A Pakistani admirer of Azerbaijan’s secular governance and religious harmony

Azerbaijan has established new paradigms in Muslim world regarding how a country can embrace a progressive and secular outlook while at the same time having Islam as the religion of majority of its citizens.

By Sarmad Iqbal

Around 96% of Azerbaijani populace is Muslim but Azerbaijan has never been like the majority of predominantly Muslim countries today from Sudan to Afghanistan where there are countless restrictions on civil liberties in the name of religion and there is a certain section of society which is being allowed to thrive on religious sectarianism. Instead of following the above mentioned path which comprises of practices like espousing religious fanaticism and curbing basic human rights in the name of salvaging a particular religious discourse and religious principles, Azerbaijan has established new paradigms in Muslim world regarding how a country can embrace a progressive and secular outlook while at the same time having Islam as the religion of majority of its citizens. Azerbaijan has now become the only stronghold of secularism in Muslim world as Turkey which was once a champion of secular and liberal values in Muslim world has now drifted towards Islamism under the rule of the religiously conservative AKP of Mr.Erdoğan who is the current Turkish president. And I think it won’t be inappropriate to say that Azerbaijan has already undergone a process of replacing its Turkic Qardaş (Brother) Turkiye as the best model of a secular alternative for the Muslim world in the context of what has taken place within the span of few years in Turkey and what’s already happening there since Mr. Erdogan’s AKP came into power after decades governed by leaders who claimed to be the guardians of Ataturk’s (Founder of modern day Turkish Republic ) secular legacy.

Azerbaijani leadership has also accomplished in keeping their country immune not just from Saudi Wahabism but also from Iranian style theocracy with autocratic Ayatollahs and also from Egyptian style Muslim brotherhood which has always exhibited an experimental marriage between Islamism and politics. Since its inception as a modern nation-state in 1990’s after the dissolution of ailing Soviet Union, religious harmony and tolerance has not just flourished but has also prevailed in Azerbaijan regardless of whether Arabs and Jews kill each other in Jerusalem, Serb Orthodox Christians and Catholic Croats fight with Muslim Bosniaks and Albanians in Balkans or Sunni and Shiite Muslims kill each other in Syria and Lebanon. Such prevalent religious harmony and tolerance has in fact manifested itself in the fact that there is almost zero Anti-Semitism in Azerbaijan which is quite rare when it comes to a predominantly Muslim country as Anti-Semitism has soared to high peaks in many Muslim countries especially after the creation of Israel in 1948 and the consequent Arab-Israeli conflict. Many Muslim countries including our beloved Pakistan has not even recognized the existence of Jewish state but Azerbaijan has again made a remarkable difference in a highly Anti-Semitic Muslim world by defying all sorts of Anti-Semitic venom and establishing strong bilateral relations with Israel which have benefited both countries not just economically but also militarily with several agreements of immense significance being signed between their national leaders till this day. Israel is a major exporter to Azerbaijan and in accordance with a huge arms deal, reported to be worth over £1 billion, signed in around 2012 it has exported radars, anti-aircraft systems and drones to the latter. On the other hand, Azerbaijan has also emerged as Israel’s largest supplier of oil within the span of few years as within the same year 2012 Azeris supplied over 40 per cent of Israel’s oil imports.

Azerbaijan has also allowed its Jewish community to flourish and coexist peacefully with Azerbaijani Muslims who are tolerant of religious diversity in their country. Mountain Jews from Qırmızı Qəsəbə (Red Town) in Azerbaijani district of Quba are also experiencing a religious revival. Qırmızı Qəsəbə with a population of 3,598 is believed to be the world’s only all Jewish town outside of Israel and that too in a predominantly Muslim country. Christians too from different denominations like Russian Orthodox ones as well as many Catholics also feel as safe in Azerbaijan as they do in Russia or Spain. Even Pope Francis during his visit to Azerbaijan in 2016 couldn’t temporize from applauding the religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence of Muslims, Jews and Christians in Azerbaijan.

Surprisingly; even though Azerbaijan has got a close geographical and ethno-religious proximity to Islamic Republic of Iran (An anti-Western and anti-Israeli theocracy since 1979) with whom it shares the same Islamic Shiite sect and there is also a substantial Azeri populace in Iran and even the current Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is also an Azeri Shiite but still this country is far more immune from all sorts of religious radicalism than any other Muslim country including even countries far-flung from the place of  origin of Iranian and Saudi radical version of Islam like Sudan or for example Somalia bleeding with the wounds inflicted by terrorist activities carried out by those who take delight in exploitation of Islam for their nefarious designs .

Pakistan out of its fraternal affection for Azerbaijan has always been a stalwart supporter of the latter over Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. I have been familiarized with the similar pro-Azerbaijani narrative since my childhood through different mediums be it the school textbooks or both print and electronic media of Pakistan and I take immense pride in the fact that my country is friends with the only secular Muslim country which as I have mentioned earlier has courageously flouted increasingly immutable norms of the Muslim world such as Religious intolerance and militancy. I have always perceived Azerbaijan as a paradigm for Pakistan to follow with no religious extremism and no consequent terrorism with a largely religious color. Azerbaijani Muslims have shown to the whole world that not all Muslims are ISIS jihadis or Boko Haram militants (who apart from their other violent tactics are also notorious for abducting and forcibly converting Nigerian teenage girls to Islam) or the ones responsible for slaughtering guiltless civilians from New York to Istanbul.


Sarmad Iqbal is a Pakistani writer, blogger and student who has a penchant for reading, writing, learning languages, studying cultures, religions and Geo-Political affairs.

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