“Azerbaijan: Multicultural at the heart”

“Azerbaijan: Multicultural at the heart”

One of the most accepted in the literature explanations for the origins of the name ‘Azerbaijan’ is that which refers to the Ancient Persian language as the “Land of Fire”1. This name was crystalized through the times because of the oil and gas wells near Baku, whose fame spread quickly throughout the world. Today, Baku is also known for another reason: the ‘Baku Process’ which refers to the leading role Azerbaijan has assumed in the field of multiculturalism and intercultural communication and understanding. Therefore, it can be reasonably inferred that the famed ancient ‘Fire Wells’ crafted a longstanding tradition of multiculturalism by both illuminating the region at the crossroads between the East and West, and by attracting a great diversity of people, experiences and ideas. To begin with, although all human beings share the same genetic traits, no one single person is same with another one. To understand this seemingly paradox one should just look around him/her. People differ in height, weight, hair color, skin color or other physical characteristics. What’s more people differ in cultural aspects as well, such as language, customs and religion. However, the very own existence of those differences enriches our lives and time on this planet. In the past, people could experience this wealth of differences only by travelling or going to the movies. Today, however, and on the basis of an ever-growing globalized world system, the societies are becoming more and more multicultural as the movement of people, goods and services has become increasingly widespread. As aforementioned, Azerbaijan is situated at the crossroads between the West and the East, at the border region of the European and Asian continents. This unique position in the world has allowed the country to become very multicultural-aware and receptive to the cultural diversity within its borders. Among the various ethnic groups that are currently present in Azerbaijan territories are included the Azerbaijan Turks, Mountain Jews, Tats, Talysh, Kurds, Molokans, Ingiloys, Tsakhurs, Avars, Lezgins, Khynalygs, Buduqlus, Grysz2. Definitely as being part of the broader picture, all these groups share and co-create the Azerbaijani identity and enrich the Azerbaijani culture. According to the literature, these ethnic groups have preserved some still distinctive cultural elements that can be traced in their various crafts, customs and ceremonies3. The multicultural characteristic of the Azerbaijani culture was further greatly influenced and developed by the movement of people, goods and experiences along the Silk Road, along which goods from Asia reached the people in Europe. This constant series of trade and cultural exchanges clearly should have embedded multiculturalism into the Azerbaijani identity, which had the chance to benefit from both the mysteries of Asia and the riches of Europe. It becomes somewhat understandable why the ‘Fire’ of Azerbaijan attracted and keeps attracting great numbers of people, who wish to experience this open-minded and cross-cultural society. As it concerns other cultural aspects such as religion, Azerbaijan is one of the most progressive countries that recognizes the contribution of all the known religions to the country’s cultural mix. The most widely practiced religions in Azerbaijan are Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism. The latter, Zoroastrianism, has been respected in Azerbaijan since the first millennium and the Baku Fire Temple remains one of the highlights of its expressions in the country. Furthermore, Islam has set extensive but not exclusive ideological  trends in the Azerbaijani cultural system and cultural process. Mosques were not only places of worship but also public meeting areas, where the people could interact and discuss. According to some researchers, the Azerbaijani culture history should be divided in two periods, having the introduction of the Islam in the country as their distinguishing point. The respect which is showed can be easily understood from the words of the current Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev, who once remarked that “Orthodox and Catholic churches, synagogues, Zoroastrian temples, all that is proud of our cultural heritage and we are proud of that”. What’s important, recently, two synagogues and the largest Jewish educational center in the South Caucasus were built4, clearly demonstrating the realization of - somewhere else unimaginable - peaceful coexistence between these two religions. The next significant cultural influence one should address in order to understand the reasons behind the multicultural appeal of the Azerbaijani culture is the language. Just as in the way the Ancient Greek and Latin influenced the diffusion of knowledge and experiences throughout the European continent, the Arabic became the vehicle for the same processes in Azerbaijan. Language as a cultural indicator influenced Azerbaijani culture not only through the oral traditions but also through the manuscripts, which were prepared in the Libraries. However the influences from the Russian Soviet-Slavic input and the traditional Islamic references, Azerbaijan adopted its very own integrative approach of Western practices for the organization of both its society and educational system. Therefore, it becomes clear that both the language and the ethnic origins are the founding blocks for the forming of a nation. It is their combination through historical times that shaped the Azerbaijani identity as multicultural. The understanding of multiculturalism in the Azerbaijani culture is rooted in its Constitution, which ensures equality of all its