Fiyaz Mughal exclusively for AzerNews
Azerbaijan has much to be proud of. A functioning state that has reached out to other countries, an economy that grows, social investment and most of all, its understanding that it is a bridge between the East and West.
As a person who works on interfaith relations in the United Kingdom, one of the things that stands out for me, as a practitioner in this area, is the open, receptive and accepting manner of the Azeris. There is no animosity, no sense that people of another faith are separate or different and there is a strong national identity which is mixed with the welcoming attitude of the Azeri population.
Which brings me onto the following points. The willingness to accept diverse communities is a key strength of the people of Azerbaijan. Today, in Western Europe, there is lurch to extreme far right political parties as a reaction to migration, the economic downturn and against Muslim communities. Some of the rhetoric from politicians and those in power is stomach churning in the way that it targets minorities and such rhetoric goes against the fundamental values of freedom, equality and human rights. Yet Azerbaijan stands as a beacon of what already is being practiced, around religious tolerance, empathy and openness to other cultures, religions and to maintaining the dignity of minority communities. Which is why, I believe that the country should push more and highlight this unique phenomenon and where other countries should be engaging with Azerbaijan on. This is key since Europe speaks about diversity, yet growing parts of its populations are rejecting this and harking back to a mono-cultural society which will never happen and which is not relevant in a modern globalized society. So there is much that Azerbaijan can celebrate about and should be celebrating about. There is nothing wrong about celebrating this unique phenomenon which is part and parcel of Azeri society and in fact keeping quiet about it, does a great national dis-service.
Or take the fact that, as a Muslim majority country, Azerbaijan has a society where women make up the workforce and stand with and play an integral role in societal development and ensure that the country develops so that it can compete with others in the future. This is what Islam stands for, inclusion, hard work, belief that can inspire and alleviating poverty for all people. On the latter point, this means ensuring that women can work and within every strata and sector of society. Which is another reason why, many Islamic states need to look at the model of Azerbaijan and to engage further with the country to develop joint social and infrastructural projects. Not only can this allow for Azerbaijan to take a leading role in the Caucasus, it will also mean that Azerbaijan can play a leading role in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA).
Now is the time for Azerbaijan to push globally on its interests and to show the world what it has to offer. Yet, this must be done in steps with the first step being cementing relations and building a profile for Azerbaijan within Europe and with friendly Islamic states. Again, this re-enforces the bridge building role that Azerbaijan should be taking and which should be a hallmark of what it stands for. Such a bridge will be needed in the future, yet, European countries also need to realize that with this support comes the need to review the Nagorno Karabakh issue. As I have said publicly many times, Europe must deal with the issue now, since it has caused the dislocation and isolation of too many Azeris and this grievance, so deeply felt within Azerbaijan, needs addressing.
If there ever is a time for Azerbaijan to project its capability and what it has to offer globally, it is now. Yet, we within Europe must acknowledge that the legitimate grievances of Azerbaijan need to be tackled with actual action and not just lip-service. That time is now.
Fiyaz Mughal OBE is the founder and Director of Faith Matters (www.faith-matters.org) and TELL MAMA (www.tellmamauk.org). You can follow them both on @FaithMattersUK and @TELLMAMAUK