The World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue
It’s a catchy title: The World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue. That’s the name of the conference that took place here in Baku, Azerbaijan last week. Representatives from all over the world gathered in Baku to have a discussion on Intercultural Dialogue. Officials from the Council of Europe, representatives of the ISESCO, people from Intersections International, and many, many more. Euronews has a nice profile of the event with a video:
Far from a harmonious coexistence, the recent years have been marked by escalating violence – a consequence of politicians and religious leaders’ failure to promote dialogue, say many of the forum’s guests.
“To fight all sorts of extremism, wherever it comes from, East, West, South or North, and to work on the human principles that bring the human family together: I think we should disseminate this through curricula in the schools, through media, through cultural forums, through religious speeches, in synagogues, churches and mosques, everywhere. I think we will succeed in the future,” said Abdulaziz Othman Altwaijri, Director General, of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
The role of women and their status in society was another major theme of the forum, hosted by one of the first countries – and the first Muslim one – to grant women voting rights.
This really sounds like a great thing. And I’m impressed that it was organized and run by Azerbaijan. There’s no doubt that this is positive in some facets. With Azerbaijan, in particular, I’d say it’s an interesting choice as host. They certainly get kudos for being a secular Muslim country and it’s historical legacy of tolerance, probably a result of the repeated reconquerings that took place over the centuries by Zoroastrians, Romans, Christians, Muslims, and Soviets. And the diversity of languages and ethnicities here is incredible for the size of the country (off the top of my head: Azeri, Lezgi, Avar, Jew, Talysh, Georgian, Armenian, Kurd…there are many more communities I’m missing). While this is country that is probably 99% Muslim, it’s not a problem to be of Jewish or Christian or basically any other faith or even atheistic. There was just some big fanfare about this brand-new synagogue unveiled in Baku.
At least, a general curiosity and acceptance is normal when talking with people on the train or in town here. Azerbaijanis I’ve talked to are mostly just interested to talk to me because I’m somewhat different from them. We do know, however, that looking stereotypically “Asian” or “African” is not necessarily an easy look to pull off in public here. Many of our PCVs take a good deal of harassment from locals until people get used to seeing them. However, considering that race and a general suspicion of outsiders is standard fare, among other criticisms laid out by this RFE/RL article, this is an appalling statement:
Addressing the World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue in Baku, Aliyev said that “everyone lives like one family in Azerbaijan. No national or religious confrontations or misunderstandings have existed here. We give preference to ensuring national and religious tolerance in Azerbaijan at the state level.”
Family is certainly important in Azerbaijan, the central institution around which society is built, but that statement above paints an improbably-rosy picture. I don’t mean to be picky, but we all know that Azerbaijan has an on-going conflict with Armenia, and religious organizations, Islamic organizations in particular, are very closely monitored and controlled by the government. And then when you look at that statement on a broader scale, you quickly realize that it’s an impossible reality for any country, let alone one set a geography that lends itself to isolation.