citizens irrespective of their ethnic, religious and racial belongings. Furthermore, Azerbaijan has been the signatory in various international documents including the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” passed by the United Nations, the “Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms” adopted by the Council of Europe, the “International Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination of UN”, the “International Covenant of UN on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights”, the “Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe”, the “Document of the Copenhagen Meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension of the OSCE”, the “Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities” passed by the Council of Europe, and the “CIS Convention Guaranteeing the Rights of Persons Belonging to National Minorities”5. Also, under a decree from the Azerbaijani President, the country has adopted the state document “On the Protection of the Rights and Freedoms and on State Support for the Promotion of the Languages and Cultures of National Minorities, Smaller Peoples and Ethnic Groups Living in the Republic of Azerbaijan”, proving that it is not only the people that want to live in diversity, but also it is in the leadership’s determination. Ethnic variety, therefore, is not a mere combining of various origins, but instead a dialectical approach creating a beneficial environment for the strengthening of the national solidarity uniting all them. Multiculturalism has been previously attempted in other parts of the world as well. It is interesting and useful to draw comparative data from various country examples to understand its real potencies. Typically, multiculturalism is described as the policy that promotes the cultural diversity existing within any given population and environment. It eventually leads to integration without assimilating the uniqueness of the various cultural components. However, this ideal scenarios is not always the case, as multiculturalism can eventually trigger different reactions. Thus, the three standard reactions to multiculturalism is isolationism, the policy that hinders the introduction of different cultural elements in the existing monoculture, the assimilation, which proposes the absorption of the cultural minorities by the cultural majority, and, last but not least, the apartheid, which supports the segregation of the different cultural elements to avoid their assimilation from the majority monoculture. Today however, these reactions have been confined by the democratic principles of pluralism, tolerance, human rights and the favorable conditions existing in states for the respect of multiculturalism. In the United States of America, the American culture has be predominantly perceived as a “melting pot” of the various cultural elements conveyed by the immigrants who arrived there. Furthermore, in the European Union, the official motto reads “United in Diversity” and signals the importance of cultural diversity as a unifying building block between member states. In Canada, multiculturalism is considered one of the most significant national peculiarities of Canadians and is protected by the 27th clause of the Canadian Charter of Freedom and Rights6. Unlike the United States of America, Canada has always been perceived as multilingual and, thus, multicultural. It becomes apparent therefore that one can draw important remarks by evaluating the approaches to multiculturalism used by different states. What’s important to note is that multiculturalism is associated with a number of important observations. First and foremost, it proves to be a positive societal phenomenon that connects rather than divides the varying segments of the population. By creating an atmosphere of common understanding and trust among different people it prevents ethnic collisions and clashes. Second, the very own existence of multiculturalism came as a result of oppressive situations such as the Holocaust and the Apartheid in recent times. It can be said therefore that it emerged from widespread popular demand and support from different walks of life. Third, the multicultural approach for a society prerequisites its democratic maturity, which is in turn further developed through the participation of all those previously excluded people. Fourth, multiculturalism is built on the historical precedents of the host culture. For example, the longstanding tradition of cultural tolerance in Azerbaijan has clearly defined its nowadays expression. Last but not least, the effectiveness of a multicultural policy is further cemented by top-bottom governmental policies with widespread support in the society. All these observations should be taken into consideration when addressing the various aspects of multiculturalism in a society or even a country. Every nation state aspires to build a safer, more secure and prosperous environment where its people will live in peace and harmony with each other and with other nation states. But, throughout history, this goal has been challenged by clashes, conflicts and sometimes wars, which are often caused by intolerance and even hatred. To avoid these consequences, it is essential to increase the mutual understanding of each other’s cultures, histories and traditions. The lack of understanding weakens all attempts to conciliate the different parties and encourage their collaboration and co-existence. Despite the tremendous progress achieved in the history of humankind, there are still threats that create cultural obstacles to the peaceful living and cooperation of people and nations alike. Azerbaijan has always been interested to reach out to its various ethnic and cultural