Intercultural Dialogue in the South Caucasus
Even though Azerbaijan is an Islamic country, foreign visitors will rarely come across the typical symbols of Islam. While minarets are indeed dotted across the skyline of the capital city Baku, no muezzins call the faithful to prayer through loudspeakers and it is unusual to see Muslims kneeling in the direction of Mecca on the edge of the street or in public squares at certain times of the day.
In fact, Baku looks very much like a western city. And even in more rural areas outside the capital there is no evidence that Azerbaijan is an Islamic nation.
One might think Azerbaijan is heaven on earth
So, is Azerbaijan a secular state? Yes! And this is probably the only positive legacy of the Soviet Union. Listening to leading representatives of the Jewish minority, which counts more than 30,000 Jews, you would be forgiven for believing that Azerbaijan is heaven on earth, where religious minorities like the Jews enjoy the same rights and obligations as the country’s majority-Muslim population.
This picture is not as far-fetched as it might seem at first glance. Jews have indeed been allowed to live in peace in this region for several hundred years. After Azerbaijan gained independence, all land that had been confiscated by the Soviet Union was returned to the religious groups from which it had been taken. Larissa Reikhrudel from the Jewish Women’s Organisation proudly explains that given such a history, it is no wonder that the Jewish community is growing:
‘Azerbaijan welcomes Jews with open arms and is home to a large number of Jews. This is why Jews from America, Europe and Germany come here. Moreover, nowhere else in the world is as unique as Krasnaya Sloboda, a quarter where Jews live close together and safeguard their traditions so that anyone can learn from us.’
Strict division of Church and state
The Jewish settlement of Krasnaya Sloboda is part of the city of Quba (or Guba) and is situated only 50 km to the south of the border with Dagestan. The Jewish community is 270 years old and has succeeded in surviving the turmoil of tsarism, the Russian revolution and the collapse of the Soviet Union without too much upheaval. The Jews in Krasnaya Sloboda call themselves ‘Mountain Jews’ and distinguish themselves from the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim. Their spiritual leader, Boris Simanduev, considers the strict division of Church and state to be one of the main reasons why things have remained peaceful. Whenever he gets the chance, he describes the Quba/Azerbaijani situation to the Israelis and Palestinians.
‘Whenever I take part in international forums,’ says Simanduev, ‘and whenever people talk about friendship between nationalities of different religions, I always talk about the friendship between the Azerbaijanis and the Jewish people and tell people that while Palestinians are fighting Israelis in the Middle East, they should come to Quba, see for themselves that we live in peace and friendship with the Azerbaijani people, and learn from our example.’
Dreaming the European dream
In Azerbaijan and its neighbouring countries Georgia and Armenia, many people still dream a very old dream: the European dream. According to Wolfgang John, project manager at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in the south Caucasus, this is not a pipe dream, even if the EU’s interest is limited, despite recent considerations about security policies in this region and in Central Asia.
‘As far as I can see, too little attention is paid to this important region that connects Europe and Asia and is also important as a transit region for exchangeboth economic exchange and cultural exchange with Asia and the revival of the old Silk Road, for which huge efforts are being made together with the European Union. I also think that there is a good basis for intensifying future cooperation.’
© Deutsche Welle/Qantara.de 2003
Translated from the German by Patrick Lanagan