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Religion and International Relations: A Q&A With Dr. Jeffrey Haynes

Inter-Civilizational Dialogue in Azerbaijan

November 03, 2016 • By Jeffrey Haynes Inter-Civilizational Dialogue in Azerbaijan

The Alliance of Civilizations, a United Nations body dedicated to the task of inter-civilizational dialogue, holds a biennial “global forum.” The first took place in Madrid, Spain, in 2008. The forum brings together around 2,500 people to discuss problems and prospects of inter-cultural/civilisational dialogue. Key discussions focus on the sometimes-fraught relationship between the Western and Muslim worlds. 

The 2016 global forum took place in late April in Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic that in recent years has been seeking to make itself a global player. The government of the oil-rich country has sponsored major sporting events, such as an international cycle race (2016) and Formula 1 motor racing (2016). The desire to have a higher profile on the global stage helps explain why Azerbaijan’s government offered to host the 2016 global forum and pay the estimated event costs of $2-3 million. The AOC is always severely strapped for cash, and almost any offer from a government to host the forum and pay the associated costs is taken very seriously. 

The three-day global forum is crucial to the work of the AOC, enabling the body to highlight its work and receive publicity from the world’s media. After some initial hurdles, I was invited to attend the forum as a participant in a breakout session on the topic of “global citizenship education.” Hosted in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, the forum is the AOC’s showcase event, enabling the entity to highlight what it sees as its major achievements in relation to its four focal points: education, youth, media, and migration. The AOC regards the issues of intercultural/civilizational friction – especially between the West and the Muslim world – as solvable if sufficient attention is paid to these four areas. Two of them – education and youth – obviously bring to the forum the issue of interaction between young people and the AOC’s idea here is that if young people develop a sense of shared identity at an early age then it is far more likely that they will be happy to engage with each other as adults is a cooperative and mutually respectful way.

The media, on the other hand, is seen to hold the key to improved perceptions in both the West and the Muslim world of the “other” entity. So the AOC works hard to to encourage the media to be more even-handed in their reporting of inter-cultural/civilizational issues. Migration is another issue which AOC feels is reported in an unclear or skewed way in the media and the entity seeks to try to highlight both the benefits of migration as well as the fact that migrants are very often fleeing very problematic economic or political circumstances.

Azerbaijan is one of the most repressive, least free countries in the world. In the 2016 Freedom House report on the country, Azerbaijan gets a "7" – the lowest rating – on "political rights" and a slightly better "6" on "civil liberties." Overall, Freedom House rates Azerbaijan as "not free."  Furthermore, it has been involved in a two-decade conflict with neighbouring Armenia over disputed territory. Azerbaijan is almost entirely populated by Muslims, while the vast majority of Armenians are Christian. The two countries’ differing religious and cultural contexts seemed to offer a good opportunity for the AOC to act as dealmaker and perhaps bring the two countries together in a spirit of harmony, inter-cultural dialogue, and enhancing life.

Sadly, I was wrong: seemingly at every possible opportunity, representatives of the Azerbaijan government took the opportunity to vilify Armenia, its government and people, blaming them—along with their main ally, Russia—for non-resolution of the dispute. For its part, Azerbaijan, along with its strong ally, Turkey—whose president, Recep Tayyip Erdo─čan, gave a fiery speech at the forum, although not mentioning Armenia by name —was cast as entirely blameless in the dispute. This, understandably, was not how the leadership of the United Nations saw it: the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, was scheduled to appear at the forum in person but did not attend. He decided, instead, to send a pre-recorded video, allegedly because he did not want to be seen to be part of a high-profile Armenia-bashing event.  I spoke to several AOC and UN personnel and, off the record, they confirmed to me that this was indeed the reason why Ban Ki-moon did not attend the forum in person.

The Armenia/Azerbaijan tensions at the forum were a surprising setback. How could such an important forum be hijacked by the host government as part of a hostile foreign policy against a neighbouring country? The fact that Azerbaijan is Muslim-majority and Armenia is majority Christian held such potential towards the stated AOC goal of lessening inter-cultural/civilisational tensions, and yet none of that potential was fulfilled.  Indeed, the situation may now even be worse. The fact that the forum’s atmosphere was so contentious raises important questions about the AOC’s ability to achieve its stated goals of reducing intercultural dialogue.