Last week, Jummah prayer was performed in Heydar Mosque in Baku. At the ceremony called Unity Prayer (Namaz), all Muslims, including Sunnis and Shiites came together and performed Namaz and prayed together. In the context of 2016 being declared " Year of Multiculturalism" by president Ilham Aliyev, this event was very important and served to raise the reputation of Azerbaijan as the center of tolerance in the world. Nariman Gasimogly, who is the head of Analytics department at Baku International Multiculturalism Center, answered all of the questions asked by "Kaspi" with regard to the "Year of Multiculturalism", Unity Prayer in Heydar Mosque and other issues.
- Nariman, how long has tradition of multiculturalism existed in Azerbaijan and how important is multiculturalism for this country?
- Despite the term "multiculturalism" entering Azerbaijan's political and social lexicon quite recently, this tradition has deep roots and ancient history in the country. Azerbaijanis have always kept this tradition alive and preserved it. And this is an ongoing process. I would like to clarify what "multiculturalism" means and note that it doesn't only refer to coexistence of people of different cultural and religious and ethnic background. "Multiculturalism" , as a concept, is only completed when the public policy also supports it. Where there exist government support and multicultural situation, there genuinely exists multiculturalism. If there is only multicultural situation but no public policies supporting it, multiculturalism, as a concept, does not genuinely exist there. This is the essence of multiculturalism. This is why when our president states that multiculturalism is a state policy and lifestyle in Azerbaijan, he refers to the essence of the term "multiculturalism". As for the importance of declaring 2016 as the year of multiculturalism, this happened at a time when a lot of statements are made to discredit multiculturalism in many countries. Declaration of the "Year of Multiculturalism" in Azerbaijan took place against the backdrop of religiously motivated ethnic conflicts in the Middle East. At the same time, these unpleasant events are reflected in the domestic policies of several countries. Against the backdrop of these negative events, the value of multiculturalism is brought to world's attention by Azerbaijan. On the other hand, one of the main objectives of president issuing such a decree is to introduce Azerbaijani model of multiculturalism to the world. This introduction has been ongoing until this point. Several project were implemented in the country in the name of multiculturalism. Baku process has been underway since 2008. When we take into account all these facts, we can regard the declaration of 2016 as the year of multiculturalism as the culmination point. In any case, this is a very important decision in the way of presenting Azerbaijan's multiculturalism model to the world. At the moment, Baku International Multiculturalism Center is busy promoting Azerbaijan's multiculturalism model in several countries. Multiculturalism in Azerbaijan is being taught in universities of several countries. Students learn about politics, culture, literature, science and philosophical life of Azerbaijan. Declaration of the "Year of Multiculturalism" creates more opportunities for these works to be carried out
at larger scales which will result in more attention being given to the concept. It also displays how this value is preserved in the example of Azerbaijan.
- For over a thousand years, the members of Islam's two biggest denominations were praying in a different manner and at different locations. But on January 15th, the representatives of both denominations performed unity prayer in Heydar Mosque. How do you assess the importance of this event, in the context of declaration of "Year of Multiculturalism"?
- Sectarian conflict has never been recorded in the territory of Azerbaijan. Admittedly, there were attempts to test our nation in various historical periods. In order to occupy our territories, certain countries have tried to instigate sectarian conflict in Azerbaijan. Fortunately, the multicultural values have always overcome all these occupations, tragedies and all challenges of history. Not only there is no sectarian conflict in Azerbaijan, Muslims and followers of other faiths have never had a confrontation here. Performing Unity prayer in Heydar Mosque on January 15th, is a clear manifestation of promoting that tradition in modern times. It is a very important step against the backdrop of all religious and ethnic conflicts going on in the world. There is a bloody confrontation happening between politicized sects in the Middle East. This is reflected in the relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Islamophobia is an issue in Europe too. The reason for all this is politicization of religious sects. In which case, the true essence of Islam is not represented accurately. Islam is represented in a completely different manner in Azerbaijan. There are no conflict between people who adhere to Islam but represents different denominations within it. Prayers are performed in the name of brotherhood, tolerance and unity. This is a clear manifestation of multiculturalism.
- When we examine the philosophy of Islam, the verses in our sacred book "Quran", what is the importance of the Unity Prayer?
- Unity Prayer is completely compatible with the essence of Islam. Let me cite a verse from "Quran" : "Those who split up their religion and became sects, you have absolutely nothing to do with them". This verse miraculously sheds light on the contflicts that were to happen later. The verses in "Quran" say that there is a completeness in the religion, God's book is one. This is a historical reality. But this reality, as well as different sects in Azerbaijan does not lead to problems. And I want to draw attention to that. So the Unity Prayer comes from the essence of our religion. The creation of sects over the years, and their politicization is in contrast to the essence of our religion. Subconsciously, Azerbaijanis always treat others with tolerance. Therefore, there has never been any sectarian conflict or confrontation between followers of different religions in our country. This has created Azerbaijani model of tolerance. This is a different model. The religiosity of Azerbaijani Muslims is different to that of other countries. We can talk at length about the reasons behind this. But in any case, this is a reality.
- You have probably communicated with religious leaders representing different denominations and intellectuals. What is their attitude toward all this?
- I've mostly talked to intellectuals about this. They view this as a very positive step. This issue has always been very important to an Azerbaijani intellectual. Even during the reign of tsarist Russia, Azerbaijani intellectuals and democrats have fought to unite Sunnis and Shiite offices under one title. Those were the same intellectuals that went on to establish the first democracy in the East - Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan. They wanted the Sunnis and Shiite offices to operate under a united title. Because tsarist Russia had purposely created the office with two titles. They intended to set one office against the other, thus threatening the unity between Muslims and "divide and ruling" for a long time, if need be. But Azerbaijani intellectuals united this office that operated under different titles and
achieved national unity. As we can see, in early 20th century, the founders of the Republic also promoted this idea. Another exemplary importance of this is the fact that, when there are ethnic and sectarian conflicts happening all over the place, Azerbaijan is stable; multiculturalism and tolerance are promoted and preserved. In this regard, Azerbaijan teaches a lesson to other Muslims in the world about how religions should not interfere with politics.
- You talked about (Azerbaijan) being an example. Can Azerbaijan, with its tradition of multiculturalism and tolerance, be an example for developed countries as well?
- We're not putting Azerbaijan against the world with these steps. We are not claiming that only we have the tradition of multiculturalism. There are various models of multiculturalism in the world. Azerbaijani model has a special place among them, it arouses interest, it is studied. It is not accidental that, multiculturalism is taught in universities for the first time by studying the case of Azerbaijan. Now, imagine what Azerbaijan has achieved in education on a global level. Multiculturalism is studied as a part of political science, philosophy, literature and culture. This is an important factor. Because until today multiculturalism was not taught as a subject, despite various books having been written about it. It is taught for the first time and there is growing interest in Azerbaijani model of multiculturalism. There exist policies on multiculturalism in some developed countries. But those policies are not without their faults and thus it creates problems. Some politicians blame multiculturalism for those problems and make negative statements about it. But 30-40 years ago, multiculturalism was seen as the solution to get rid of those problems. But the policy of nationalism that was later dominant in those countries led to certain problems. In this sense, Azerbaijani multiculturalism is exemplary.