of all routes for millennia. Our location at the intersection of roads is still a more important asset than oil and gas. North-south, east-west… All roads pass through here. Communities living in such geographies must absolutely be tolerant. Our lives and income depend on it. This is precisely why we are a hospitable people because it is impossible to thrive otherwise. This is also why mountainous communities are much stricter about issues of ethnicity, confession, and such. People living on the coast and islands are different. Those living in the steppes, plains, and at the crossroads realize that their safety, income and well-being depend on establishing warm relationships with everyone. Religion also takes shape following the demands of geography. Azerbaijan stood apart among others even during the USSR rule. The soviet laws were not as strict here as they were everywhere else.

This experience allows us to guide other communities in the region, as we are capable of integrating. The societies that isolate themselves are not only unable to manage others, but also fall apart, which leads to them being ruled over. We are not keen on this. We want to stay in control, which is why we have ruled in the South Caucasus, north of Iran, and a part of Iraq and Syria. We have got along with local peoples and communities and become a part of common projects. This is the historical aspect of the issue.

The State Department report at hand is undoubtedly a political order. They are perfectly aware of the tolerant environment here. Be that as it may, they want to build grounds for plans against Azerbaijan. They are trying to form an opinion for much harsher steps to follow. They are building points of reference for themselves. It did not work. The plan they were cooking against Azerbaijan earlier this year has failed.

The groups in the USA, who realize how important Azerbaijan is, demonstrate a relatively positive approach, such as the Pentagon, for example, or some industrial, economic, and energy centers. We can also mention the southern states and the Republican Party in this context. Whereas the democrats traditionally promote crusades and Christian bigotry under the guise of ‘democracy’. They treat Georgia and Armenia differently than us, discriminating based on Christianity. But it doesn’t work. Azerbaijan’s importance has been and will continue to grow both inside and outside the region. The happenings in Ukraine or Middle East have also been a prerequisite for Azerbaijan’s role to grow. Those who refuse to take these factors into account are doomed to fail. The possibility of Republicans returning to power is also rather high in the USA. The State Department has seized their steps in this direction, considering this crucial factor. But the file remains. It might come in handy someday.’

– The report mentions that Azerbaijan has allegedly disrespected, altered, or even destroyed some of the Christian monuments in the liberated territories… What are these monuments and why is it that we must ‘destroy’ them?

‘We can classify the Christian monuments in the liberated territories into three groups:

• Ancient Albanian monuments,

• Orthodox and Armenian churches built there under Tsarist Russia, i.e. in the last 200 years,

• Armenian churches built within 30 years of occupation.

Azerbaijan has clearly divided them into three groups. The main objective of such criticism is to protect the Armenian churches built in those territories during occupation and under Tsarist Russia. Azerbaijan, however, has made it clear that whatever was built during occupation shall be destroyed, as they are outside of law and symbolize occupation. Such constructions are destroyed around the world.

Can they impart a single fact of churches or temples destroyed after the liberation of our lands? No! The entire world would have risen should there be any. At the same time, the Armenians have destroyed hundreds of mosques, caravanserais, Muslim or Albanian fortresses. We have had many visits to those lands and seen it for ourselves. They have dughuman bones out of graves and thrown them away. Why don’t the western countries or the UN see this? The case here is unfortunately biased. Azerbaijan has numerously requested an inspection by the UNESCO expert group. Do you know what UNESCO told us during occupation? They said, ‘we do not meddle in political matters.’ They are now demanding that only Armenian monuments be monitored. Why is that? We must have a comprehensive monitoring of the entire Karabakh region and our historic lands within Armenia, such as Zangazur and Goycha. They are not holding one deliberately to inspire an idea that Azerbaijan is the problem maker. However, there has not been a single record of any church being destroyed after the recovery of our lands. The nature of some could have changed, which is only normal, as the Udi and Albanians will worship there. The former Orthodox church in Shusha had been turned into an Armenian one during occupation. We are now restoring it as an Orthodox church once again. This is Azerbaijan’s domestic affair.

We want monitoring groups to be sent to Iravan, Zangazur and Goycha districts. The State Department is voicing those accusations against us to prevent it.’

– History of Europe knows many confessional wars. Have we ever had such cases?

‘The church has also been the foundational factor in shaping the national consciousness in Europe. Every community used to have its own church. These churches produced national projects. These forces did not hesitate to commit massacres to snatch monopoly from the Vatican during the bourgeois period. We have never had such cases.  Those countries transitioned from slavery to feudalism, which was followed by the ‘dark ages’ and then capitalism towards 16th and 17th centuries. History took a different course here, which is why we have never encountered those problems. All of these came into light as the West applied its bitter experience onto us as of the 19th century. Europe, the USA, and the Tsarist Russia artificially planted those problems in the Ottoman Empire and our lands. They incited the Armenians, Eastern Christian communities, and the Christians in the Balkans against us.

The concept differs in Islam. Organizing on national grounds (referred to as ‘asabiyyah’) is haram, forbidden. Islam introduced the idea of ummah, where everyone is equal, and no nation can be superior to others.

Europe was the one to egg on the Ottomans and Safavids against each other to war. They first destroyed the Kizilbash State through the Ottomans and then watched the Ottoman Empire fall apart, as they remained alone.’

– What can you say of the religious situation in Azerbaijan compared to America or Europe?

‘Western countries are still young. The USA and some European countries have a statehood history of two to three hundred years. The states we built ruled in the East for a thousand years. Therefore, these issues were resolved centuries ago. The cultures willing to teach us a lesson or two have still not passed their periods of decline. It is yet to come.’

– Azerbaijan is one of the few places where Jews feel most at home. They speak of it openly. The head of the Mountain Jews Community in Baku said in his interview with us that ‘as I was speaking to the rabbi of Paris, he said that they only wore their kippahs at home and could not leave their houses with one donned, because it may cause violence. I, in turn, said nothing of such kind was possible in Azerbaijan. We can wear our attire both inside and outside our homes.’ We are warm towards both Christians and Jews. Where does such an attitude stem from historically?

‘Jews have historically suffered a bitter fate. The thesis of ‘guilty Jews’ made up the core of Christian ideology, which led to constant persecutions and oppression. Expelled from Europe, they took refuge with the Ottomans and the Safavids. They never faced the same problems with us.

We must also consider the economic side of the matter. Trading and financial circulation with the non-Muslims used to be problematic within Muslim societies. Muslims would find it difficult to travel to Europe and extend their stays for long months, as they faced challenges regarding mosques, food, and cleanliness. Jews and Armenians always acted mediators in such cases. Therefore, the renaissance of both the Jewish and Armenian societies was closely connected to the Muslim East.’

 

Vusal Mammadov