minorities and connect them all. Most importantly however, Azerbaijan attempts to increase the other states’ awareness of the necessity and the importance of intercultural dialogue. For that the country, through its highest serving officials, has undertaken practical steps to encourage global conversations between state and non-state actors and to stress the importance, above all, of collaborations. Last year, in May 2015, the Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev welcomed representatives from all around the world for the two-day “World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue”. During the procedures of the Forum, Azerbaijan highlighted its multicultural approach to various policy-making areas and long-term goals. Taking into account that the country proclaimed its independence from the USSR only 25 years ago, its current outlook in the field of intercultural dialogue is of prominent importance as they have emphasized from the start to safeguard - as an enriching factor - the ethnic and religious diversity in their country. Azerbaijan should be therefore regarded not only as a political and economic “bridge” between the East and the West, but also a sociocultural one. The example of Azerbaijan could definitely be taken into consideration from the European and other international leaders while discussing the characteristics of multiculturalism and integrations policies. Among the Azerbaijani efforts are the set up in 2014 of an International Center for Multiculturalism, and the launch in 2008, of the so-called “Baku process”, a dialogue between culture ministers, individuals and groups with different cultural and religious backgrounds, aimed at advancing the intercultural dialogue and humanitarian programming. President Aliev clearly expressed his concerns about the recent waves of xenophobia, discrimination, racism, Islamophobia in various parts of Europe and emphasized that the effectiveness of multiculturalism could be the used as the antidote to hatred. Furthermore, he supported that one of the pillars underpinning a successful state of multiculturalism is definitely education. As higher the literacy rates are, the lower the possibilities for one to become radicalized and aggressive. This means that initiatives should be undertaken not only in the social sphere, through inclusion policies, but also at the educational level that would help exemplify the advantages of an open society to all the students. In the same context, the Secretary General of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation Iyad bin Amin Madani, said that while the 20th century had been the age of ideologies, the 21st appeared to be “the century of identities”7. He further continued that “the challenge was to make sure that these identities are tolerant, that they should recognize the other, in order not only to live, but to partner with those with a different identity”8. Undeniably, as our world becomes more and more interconnected, we should expect different people coming together to not only discuss but also to team up and resolve pressuring issues, such as the climate change or the combat of terrorism. To deal with these issues one should approach the other in a proactive way in terms of finding the common grounds rather than describing the differences. Dialogue should be the starting point, but it should be directed to produce fair and sustainable results for all stakeholders. Most importantly, the dialogue should start within the personal identity of everyone in order to put himself/herself in the shoes of the other and try to understand the other’s realities, tolerate and accept diversity. Understandably, this cannot be a linear process but rather a circular movement, based in the shared commitment both to ourselves and to the others of intercultural understanding. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the period 2013-2022 as the decade for the Rapprochement of Cultures. This occasion will reaffirm the ideals of a plural humanity where cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue are mutually reinforcing, and where international cooperation can be enhanced through education, the sciences, culture and communication and information, bringing about a real rapprochement of cultures and countries. Among the top priorities of this decade is to promote reciprocal knowledge of cultural, ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity; build a framework for commonly shared values; strengthen quality education and intercultural competences; and foster dialogue for sustainable development. All the above look great in paper, but is time to start realizing them. Why not make these steps from today rather than wait for the evaluation of our efforts at the end of the decade? Azerbaijan has presented its case to the world, it remains our responsibility – leaders and citizens alike - to further take it into account and follow its finest examples. 1 p.17 in Leeuw, Charles Van Der. Azerbaijan: A Quest for Identity. Richmond: Curzon, 2000. 2 Mahammadali, Zeynab Aliyeva. "The Sources of Multiculturalism in Azerbaijan." WALIA Journal, 1st ser., no. 30, 299-303. 3 Ibid 4 Gut, Arye. "Azerbaijan: Tolerance and Multiculturalism." The Hill. January 22, 2015. Accessed May 18, 2016. TheHill.com. 5 http://bakuforum.az/multiculturalism-achievements-and-problems/?fid=2254 6 ibid 7 Gotev, Georgi. "Azerbaijan Positions Itself as Promoter of Multiculturalism." EurActivcom Azerbaijan Positions Itself as Promoter of Multiculturalism Comments. 2015. Accessed May 19, 2016. http://www.euractiv.com/section/languages-culture/news/azerbaijan-positions-itself-as-promoter-ofmulticulturalism/. 8 Ibid

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