Baku: Where Islam Meets its Future

Ancient legends tell of the Temple of Fire – a temple fueled by the rich resources of oil and gas that still flow through an ancient land, under its ground and in its sea. Located near Baku, the capitol of Azerbaijan, it was once a place for religious worship by Hindus and Zoroastrians. 

However, to talk of Azerbaijan only in terms of its energy resources is to do a disservice to the nation and its people. While those energy resources are critical to the future energy security of Europe and much of the region, it is only one aspect of this multidimensional country.

The recent 5th Baku Humanitarian Forum showcased that which Azerbaijan most valuably has to offer the world -- a model of a secular and modern Muslim-majority nation, where Shi’a, Sunni, Jew, Catholic, etc., live together absent the discord of much of the rest of the world.

In Azerbaijan, its citizens worry not about what ethnic or religious group has more power, but about the economic downturn, education, life insurance, jobs, and juggling family with profession. Each distinct group has one commonality -- they are all Azerbaijani. 

As with most societies, Azerbaijan is a product of its history, in this case, one that left it with a varying array of peoples living together and not particularly caring about another’s heritage. Notably and importantly, it is a society that can be replicated should others have the courage to do so. It is also a society that should be actively supported by the West, despite the inevitable blemishes all nations and societies possess.

Exploring Baku is taking a journey from a grand past to a cutting-edge future. Each street corner reveals grand buildings, their architecture harkening back to the eras of the famed Silk Road to Imperial Russia to today’s staunchly independent Azerbaijan. Towering behind them stand futuristic buildings that seem to leap from the ground, molded from the minds of artists and dreamers. Yet just a bit of the bland Soviet era remains, where functionality reigned supreme over style and where elegance gave way to insipidity.

Over a millennium, perhaps this constant confluence of old and new/ancient and modern is what drives this quietness amongst its people. Throughout its history, Azerbaijanis have learned to adapt to numerous different worlds, peoples, and circumstances. Walking among them, one can see a few in religious garb, those wearing clothing evocative of the fashion capitals of New York and Paris and those wearing modern gear suited to any suburban mall. And the pride of its citizens and their love for their nation and society is clear.

While Azerbaijan is a Muslim-majority country, it is the polar opposite of the many Islamic and Muslim-majority nations of the neighboring Middle East. Azerbaijan is a fierce defender of its state policy of secularism, yet also a vivacious proponent of religious freedom.  In Azerbaijan, Jewish leaders do not tell their members to avoid wearing identifiably Jewish clothing as they do in Paris. While there are laws that ban the hijab from being worn in schools, this does not extend to the public domain, as in some European countries, where the government bans Islamic clothing in public in a futile attempt to stop radicalism. Here, it is infused in society, due to both the natural inclinations of Azerbaijani people, as well as the consistent promotion and sustained government policies to promote a tolerant society.

Somehow, despite the many ethnic tensions around the world, Azerbaijan has made pluralism a reality in ways the traditional western European countries can only dream about.

It’s an attitude that should be emulated by the West, where too often we think we have much to teach instead of accepting that we too have much to learn.

In this multifaceted country, it can be difficult to describe just where it fits into the cultural sphere of the world. It can feel like a classical European city straight out of a history book, a modern city on the cutting edge of innovation. There are even places where you might think you’re in a Middle Eastern bazaar surrounded by music and small shops in long underground passageways.

Western capitals would do well to study the fabric of Azerbaijani society, lest we improve our own. Blessed with vast and critical energy resources, governed by stability and tolerance, driven by a modern and progressive outlook, embracing both a proud past and an exciting future, Azerbaijan may not always be easily found on a map, but it’s definitely leaving its mark on the world.

Justin Amler is an Australian writer and commentator on international issues.